Teacher, English for Speakers of Other Languages
First Knox Peace Corps Volunteer
In 1962, Darlene Daer Larson '58 went from teaching English and math to
junior high school students in Michigan to teaching English and math to
African college students in West Cameroon. Larson and her late husband, Gerald Larson '59, made this journey from the Midwest to Africa as Peace Corps volunteers -- the first of many Knox College alumni to volunteer for this service organization.
Larson never planned on traveling or teaching in Africa.
"Gerry and I were applying to graduate schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Madison or Ann Arbor seemed as far away as we wanted to go," she remembers. "I never dreamed of Africa."
Yet when Gerald randomly picked up a Peace Corps application at their local post office, Darlene gladly followed his lead. Six months later, she was on a two-year adventure that would change the course of her life.
Larson and her husband were members of Cameroon I -- the first Peace Corps volunteers to work in Cameroon.
"It was like living in a laboratory for me to see the intersections of so many different cultures of the world. I was immersed in the real-life drama that you read about in textbooks and talk about in classrooms," she says.
From watching African women weave bags and baskets out of banana leaves and raffia -- plastic hadn't yet reached Cameroon -- or witnessing first-hand the effects of colonialism in her village as local produce was being exported to the West, Larson embraced her eye-opening experiences.
Working at a local teachers training college, Larson was also introduced to the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).
"I didn't know there was a special field of teaching English to non-native speakers -- this profession wasn't mentioned in the U. S. in the 50s," she says.
When she and Gerald returned to the United States in 1964, Darlene pursued a masters degree in TESOL at Teachers College at Columbia University. She has taught ESOL at New York University for the last 38 years. Larson has also served as president of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc., a professional organization for TESOL specialists, and has taught short programs for English teachers in Hungary, Puerto Rico, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines and Japan under the sponsorship of the Department of State.
Larson credits her career path directly to her experiences in the Peace Corps.
"I went to Africa and found my ideal subject area," she says. She also credits her liberal arts education for helping her succeed in the Peace Corps.
"There was no course for me to take to prepare me for my time in Africa," she says. "But the total effect of a liberal arts education -- learning about different cultures and disciplines -- made it possible for me to succeed."
Little did Larson know that Gerald's trip to the post office in 1961 would be the first step of a long journey that many of her fellow alumni would take -- 156 Knox graduates have volunteered around the world through the Peace Corps since 1962.
"The fact that I went to Africa was my good fortune," she says. "I reap the benefits of joining the Peace Corps to this day."
Darlene Daer Larson passed away on December 17, 2008.