Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Blanche Grade Griffin, February 19, 2021

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Experiences before Peace Corps / Motivation for joining Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Hello. Today is February 19, 2021. My name is Jay Sztuk. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji from 1974 to 1976. And today I'm interviewing Blanche Grade Griffin who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia in, uh, in 1965 through 1967. And, uh, Blanche, you worked in the education program, is that right?

Segment Synopsis: Griffin grew up in northern Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, Griffin worked as a kindergarten teacher in Madison for 2 years before going to graduate school to study educational psychology. One of Griffin's classmates in graduate school was a Peace Corps trainer who inspired Griffin to apply.

Keywords: College majors; Graduate schools; Influences; Jobs; Madison (Wis.); Peace Corps staff; Undergraduate education; University of Wisconsin; Wisconsin

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--1960-1970; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

GPS: Malaysia
Map Coordinates: 2.5, 112.5
GPS: Wisconsin
Map Coordinates: 44.6243, -89.9941
GPS: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Map Coordinates: 43.075, -89.417222
GPS: Madison (Wis.)
Map Coordinates: 43.074722, -89.384167
00:02:37 - Preparation and application

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Partial Transcript: Had you traveled much out--other than, uh, you know?

Segment Synopsis: The only distant travel Griffin had done was a summer trip with a college roommate to Hawaii. Griffin was not familiar with Malaysia as it was a relatively new country. The people whom Griffin had listed for her background check were happy for her and supportive. Griffin had not stated a preference for assignment.

Keywords: Application process; Applying; Background checks; Hawaii; Roommates; Support; Traveling

Subjects: Malaysia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Hawaii
Map Coordinates: 21.3075, -157.8575
GPS: Malaysia
Map Coordinates: 2.5, 112.5
00:04:31 - Pre-service training

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Partial Transcript: Where did you do your training? Tell me about that.

Segment Synopsis: Griffin's pre-service training occurred at Northern Illinois University. Griffin's training group of educators numbered over 100. There was little diversity in Griffin's group - 2 African Americans and 1 Mormon. The training was intensive but, at times, too academic. Griffin feels they were unprepared for the practicalities of living in Malaysia. Once in-country, the Volunteers were encouraged to stay at their work site. But to overcome isolation, numerous Volunteers visited each other when they had free time. Pre-service training included 3 rounds of psychological testing and over 10 trainees were ousted without explanation. Pre-service training included 2 weeks of practice teaching in Hilo, Hawaii to children who spoke Pidgin English. Griffin says the trainees were feeling numb because of being asked to retain so much information during training. One of Griffin's roommates terminated right after the group reached Kuala Lumpur.

Keywords: African Americans; Black Americans; Criticism; Cultural training; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Examinations; Exams; Hilo (Hawaii); Inoculations; Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia); Language training; Leaving; Lectures; Medical kits; Northern Illinois University; Practice teaching; Quitting; Returning; Roommates; Social interactions; Teaching English as a second language; Technical training; Traveling; Unprepared; Vaccinations

Subjects: Emotions; International travel; Malaysia; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Northern Illinois University
Map Coordinates: 41.933889, -88.777778
GPS: Hilo (Hawaii)
Map Coordinates: 19.705556, -155.085833
GPS: Malaysia
Map Coordinates: 2.5, 112.5
GPS: Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 3.147778, 101.695278
00:18:17 - First impressions

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Partial Transcript: So, what was your, um, impression of the country when you first landed there?

Segment Synopsis: Griffin had worked in Chicago so she was used to crowds and big buildings. Many Volunteers in her group frequented McDonald's in Kuala Lumpur. Griffin had broken her eyeglasses during the flight and didn't get replacements for 6 months. Griffin had a pair of prescription sunglasses. She felt lost upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur. Griffin's cohort stayed in Kuala Lumpur for about 3 days.

Keywords: Acclimation; Air travel; Chicago (Ill.); Food; Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia); Problems; Traveling

Subjects: Acculturation; Emotions; International travel; Malaysia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 3.147778, 101.695278
GPS: Chicago (Ill.)
Map Coordinates: 41.881944, -87.627778
00:22:36 - Assignment

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Partial Transcript: Where was your assignment?

Segment Synopsis: Griffin was assigned to the primary school at Bandau Halt, a train stop 2 miles from the town of Membakut. Griffin describes the school building and her housing. After Griffin was able to establish herself at the school, many more parents, many of whom were uneducated, started sending their younger children to attend. The sixth graders helped to build a new classroom to include them. Many of the students' families lived in the surrounding jungle. During her second year, Griffin tried to visit the homes of all the sixth graders.

