Beth Prosl and Carl Salsedo were in high school when newly elected President John F. Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps in March 1961. When they met as freshmen during their first week of classes on the Storrs campus in the fall of 1964, they immediately felt a bond. They soon discovered that they’d both been inspired by Kennedy’s vision and both had an interest in serving their country.
Beth says, “I had always been interested in some type of service. Even as a little kid in elementary school, I was fascinated by the humanitarian work of Dr. Tom Dooley in Southeast Asia. I had his picture on my bedroom wall.”
Adds Carl, “My brother joined the Peace Corps 1963 and was sent to Ethiopia. That was a definite influence on me. But the times were different then, and Kennedy’s impact on people our age was huge.”
Four years after they met, the couple realized their dream. Immediately following graduation, they joined the Peace Corps and were sent to the Micronesian islands of Palau, then administered by the United States as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
The eight main islands that comprise Palau are nestled in the Pacific Ocean some 500 miles east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles south of Tokyo. It was a tropical paradise for Salsedo, who had been a botany major at UConn, and Prosl, a double English and history major with an aptitude for teaching.
“I was originally recruited for a coconut reforestation project because of my background in botany,” Salsedo says, “but I also had extensive experience working in a nursery, so I ended up doing a two-year research project on the medicinal plants of Micronesia.”
Working out of the entomology laboratory on the island of Koror, and with the assistance of Palauan anthropologist Katherine Kesolei, who later became queen of the matrilineal nation, he set out to record the medicines used by the older Rubak (men) and Mechas (women) of Palau. This included learning what the medicines were used for and from which plants they were derived.
Because the formulas for the Palauan cures had been held secret until then, the first phase of the project was to record them before the old practitioners died without sharing their knowledge. Then the plants were chemically tested for basic substances, such as alkaloids, which are chemical structures common to many drugs with pharmacological effects.
In the course of his research, Salsedo found that the Palauans have a medicinal plant for almost every ailment, leading to cures for headaches, stomach aches, fish stings, wounds, and a variety of other conditions. Even though there existed a well-staffed hospital in the district center of Koror, many Palauans still preferred the old ways and their native cures.
Meanwhile, Beth was teaching English to both children and adults. While her training had prepared her to work with small groups of about eight, she found her days filled with students of all ages. At one point, her classroom was ‘standing room only’. With a little sleuthing, she discovered that some of her younger charges had been using words, she says, that “had not been part of my Peace Corps training in the native Palauan language.” When she learned the lingo, and began reacting accordingly, the youngsters began concentrating more on their lessons and less on trying to tease their young teacher.
Prosl and Salsedo were married during their Peace Corps service, and became parents. Although tempted to remain in this tropical paradise after their Peace Corps tour ended, they returned to the U.S. and subsequently found careers in UConn’s Department of Extension. Carl is cooperative extension educator of sustainable and environmental horticulture. Beth, who recently retired, was for many years the director of education at the 4-H Education Center at Auer Farm in Bloomfield.
Both Salsedos say that their experience as Peace Corps volunteers was invaluable from many perspectives. “Our Peace Corps training was perfect,” says Beth. “It prepared us for doing development work, for teaching, for working with multicultural populations – everything we ended up doing in our careers with the Department of Extension.”
The year 2010-2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. As part of International Education Week, which will be celebrated Nov. 15-19, UConn’s Department of International Services and Programs is sponsoring a panel discussion featuring Carl and Beth Salsedo and a number of other returned Peace Corps volunteers with UConn connections. The program, which will include representatives from the Peace Corps, will be held on Nov. 16 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Student Union.