Talking with Ray Leki

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I HEARD ABOUT RAY LEKI and his new book, Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad from Laurette Bennhold-Samaan who was the Cross-Cultural Specialist for the Peace Corps in the late ’90s. She mentioned that Leki had written a “wonderful book” about travel and since he was an RPCV she thought I might want to review it for the website. I decided to interview Ray as many retiring RPCVs are traveling these days back to their host countries, and elsewhere in the world. Over the last few weeks we have traded a number of emails about his book and travel and this is what Ray has to say.

Where are you from, Ray?
I’m from Chicago. I went to Southern Illinois University down in Carbondale, Illinois, and then Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business for graduate school.

What did you study at Southern Illinois?
Well, my undergrad major was Chemistry. I got an MA in leadership from Georgetown.

But you joined the Peace Corps after college, right?
Yes, chemistry was closing in on me, and I longed to see the world.

And then you came back to do graduate work?
Right. I studied magazine writing at New York University’s graduate journalism school.

And you did, didn’t you . . . see the world that is?
I started as a PCV in Hang Pang, Nepal, from 1979 to 1981; then as a staff member: recruiter, staging coordinator, stateside training coordinator, training officer (Nepal), acting country director (Pakistan) and project director in Poland — so I was on staff from 1982 to 1991.

When you were a Volunteer what did you do, teach?
I was a math and science teacher at Shri Saraswoti Madhyamic Vidhyalaya. This was a remote, rural, agricultural high school. I also helped on a tuberculosis eradication project as a secondary assignment. But I think I made my greatest contribution to the Hang Pang teachers soccer team in a tournament against our archrivals from Therathum – we smoked ’em.

Okay, you finished your tour and became a Peace Corps recruiter?
Yes, in the Chicago Area Office. When I got out of Peace Corps the job market was very tight; this was the economic depression of ’82. I recruited in cities and towns and university campuses throughout Illinois and Indiana. You simply just don’t know what fun is until you’ve done a live radio call-in show in Muncie, Indiana at 5:05 a.m. It was a great job and working with other RPCV recruiters was a riot. After a couple years of that, I had the chance to serve on a CAST – a pre-selection assessment event – and became hooked on the idea of training.
     I got a job in the staging office in Washington and directed a variety of pre-departure training events with a wonderful cast of remarkably talented RPCVs, psychologists, trainers, social workers, and other members of the Lunatic Fringe.
     Both in Chicago and in Washington, I had great leadership — my bosses were terrific role models for government service — serious, professional, dedicated, open-minded, and effective. I then ran the Stateside Training Program and did programming and training workshops for newly hired Associate Peace Corps Directors.
     At the same time, I went to Georgetown to get certified as a trainer. I took a third tour to return to Nepal, with my wife this time, and served as the Training Officer. During that time, they asked me to go to Pakistan to serve as acting Country Director during the summer before the first Gulf War. We then went on to Poland to help that program get up and running.

Eight years on staff? What about the 5-years-in-up-and-out rule?
I got every possible extension I could from the 5-year rule and pushed it to 8
     Then a friend suggested I apply for a job in the State Department as a civil service trainer at the Foreign Service Institute — I’ve been here ever since. I am the head of one of the five schools of the Institute — we focus on transitions into and out of the U.S. foreign affairs community, as well as to overseas assignments and repatriation. We provide security awareness training, cross-cultural, protocol, personal adjustment, career planning, and related training, information and counseling services.

Let’s go back to the Peace Corps training for a moment. From your experience in the Peace Corps how well does the U.S. do cross-cultural training?
My first experience with Peace Corps training was what got me interested in cross-cultural training as a career. Like many Volunteers, I had an extended family home-stay experience early in my program as part of the cross-cultural training. I found it humbling, painful, joyful, and fascinating. Later in my career as a trainer for Peace Corps, it was one of the areas that I never tired of — that I always wanted to spend more time on, even when the training program participants weren’t that wild about spending more time on it.
     I know that for many governments, NGO, and private sector employees headed for international assignments, interest in cross-cultural training is primarily limited to culture-specific training, that is, people are interested mostly in training to make them more effective in a particular target culture. That’s understandable, but unfortunate: culture-generic cross-cultural training often allows open-minded travelers to explore a higher level of meaning and abstraction, and reap more portable, tangible, and reliable benefits through their efforts.

