Then and Now:
ULV Connections to Southeast Asia
Building from the past with a ULV alumna.
It’s difficult to imagine that the city of La Verne, with its tree-lined streets and quintessential small-town personality, carries strong ties to a time and place that many in American culture would like to forget. More than 40 years ago, during the Vietnam War, students from what was then La Verne College performed service work in Southeast Asia. Because of a renewed interest in the subject, many of those who participated are now coming forward to bring their stories to light. For June Pulcini, the interest, service and educational work with that region has never stopped.
Pulcini is passionate about her causes. She served for 20 years as vice-chair and executive committee member with International Voluntary Services, and has been a board member for organizations such as the Asia Resource Center and the East Meets West Foundation. She’s currently a board member of CHEER for Vietnam, and an advisory board member for Global Village Foundation. Her home is filled with the meaningful items she’s gathered during her work in Asia in the 1960s and on return trips over the next four decades: photos, books, articles and artwork. Everyone starts somewhere, though, and Pulcini began her work soon after graduating from La Verne College in 1962.
June and her husband at that time, Ron Pulcini, had just finished school. Faced with the next step in their lives, the Pulcinis signed up with International Voluntary Services to perform service work in Southeast Asia that would qualify as alternative service to the draft. IVS was a program founded by leaders of the Quakers, Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren out of their desire to provide a non-religious service option for Americans. People who served in IVS will tell you that the Peace Corps, founded by John F. Kennedy, was in fact modeled directly on the government’s observation of IVS. “You feel like you can do what you can – you’re doing the good part. You don’t feel part of the destruction because you’re not doing the bombing,” Pulcini said.
About five married couples and numerous single men from La Verne took part in post-graduate alternative service, a number of whom had ties with the Church of the Brethren. As the University of La Verne was founded on the Brethren’s ideals of service and education, this group made perfect sense. To be eligible to work with IVS as an alternate service to the military draft, individuals had to prove to the draft board that they were conscientiously opposed to war. Their families usually went along overseas and even took part in service themselves. Contrary to popular knowledge, there were thousands of conscientious objectors serving as teachers, doctors, and other useful positions in Southeast Asia during these turbulent years.
Prior to beginning their service as educators, two couples went through an English as Second Language teacher training program in Cambodia. “They (Cambodia) were neutral, so we could drive around the country every weekend. We were assigned Siem Reap, the same town as Angkor Wat, and had a Cambodian-style house to live in,” Pulcini said. The couple was soon forced to leave the country though, as the Cambodian government became upset with American aid in their land. Over the next seven years the Pulcinis would move on to Vietnam and then Laos, teaching English in local schools and working in rural development. It was in Southeast Asia that their first child was born.
While in Southeast Asia, Pulcini collected items relevant to her work at the time. Heavily detailed handmade rubbings from the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia now line her home’s walls, along with photographs, articles, letters she and friends wrote to government officials, and various items others have entrusted to her care. June’s photos and documents from these times bring her endless stories to life. Some depict her as a smiling young woman huddled with local children in a rudimentary wooden building on stilts, typical of the small villages. Other pieces have been used as resources by authors writing on the subject. These items have become priceless pieces of history that are continually used as research materials for students, documentary and other film makers, newspapers and non-fiction writers.
Another La Verne graduate with an IVS history in Southeast Asia is local historian and author Galen Beery, class of 1959. Beery has known June Pulcini since their days together at Camp La Verne. A man with a dry sense of humor and a Mark Twain-like mustache, Beery has a gift for foreign languages, and still remembers the phrase, “ The girl has pretty face,” in Cambodian, although he spent only one day there over 40 years ago. He worked in Laos for a total of 13 years for IVS and later the United States government.
Beery became fluent in the Lao language. After working various office positions with IVS for five years, Beery chose to transfer to the United States government’s Agency for International Development under their Education and Rural Development project in 1966. It was here that he worked with teams to assist local villages with digging wells, building schools, and developed health and agricultural programs. Beery, who was unmarried during these years, traveled extensively throughout the country, avoiding the Western-style enclaves that developed. “Americans lived in a walled city that looked like La Verne. I didn’t relate to them at all; I blended in with the locals,” Beery explained.
Toward the end of his stay in Laos, Beery worked in an office that relocated fleeing refugees, and then continued this work in Malaysia. It was his responsibility to decide which families qualified to go overseas, and he eventually sent over 50,000 Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodians to their new homes in America. “It was this great fact that you could help people that were in a completely different situation than you were,” Beery remembers. That feeling didn’t last however, for it was also his job to turn down thousands more. “After 10 years, I was in a position of helping people who always lost the wars. It got to me.” After traveling extensively through other countries in the region, Beery decided to return home in the late 1970s.
The Pulcinis had returned to the United States in 1970. And although the couple divorced in 1972, June still held onto the mementos from those years in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. June has since married Marvin May, and lives in Hermosa Beach. Their beachfront home has become a virtual gallery for her many cultural treasures from Southeast Asia, and their later travels to re-visit IVS programs in Ecuador, and tours to China Peru, Nepal and Tibet.
Pulcini recently continued her educational service work in Southeast Asia. “In some ways, I was going back to finish what I didn’t. It was like completing a job,” Pulcini said of her most recent return to the region. In the summer of 2007, Pulcini participated in teacher workshops with the organization CHEER for Vietnam in Hue, Vietnam, with Dr. Peggy Redman, class of 1960, who serves as ULV’s Program Chair for Teacher Education.
CHEER, which stands for Culture, Health, Education and Environmental Resources, is a Los Angeles-based organization founded by Doan Thi Nam-Hau in 1993. The non-profit organization works to assist villagers in Vietnam who are still being affected by the war four decades on. Nam-Hau speaks of entire communities that live with the hardships associated with Agent Orange, a nerve gas that becomes embedded in a victim’s DNA, passing problems from generation to generation. CHEER for Vietnam’s work ranges from building schools for villages that are too poor to afford them, providing local children with books and desks, to the education workshops that Pulcini and Redman participated in last summer. These workshops assisted English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers with classroom strategies.
It was during this trip in Cambodia that Dr. Redman participated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Panasastra University, on behalf of the University of La Verne. An MOU is an agreement between two universities stating that they will cooperate and, in essence, form a partnership of sorts. The large Cambodian university teaches all courses in English. This agreement makes future student and teacher exchange programs possible between the University of La Verne and Panasastra University.
Something that’s quite clear after speaking with Pulcini and Redman of their trip is that Southeast Asians hold no lasting hostilities toward Westerners after their continual suffering in multiple wars. “The Vietnamese are absolutely the most open, friendly people I’ve ever met,” Redman said.
Pulcini has been invited to contribute her collection to various universities, but would prefer to establish a Southeast Asia resource center at the University of La Verne. However, because of space issues at the university’s Wilson Library, this is not possible at this point in time.
The hope is that by bringing these resources to light and continuing educational services in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, the links between past and the present will be made known to a new generation.
“June is living history, herself. It’s amazing that we have a teacher who was in Vietnam 42 years ago going back and speaking on education,” Nam-Hau said.
Sidebar: A Glance Back