Keywords: Acceptance; Age ranges; Bandau Halt (Malaysia); Changes; Community involvement; Cultural differences; Housing; Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia); Marriage; Membakut (Malaysia); Students; Teaching English as a foreign language; Weather; Young people

Subjects: Emotions; Families; Malaysia; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Schools; Student activities; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) formerly Jesselton (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.975, 116.0725
GPS: Membakut (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.466667, 115.783333
00:33:32 - Communication

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Partial Transcript: So you were, you were teaching English.

Segment Synopsis: Griffin never became very skilled in the native language. Griffin used songs in her English teaching. Griffin was able to solve a problem where a sixth grade student was being discriminated against because her skin color was darker and her parents were immigrants.

Keywords: Cultural differences; Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka; Fluency; Interests; Language barriers; Language skills; Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace; Outhouses; Problems; Racial discrimination; Skin color; Students; Techniques

Subjects: Brunei; Ceylon; Conflict management; Emigration and immigration; Hygiene; Immigrants; Malaysia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Racially mixed families; Racism; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Ceylon [now Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka]
Map Coordinates: 7, 81
GPS: Brunei
Map Coordinates: 4.5, 114.666667
00:38:27 - Socializing

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Partial Transcript: Did you have any locals there that you, uh, intermingled with or became friends with?

Segment Synopsis: Griffin shared some food with the half dozen other teachers at the school but there remained a large language barrier and Griffin found them to be shy with her. Griffin had another Volunteer for a roommate. They were courted by an Englishman who was managing a rubber plantation nearby. After about 6 months, Griffin's roommate ended up leaving Peace Corps, returning to Chicago, and marrying him.

Keywords: Changes; Chicago (Ill.); Close of Service; Co-teachers; Food; Language barriers; Language skills; Leaving; Living alone; Local people; Locals; Marriage; Membakut (Malaysia); Returning; Roommates

Subjects: Culture; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Language and culture; Language and languages; Malaysia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Membakut (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.466667, 115.783333
GPS: Chicago (Ill.)
Map Coordinates: 41.881944, -87.627778
00:44:41 - Vacation

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Partial Transcript: And then I planned to, uh, at the end of that first year, to take a circle tour, which is what I did.

Segment Synopsis: At the end of her first year, Griffin traveled to Manila, Japan, and Taiwan. Griffin spent 5 or 6 days in each place. Griffin's trip was educational for her and turned out well. Upon arriving, Griffin sat on her luggage at the airport until someone speaking English came up to her. Griffin describes some of the people she met and places they went while she was on tour.

Keywords: Airports; Changes; English (Language); Learning; Local people; Locals; Manila (Philippines); Socializing; Tokyo (Japan); Tourism; Tourists; Traveling

Subjects: Emotions; International travel; Japan; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Philippines; Taiwan; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Republic of the Philippines
Map Coordinates: 13, 122
GPS: Manila (Republic of the Philippines)
Map Coordinates: 14.6, 120.98
GPS: Japan
Map Coordinates: 36.138
GPS: Taiwan [also known as the Republic of China]
Map Coordinates: 24, 121
GPS: Tokyo (Japan)
Map Coordinates: 35.689722, 139.692222
00:47:14 - Second year

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Partial Transcript: So I had a wonderful time and when I came back, I had a new Volunteer for a roommate.

Segment Synopsis: After Griffin's vacation, another Volunteer from her group, who had experienced some challenges at her initial work site, was transferred to be her roommate.

Keywords: Challenges; Changes; Cohorts; Living situation; Roommates

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:48:21 - Community involvement

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Partial Transcript: Tell me how living in this community in this, in this far off country, um, affected you and you know, what you learned from it.

Segment Synopsis: The local people came to know that Griffin was interested in them and their customs. So, they invited her to witness some of their rituals, for example, when someone died. Even though there was a language barrier, Griffin was able to convey her affection to the local people through her actions and vice versa.

Keywords: Children; Communication; Customs; Dancing; Dangers; Deaths; Inclusion; Language barriers; Local people; Locals; Safety; Special occasions

Subjects: Emotions; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:57:01 - Field trips

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Partial Transcript: Any other experiences there at school that, uh, you want to talk about?

