People who Inspire: Dan Petrowski on living and serving abroad

Dan Petrowski for blog

In the 1960’s, Dan Petrowski was a young boy growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. From the pages of his grandmother’s National Geographic magazines, he could see a world filled with people and cultures far removed from the life he knew.

More than anything, he wanted to go to the places he saw.

That yearning continued through high school and college as he read every book he could find on world cultures. When he was a civil engineering major at Penn State University, Dan became friends with someone who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil. He became interested in doing the same and applied to use his engineering skills in a teaching capacity overseas.

Dan graduated in June, 1975 and had just accepted a job when he learned his application to become to volunteer with the Peace Corps was approved. The decision to take the job or to take the plane to Fiji to teach for two years wasn’t a difficult one.

“I left for Fiji one month after graduation. It was the first time I flew on a plane. After a three week orientation in San Francisco, our group of volunteers continued on to Fiji and stayed in the capital city of Suva,” he said.

Learning a New Culture

The twenty-one year old arrived more than 6,000 miles from home to discover a culture far different than he had known. The kind he had only ready about.

“I studied the language and was sent to a remote village where I was the only White person and only Fijian was spoken. The purpose was for me to be immersed in the culture; to walk and talk with the people and to learn their customs,” he commented.

It was a lesson in what to do and what not to do.

“For example, when visiting with Fijians in a bures (villa), if you’re sitting on the floor, you are to sit with your legs crossed. And if you stand up, you are to walk behind them and to do so in a stooped position to show humility. And you would also say, ‘tulo’, which means excuse me,” he said.

The Assignment

Dan was assigned to be a teacher at the Derrick Technical Institute.

“I worked with the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) representatives to localize the curriculum. I wrote the syllabi for classes to teach what engineering materials to use; how to build hurricane proof houses; and how to be an instructor.

There were several schools within the college and I taught math, calculus, surveying, and hydraulics in the School of Building and Construction,” he said.

The two and a half year commitment turned into to three and a half years. And during that time, communication home to his parents was no small challenge.

Dan remarked, “These were the days without email and internet. I could only call home once a year and I wrote a letter to my mom every week. I would go to the Post Office and write my letter on an Aerogram where the paper and the envelope are one and the same.”

The Climb

Joske's Thumb

One day, Dan discovered more of Fiji than he bargained for when his friend Larry Hogan, an expatriate working for UNESCO caught up with him.

He explained, “Larry was Scottish and he climbed the European and Southern New Zealand Alps. He had heart issues and had to exercise. He snookered me in to taking a walk and we cut through a rainforest. We landed on the backside of Joske’s Thumb, a steep and narrow volcanic outcrop that resembles a thumb. The last 400 vertical feet consisted of bare limestone.

When we returned home, he asked me if I wanted to climb it the next week and I reluctantly agreed.

The limestone rocks were were slippery from the rain. We climbed in wool socks for more traction. Larry had pitons, a metal eye-hook that he drove into the rocks. It was used, along with ropes, to break a fall and to aid in the climb.”

The two made their way up the backside on a ledge that was so narrow, that Dan said he had to “shimmy” on his own backside. “I froze in place a couple of times, but Larry talked with me, guided me and pulled me through. He wasn’t impatient. He was calm.”

It was a climb that that not only challenged Dan, but proved his own ability to take risks, to trust others, and to remain calm in stressful situations.

When his assignment was finished, Dan returned to the United States richer for the experience and with a family in tow. He had married and the couple had a son in Fiji whom they named Derek in honor of the school where he taught.

On to Egypt

Fiji may have been his first experience of living overseas, but it wouldn’t be his last.

Later, his desire to see the world also took Dan and his wife and four children, ages 2-10, to Egypt where they lived for three and a half years. He held a project management position there with USAID (US Agency for International Development) and worked on infrastructure projects that were part of the Camp David Peace Accord.

Dan remarked, “Every American should live overseas. You get a world view and you appreciate all that you have in the US. When I was in Fiji, I had no TV. I listened to radio like my grandparents did. I couldn’t drive and I lived on $200 a month. In Egypt, we couldn’t find the simple foods we enjoyed like peanut butter or breakfast cereal.

The kids adapted while learning a new culture in Egypt. They also had the opportunity to live in Hawaii for three years when I worked there. They matured quickly and benefited from both of the experiences.” he said.

Still Making a Difference

Today, Dan is remarried to his high school sweetheart and resides in Virginia. He’s a project manager for an international engineering firm. And while his job doesn’t require travel overseas, it’s still a commute as he works all week in Akron, Ohio.

Currently, he’s managing a portion of a $1.3 billion Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) construction project. The project is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and is vital to eliminating domestic wastewater runoff into the Cuyahoga River and other waterways caused by combined storm water runoff.

As he continues to use his managerial and engineering skills to improve infrastructure in communities, Dan takes along with him a global perspective. It’s a view that has enabled him to make a difference in all of the places he has called home.

“People who Inspire” is an ongoing series to shine a spotlight on people who have done extraordinary things. If you have experienced a great adventure, survived a life-threatening illness or trauma, overcome obstacles in achieving a goal, or have made an impact on someone’s life, I’d love to hear from you to share your story. Email me at marymotivates@gmail.com so that we can inspire others to be unstoppable in the pursuit of their goals.

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  One thought on “People who Inspire: Dan Petrowski on living and serving abroad

  1. Larry Orlando
    January 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Dan was my student so many years ago. What a great story, Mary.

    • January 12, 2014 at 12:21 am

      Thank you, Larry! It was great to get to know Dan during the interview and it was a real privilege to be able to tell his story.

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