UF alumnus finds passion in serving others, overseeing Peace Corps in Micronesia
By Roberta O. Roberts
The Vietnam War era veteran and former missile engineer landed in the Federated States of Micronesia, an archipelago of about 607 islands 500 miles east of the Philippines, on Nov. 11, 2010.
It was the same date as Veterans Day in the United States – but this was no military adventure.
Renwick Nelson (JD 75) arrived in Micronesia to oversee the development of Peace Corps programs created to teach English to Micronesian and Palauan primary school students as the Peace Corps country director in Micronesia and Palau. He will serve for 19 months with the possibility of serving another term.
“I came here with three goals in mind: to positively impact those I came to serve and serve with, to be positively impacted by the people of Micronesia and Palau, and to make the experience a joyful one for me and my staff,” he said. “I tell people and I believe this to this day: this has been the most meaningful professional experience of my life.”
But what led a successful engineer, lawyer and businessman to retire in 1997 and dedicate his life to serving others worldwide?
“When I retired, I rode my bike, I played tennis, I played basketball, I worked out at the gym,” Nelson said. “After a while, that is not as satisfying as it may sound.”
His wife, Brenda Drew, wanted the couple to utilize their professional skills even after retirement, and Nelson’s friend helped them get involved in mission trips around the world.
He began as a Peace Corps volunteer more than 10 years ago and has a deep respect for Peace Corps, which he said “has been a significant contributor to peace in the world in the last 50 years.”
People who have been helped by Peace Corps share the same sentiment.
“I’m proud to be a part of a program that is respected by people on my island,” Naihila Peterson, a woman from Micronesia and Palau and financial consultant for Peace Corps Micronesia (FSM and Palau) said. “A lot of people can identify and connect with Peace Corps because they have either worked with a Peace Corps volunteer, hosted a Peace Corps volunteer or were taught by a Peace Corps volunteer.”
In fact, Peterson learned English from a Peace Corps volunteer while she was in high school.
She “made us stand up in front of class to give a speech on our essays,” Peterson said. “Pohnpeians like to laugh when other people make mistakes, especially when you give a speech in broken English. I just remember how she made me nervous every time because I did not want to be picked and to be criticized and laughed at. She is the one who taught me that we do not have to be embarrassed … all in all, be proud that you can speak and write in a language other than yours.”
Although some people may have never heard of Micronesia, Nelson was already familiar with the culture, which he said is similar to the culture of Tonga, a Pacific island where Nelson and his wife were Peace Corps volunteers from 2000 to 2002. Nelson taught business and law courses at the first tertiary school in Tonga licensed to grant New Zealand diplomas.
It was here that he saw international educational differences firsthand.
“Tonga students are taught never to question the professor,” he said, noting the contrast with the Western ideology that encourages discussion.
Nelson said he learned that if he had the students make presentations to the class while he took the role of a student in the audience, they felt free to question him. Then he would debrief them afterward.
Nelson called his teaching style a modification of the Socratic style, which is widely used in Western law schools.
“It is important to use (this method in Tonga) because this will be the method used in New Zealand and Australia, where they will go on to get their degrees.”
As a result of the couple’s volunteer work to expose the students to Socratic teaching, several Tonga students mastered the curriculum and went on to get their bachelor’s and advanced degrees from New Zealand and Australian schools.
“We were changed more by the experience than we contributed,” Nelson said.
Nelson has not only contributed to the people of Tonga, Micronesia and Palau, but he has also contributed to the welfare and safety of the American people.
Nelson served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1972, where he began as a computer programmer and was later chosen to enter the Airmen Education and Commissioning Program to attend school to become an engineer. He became an officer in 1968 and started working as a systems and weapons engineer. He was ultimately responsible for some elements of the Minuteman program, an intercontinental ballistic missile, Nelson said.
“I believe every experience in my life has changed me … The military enabled me to serve the country and also enabled me to enhance my own education so that I could have a more successful life for myself and do good for others,” he said.
The military paid for his engineering degree from Widener University, his MBA from the University of Utah and his law degree from UF Law through the Airmen Education and Commission Program and through Veteran’s educational benefits.
“It’s kind of like I won, the military won, the country won — everybody wins,” Nelson said.
And according to Nelson, he wasn’t the only one who was awarded the privilege to go to UF Law.
“I think when I attended Levin (College of Law) about 100 of us out of 300 students were veterans,” he said.
But Nelson also remembers a time when he did not have the financial resources to pay for even one degree.
“I joined the military really out of necessity,” he said. “When I was growing up I was poor, and I really couldn’t afford to go to college by myself. It was near the beginning of the Vietnam War and the military needed people and offered significant programs, specifically educational programs, for those who joined. And it seemed like I could serve my country and at the same time improve my own situation.”
Now he helps improve the situation of others worldwide.
“I appreciate his professionalism and his focus on the program, the volunteers and staff,” Peterson said. “He is a ‘no-nonsense’ person who has managed to stir up our staff to keep us on our toes. It’s exciting and I hope to learn from him in order to be better at what I do for this agency.”