Scorsolini remembers Peace Corps service in the town of Stepanavan

Allentown Messenger Press, NJ
March 18 2004

Washington Township resident, Lisa Scorsolini, remembers her Peace
Corps service in the town of Stepanavan, Armenia.

WASHINGTON – The smiling faces look out from the photos that
captured a moment in the past. Lisa Scorsolini looks through the
pictures, remembering the time she spent in a country halfway around
the world.
From May 1997 to August 1999 Ms. Scorsolini, 32, of Schenk Place
was a volunteer with the Peace Corps. She was stationed in Armenia,
in the small town of Stepanavan.
“I joined the Peace Corps because it was something I had always
wanted to do,” she said. “In today’s world it would behoove us to
know more about the rest of the world. The Peace Corps is one of the
best uses of taxpayers’ dollars that I can think of.”
In honor of National Peace Corps Week held last week, Ms.
Scorsolini spent the week encouraging young people to consider
volunteering for the organization, while creating an interest and
awareness of the program.
She gave presentations about her experience at Pond Road Middle
School and Notre Dame High School in Lawrence Township.
“The Peace Corps has three main missions – to provide technical
assistance to countries in need, provide a better understanding of
American culture to foreign peoples and to give Americans a chance to
better understand foreign cultures,” she said.
Ms. Scorsolini studied international relations and Hispanic and
Italian studies in college. and said the Peace Corps seemed like an
interesting experience. She also has been an exchange student to
Mexico in high school and that experience prompted her to want to
travel and work abroad.
However, the Peace Corps was not her first stop after graduating
from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She went to work as an
international marketing manager at the World Trade Center for a
division of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“My department was slated for privatization and downsizing, so for
a few months it was very unsettling to work there,” she said. “No one
knew what the future would bring so I considered applying for the
Peace Corps.”
She submitted her application in February 1997 and received her
acceptance in April along with her assignment to Armenia. She said
the Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to choose where they will
work and live.
“The application asks for a geographic preference and I put down
Latin America,” she said. “I figured that would be good for me
because I spoke Spanish and had already been there when I was in high
She said she was excited about the chance to explore a different
area of the world but was naive about the former Soviet Union.
“I researched the country before I left but I always assumed I’d
be speaking Russian,” she said. “When I got there I realized that
everyone knows Russian but Armenian is what’s spoken in homes,
workplaces and on the streets.”
After arriving in Armenia Ms. Scorsolini lived with a host family
in Abovian. For 12 weeks she underwent intense Peace Corps training,
including language and cross-cultural awareness classes.
After graduating and becoming an official volunteer she was moved
to Stepanavan and lived on her own in a small studio apartment.
“Armenia was affected by a massive earthquake in December 1988
that killed between 25,000 and 30,000 people and left more than
100,000 people homeless,” she said. “Then winter hit and the
international community brought in temporary housing structures to
hold the country over until permanent buildings could be built.”
However, 10 years later the citizens are still living in the
temporary structures, including Ms. Scorsolini. The wooden building
was heated by individual heaters and she had a flushing toilet. There
was no running hot water or gas, but she said she had it better than
most of her fellow volunteers.
“Some people only had access to running water at specifics times
during the day,” she said. “And the water was always cold. They had
to schedule their time around when the water would come.”
She had a refrigerator and cooked with propane tanks and portable
gas burners provided by the Peace Corps. She also received a $180 a
month stipend.
“It was very modest but it met my needs,” she said. “It’s amazing
what you can do without. You couldn’t take a vacation but it was
enough to pay for basic necessities with some money leftover.”
One of the requirements of the Peace Corps is that the volunteers
live at the same economic level of the people they are living with.
Ms. Scorsolini said she had a neighbor, a single mother with two
children, aging parents and a younger brother, who supported her
family of six on less than $80 a month.
“Living there is very different from living in the United States,”
she said. “Every meal is prepared from scratch. You have to can
vegetables in the summer because during the winter all you can eat
are carrots, cabbage and potatoes because that’s what’s in season.”
Getting the food she needed to eat was not an easy task. There was
no public transportation in Stepanavan so she was forced to walk to
