Student Spotlight: John Bannon
March 28, 2017
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A love of travel has taken Peace Corps fellow and business administration graduate student John Bannon from Joliet, Illinois to South Korea and Macedonia.
“My background is in international affairs and political science,” Bannon said. “I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and I always love traveling. I also taught English in South Korea for a year and then I joined the Peace Corps. I served in Macedonia, which is a country in southeastern Europe, for two years.”
Bannon taught English at English Friends Hagwon (“academy” in Korean) in Seoul, South Korea for a year.
“It was (a) really interesting experience (and) totally different culture,” Bannon said. “The national food is spicy, fermented cabbage (and) kimchi, so that’s a really interesting experience. When I was there, I applied for the Peace Corps, so it made me want to continue to travel a little bit abroad.”
Teaching English was not the only thing that Bannon did during his year in South Korea; he also took the time to do some traveling. “I actually had an opportunity to go to North Korea to a place called Diamond Mountain, Kumgagsan, and I went to the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) as well, so those stick out on my mind,”
Bannon said. Bannon said his trip to North Korea was arranged through a traveling company called Adventure Korea, and he booked a ticket because he wanted to visit North Korea.
“At the time, it was a peace initiative,” Bannon said. “It was only 5 kilometers (3.107 miles) in the North Korean border in a nature area. You could go to a nature area, but they sort of have a large fence that you obviously could go into this area and not go into that area. They won’t let you take over a certain size camera with a zoom lens, so it was intense.”
Bannon said it was lucky timing that he was able to go to North Korea.
“That place is now closed, because the relations worsened and they closed it up, so it was lucky that I get to go there at that time,” Bannon said. “You could still go to the DMZ, the border, but you can’t go beyond it.”
A trip to North Korea was not the only traveling that Bannon did during his year in South Korea.
“In terms of cultural things, we went and saw where they buried the ancient kings in South Korea,” Bannon said. “In these large sort of mounds, maybe 50 feet tall. Obviously 1,000-2,000 years old, but that’s where they used to bury their kings, so it’s really interesting to see that. Seoul, where I was, is one of the biggest cities in the world, so you could see anything you want there. It’s one of the largest electronics markets in Asia, so that’s impressive.”
During his time in South Korea, Bannon started his application process to serve in the Peace Corps. “I have always thought about the Peace Corps,” Bannon said. “It’s something that I wanted to do, so I applied, and jumping through a few hoops later, I went to Eastern Europe.”
Bannon said his application process was not what he expected.
“I think that you always have some things in mind,” Bannon said. “My particular process, it was long and painful. I went through all (of) the application (and) interview processes without any big problems. I then had all of the medical things and for a lot of silly reasons, it took forever.”
Bannon went though several delays before he went on his Peace Corps assignment. “I was going to Africa and it got delayed,” Bannon said.
“Then I was going to Central Asia and it got delayed. By the time they said, ‘You are cleared to go to Eastern Europe.’ I said, ‘Awesome, put me on the plane.’” For his two years in the Peace Corps, Bannon went to Macedonia, one of the countries that was once part of Yugoslavia. “The city where I was has a per capita income of about $300 a month,” Bannon said. “Unemployment was around 30 percent and you thought that people under 30 was 50 percent. Even though the country looks like it’s doing ok, it’s really postcommunism. It really hasn’t figured out (how to) economically thrive, so that’s why we were there.”
Bannon worked in youth development in Macedonia during his Peace Corps term, spending three months in Romanovce, Macedonia for training and the rest of his term in Prilep, Macedonia.
“We were trying to work with the next generation there to sort of give them the skills that they need,” Bannon said. “If you’re talking about 50 percent youth unemployment, they are really going to need some skills to succeed in the marketplace and hopefully they can start companies, they can innovate, they can create, they were going to be the leaders of the next generation as well.”
Despite the problems in Macadonia that were the result of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bannon said that he learned a lot from the experience.
“I think that the experience was wonderful, in terms of personal growth, in terms of finding out who you are, what you like to do and what’s important to you,” Bannon said. “I mean, you’re there trying to help. Obviously one of the three (goals) of the Peace Corps is to help train people, but the other two goals are cultural exchange to help Americans learn about people from another place and help those people there to learn more about Americans. Even though you are helping people, I think (that) you as an individual (will) grow more. I think that I got more out of it than they got out of me.”