Who are some of the best Peace Corps trainers when it comes to cross cultural understanding?
I’ve known Craig Storti (Morocco 1970–72) since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late ’70s/early ’80s. I have delighted not only in his commercial success as an author of cross-cultural books, but in the development and sophistication of his writing.
American University’s Gary Weaver has influenced generations of cross-cultural trainers. There are many great authors and trainers associated with Peace Corps cross-cultural training and I believe part of the achievement of the Third Goal is not only in sharing an understanding of other peoples and cultures of the world (culture-specific) among Americans, but also in sharing an understanding of how other cultures vary across the gamut of countries, including our own (culture-generic). Peace Corps has a proud role and history in the development of cross-cultural communication and training as a field.

Okay, let’s talk about your new book for a moment? Why this book? Why this title?
Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad is a title my publisher, Intercultural Press, suggested. We wanted to signal to readers that this was about more than safety and security — it is about maximizing your chances for overseas success, whatever the purpose or mission of your travels.

What do you hope readers will get from your travel book?
I hope readers will develop a sense of smart confidence, based on a better understanding of themselves, the challenges they face, and on some concrete strategies for success as individual travelers and as professionals whose duties include larger organizational responsibilities and challenges as well. It is a book that brings together many component competencies into a realistic and useable framework: cross-cultural skills, security awareness, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and a clear understanding and appreciation of motivation and mission, so that risks can be intelligently mitigated.

Based on your travel experience — and all your work in the field — how has overseas travel for Americans changes since your were a PCV?
I believe travel has become a bit more dangerous for Americans — not just because of the current unpopularity of our foreign policy, but because of the widening gap between the rich and poor, the increased urbanization of the world, the lowering of social inhibitions regarding victimizing people of any ilk, and the high degree of distance and frustration that unemployed people around the world see between their aspirations and their economic realities. After Peace Corps I traveled for 6 months throughout South and Southeast Asia, and rarely thought of my personal security. That just wouldn’t be the case now.

What would you advise RPCVs to do first if they decide to go “home” to their host country for a visit?
Pay attention to travel warnings published by the U.S. Department of State as well as by the Canadian and British foreign ministries. RPCVs will remember the level of comfort and familiarity that they achieved AT THE END of their tenures, and assume, unconsciously, that their revisiting experience will proceed accordingly. That’s just not realistic. Older, wealthier, paunchier Americans made good targets, whether or not they had once served as PCVs. And the (typically) young fellows who will be looking for prey at the airports and back alleys in the capital will neither know nor care of the RPCV’s service.

Who are some of the RPCV travel writers whose work you read and enjoy?
I don’t get a chance to do much pleasure reading, so my exposure to RPCV authors is lamentably narrow. I love to read Craig Storti’s work and have been greatly encouraged and pleased by how his career and writing style have developed over the years. And, of course, I am a sucker for the “vignette” books that Peace Corps has published over the years that consist of brief snippets of various Volunteer experiences written by the Volunteers themselves. The essay books you started and edited, John, when you worked at the Peace Corps back in the ’90s.

Thank you. What are you thinking about writing next?
I’d like to write a book that explores and demonstrates how cross cultural competence — gained through Peace Corps experience or elsewhere — becomes a vital element in a wide range of applied international business and interpersonal arenas. I teach a class at American University called Intercultural Training & Facilitation, and it is the facilitation part that really needs more documentation, examination, and rigor. My recent experience as a senior executive student at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business made me painfully aware of how little exposure most business people have with fundamentals of intercultural communication and effectiveness.

Ray, thank you for all your time on this interview.
Hey, it’s my pleasure.