the market every day.
“One time I needed milk and when I was living there in 1997 there
was no processed milk,” she said. “If you did not own a cow you
needed to know someone who did. Even then, milk was only available in
the early mornings after the cows were milked. It was late afternoon
and I needed milk for a dish I was making and I spent the afternoon
walking around the town asking if someone had any milk. They all
laughed at me.”
Officially Ms. Scorsolini was a business development volunteer,
but she said her job description was purposely vague.
“The Peace Corps sets up a broad framework for volunteers so that
the individual can make the experience their own,” she said.
One of her missions in Stepanavan was to set up a language and
computer center by working with local community groups to write grant
proposals for local improvement projects. She managed to secure
computers for the center with a Peace Corps grant.
“There was a woman there who had been trained in computers, but
she had never worked with Microsoft Word, Windows or the Internet,”
Ms. Scorsolini said. “Our grant was to enable her to take classes and
then teach what she learned to the townspeople.”
The center also provided language books and classes to the town’s
residents for a modest fee. According to Ms. Scorsolini the center is
still operating today and has expanded twice.
Ms. Scorsolini also taught an aerobics class for women, recruiting
a local carpenter to make steps out of wood. The classes were held in
the evenings in an old building.
“I made it work however I could,” she said, adding that she wanted
to provide recreational opportunities for Armenia’s large female
population that would improve their self-esteem and promote healthy
“It’s a Christian nation that tends to be male dominated,” Ms.
Scorsolini said. “There aren’t any activities for young women.”
In addition to her other jobs, she taught junior achievement
classes in Western business practices at local universities. Her
classes were made up entirely of women.
“There is a disparate population of girls in Armenia,” she said.
“There are seven women to every one man.”
She said most men left the country to find work or were killed
during conflicts with neighboring countries.
A typical day entailed waking up and going for a morning jog with
her neighbor. Then they would cook breakfast, usually an omelet made
with vegetables, pancakes made from scratch or french toast.
“Eggs and bread were very plentiful in town and my neighbor had a
cow so we had lots of milk,” she said. “Dinner leftovers were also
served for breakfast sometimes, which was a common practice.”
After breakfast, Ms. Scorsolini taught her classes at the
university, coming home for lunch, and then worked in the afternoon
on grant proposals or conducted meetings. Her aerobics class met in
the evenings and then she would cook dinner, socialize with friends
and go to bed.
“It was a very simple existence,” she said. “The town didn’t have
many restaurants. There was no movie theater or other forms of
After completing her two years of service with the Peace Corps,
Ms. Scorsolini headed back to New Jersey. After three months of
unsuccessful job hunting she realized she was not ready to be back
stateside and began pursuing job opportunities overseas, ending up in
Georgia on Armenia’s northern border.
“I was nostalgic for Armenia and my former life there and figured
I could visit my friends on long weekends,” she said.
After six months of working in Georgia as program director working
with internationally displaced persons, she moved back to Armenia to
work with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population,
Refugees and Migration.
For more than three and a half years she worked as a grant writer,
helping small tourism, apparel, information technology and jewelry
businesses cooperate and compete in the growing Armenian market.
However, too much of a good thing can spell disaster and for Ms.
Scorsolini being away from home for more than six years caused her to
burn out.
“I just spent too long in one country,” she said. “Our grants were
significantly downsized and I realized that I had accomplished what I
had set out to do.”
She also decided that she needed to further her education in order
to advance professionally and personally. She is hoping to attend law
school in the fall and one day work in international law, either for
a United States government agency or the United Nations.
One of the most important lessons Ms. Scorsolini learned from her
Peace Corps experience was how to be tolerant and flexible.
“I find that now I can do without luxuries,” she said. “There are
very limited resources in Armenia and it made me realize just how
wasteful we are as Americans. Coming back and trying to adjust to the
every day materialism is hard.”
She said she went into a Wal-Mart recently and was overwhelmed by
the number of choices she had.
“We really take everything for granted because we have access to
everything in this country,” she said. “We truly are a country that
does not want for anything. To see what people in other countries can
live without is astounding and really taught me a lot about