Interview with Larry Zensen, March 2, 2022
Project: Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project
Interview SummaryLarry Zensen served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Community Economic Development) in Ecuador from 1973 to 1975. Born and raised in Oakland, California, Larry graduated from St. Mary’s College of California. After working for a few years in his father’s print shop, Larry decided it was time to challenge himself. He credits his mentoring conversation with a former professor at St. Mary’s College and his picking up an information packet from campus Peace Corps recruiters as his catalysts for joining the Peace Corps. Larry was accepted and assigned to Ecuador. Larry’s group of new Peace Corps Volunteers spent 3-4 days staging in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There they met Volunteers currently serving in Ecuador and completed numerous vaccinations before flying to Ecuador’s capital Quito for Peace Corps administrative days and to acclimate to the 10,000’ altitude. From Ecuadorian nationals, Larry’s group received 90 days of Spanish language, culture, and general job training. The new Volunteers lived with host families; Larry’s host family had five children. On his first weekend there, the older children took Larry to a party. There, he met the Ecuadorian woman he would marry a few months later. Larry’s first assignment, based in Cuenca, Ecuador, was to help the Ecuadorian host agency CREA [Centro de Reconversión Económica del Azuay) organize a “colonization” project in the Amazon River basin region (El Oriente). Its goal was to foster agricultural development in the region by creating “colonies” (settlements) of 12-15 Ecuadorian farming families from the rural sierra region (mountain) areas. In a settlement, each family would receive title to a cleared parcel of land to farm and raise livestock (10 hectares). Peace Corps Volunteers were the face of this project, communicating status and details with the incoming families. Unfortunately, the host agency overpromised, and tensions rose. For security reasons, Peace Corps closed the project. So Larry was transferred to a second Community Development project - a School Partnership Program in mountainous Cañar Province. This was a provincial government school construction project in very remote areas, accessible only by horseback or hiking. Larry described the setting as “cold and mud.” Each school had two rooms built of cinder block, a tin roof, but no electricity. The estimated cost per school was$2,500 USD. Larry’s job was to survey the site and hold community meetings to determine school needs and each community’s ability to contribute labor, project supervision, and furniture. Larry consulted with Peace Corps Volunteer architects and engineers in Cuenca about each site’s needs. Next, Larry wrote proposals for Peace Corps to send to U.S. public elementary schools, asking them to partner with an Ecuadorian community and raise money to build their new school. Larry would then coordinate securing and delivering building materials for the new community school. He recalled the scene when a community would celebrate its new school building as “massive appreciation.” After his Peace Corps service, Larry and his wife and family returned to Napa Valley, California, where Larry served for seven years as Executive Director of a nonprofit alcoholism treatment center. As a direct result of his Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, Larry added new services for Spanish-speaking clients. In December 1981, Larry and his family returned to live in Ecuador - it felt “magic” to them. Larry worked in Ecuador for 30 years in marketing and banking for U.S. companies in Latin America. Now retired in Florida, Larry remains in touch with three good friends from his Peace Corps/Ecuador group. In reflecting on the impact of his Peace Corps service for himself, he says “Peace Corps changed my life.” He feels he “did something important for someone else/for the kids.” He also thinks about President Kennedy’s idea that the most important thing Peace Corps Volunteers bring back is an understanding of other cultures to share within the U.S. Larry has been looking for a way to communicate that understanding of the sense of community and common purpose when building schools in Ecuador, and that’s why he decided to share this oral history.
Interview KeywordPeace Corps (U.S.) Ecuador (Country of service) 1973-1975 (Date of service) Peace Corps Volunteer Job: Community Economic Development Oakland, California USA (hometown) St. Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California USA(undergraduate degree) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA (Peace Corps staging site) vaccinations Quito (capital of Ecuador) 10,000’ altitude Peace Corps administrative days Ecuadorian nationals (Peace Corps trainers) Spanish (Language and Culture) general job training host family Cuenca, Ecuador (site near Volunteer’s first assignment) CREA (Centro de Reconversión Económica del Azuay) CREA (Ecuadorian host agency for “colonization” project in El Oriente (Amazon River basin region in Ecuador) “colonies” (settlements of 12-15 Ecuadorian farming families from rural sierra/mountain areas participating in colonization project) each family receives title to 10 hectares of land Cañar Province, Ecuador Cuenca, Ecuador (site near Volunteer’s second assignment) School Partnership Program (provincial government school construction project in rural Ecuador with funds raised in partnership with U.S. public schools) “cold and mud” (Volunteer’s description of physical environment for school construction in Cañar Province) “massive appreciation” (Volunteer’s description of community’s celebration of new school completed) Ecuadorian values from Volunteer’s perspective (sense of community and common purpose) Napa Valley, California USA Executive Director, Nonprofit Alcoholism Treatment Center (returned Volunteer’s first job after Peace Corps) marketing and banking for U.S. companies in Latin America, including Ecuador (returned Volunteer’s commercial activities) Florida USA (returned Volunteer’s retirement location) President John F. Kennedy (U.S. President who initiated the Peace Corps in 1961)
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Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
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Zensen, Larry Interview by Kathleen Kathy Beckman. 02 Mar. 2022. Lexington, KY: Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Zensen, L. (2022, March 02). Interview by K. K. Beckman. Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington.
Zensen, Larry, interview by Kathleen Kathy Beckman. March 02, 2022, Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
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