Segment Synopsis: Griffin arranged a field trip for 20 older students to Jesselton, the state capital. Griffin arranged for a male Volunteer whose work site was at Beaufort, about 45 minutes away from hers, to assist as an escort. Most of the students had never ridden on a train or even been away from their neighborhood. Griffin arranged for the students to sing some songs in English at one of the radio stations in the capital and the event was reported in the newspaper. Some Saturdays, Griffin would walk with the students to the beach, 9 miles away, where another Volunteer was stationed.

Keywords: Beaufort (Malaysia); Jesselton (Malaysia); Media; News; Pimping Beach (Malaysia); Press; Radio stations; Site visits; Trains; Traveling

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Student activities; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Beaufort (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.345789, 115.744564
GPS: Jesselton (Malaysia) now known as Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.975, 116.0725
GPS: Pimping Beach (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.5300367, 115.7505525
01:01:21 - Impact on students

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Partial Transcript: Well you did quite a bit while you were there in that town, it, it sounds like.

Segment Synopsis: Griffin knows that many of her students continued their education and went on to hold responsible jobs.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Deaths; Jobs; Letters

Subjects: Education, Higher; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Teachers; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteers

01:02:28 - Close of Service

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Partial Transcript: So, um, after, after 2 years there then, were you ready to come home or did you feel like, uh, you should extend?

Segment Synopsis: After 2 years, Griffin was ready to leave. Griffin's roommate was planning on traveling with some other Volunteers after their service. But, Griffin had an invitation to visit a connection in India and spent 6 weeks there. To celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, Griffin and her husband went back to this plantation in southern India.

Keywords: Children; Coming home; Invitations; Leaving; Madison (Wis.); Marriage; Pimping Beach (Malaysia); Plans; Questions; Returning; Roommates; Special occasions; Telephone calls; Traveling

Subjects: Emigration and immigration; Emotions; Immigrants; India; International travel; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Social norms; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Madison (Wis.)
Map Coordinates: 43.074722, -89.384167
GPS: Pimping Beach (Malaysia)
Map Coordinates: 5.5300367, 115.7505525
GPS: India
Map Coordinates: 21, 78
01:07:02 - Peace Corps in Malaysia

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Partial Transcript: Do you, do you recall, uh, what the kind of general attitude towards Peace Corps was in Malaysia? They'd been there a few years before you got there.

Segment Synopsis: During Griffin's time of service, Peace Corps was welcome in Malaysia. In 1976, the Malaysian government decided that Peace Corps assistance was no longer needed.

Keywords: Changes; Independence; International development

Subjects: Malaysia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Malaysia
Map Coordinates: 2.5, 112.5
01:08:43 - Personal impact of Peace Corps service

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Partial Transcript: So after you left Peace Corps then, um, like I said before, coming from this really isolated place in the, in the U.S. and then you have this big experience overseas, uh, what kind of impact did that have on your--on the re--on your life after Peace Corps?

Segment Synopsis: In 2019, Griffin attended the National Peace Corps Association annual meeting in Austin, Texas. Other Returned Volunteers there agreed with Griffin that readjustment to life in the U.S. was difficult, as most Americans cannot relate to the Volunteers' experiences. Griffin returned to Madison and for 5 years switched from teaching kindergarten to sixth grade as she had also taught older students overseas. Later in her teaching career, Griffin invited other Volunteers to share their experiences with her fifth graders. Griffin has been able to re-establish contact with some members of her cohort and attended a reunion in Providence, Rhode Island. The next time, Griffin hosted the reunion in Albuquerque. Because of her Peace Corps service, Griffin is more open to Native American cultures, members of which she encounters locally.

Keywords: Albuquerque (N.M.); American Indians; Austin (Tex.); Career paths; Cohorts; Difficult; Invitations; Jobs; Madison (Wis.); Providence (R.I.); Re-entry; Readjustment; Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Social media; Speaking; Third Goal; Traveling; Wausau (Wis.)

Subjects: Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Malaysia; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Austin (Tex.)
Map Coordinates: 30.267222, -97.743056
GPS: Madison (Wis.)
Map Coordinates: 43.074722, -89.384167
GPS: Wausau (Wis.)
Map Coordinates: 44.95, -89.633333
GPS: Providence (R.I.)
Map Coordinates: 41.823611, -71.422222
GPS: Albuquerque (N.M.)
Map Coordinates: 35.110833, -106.61