At 24 years of age, Fayetteville native David E. Eckerson entered the Peace Corps. Little did he know that was the first step in a long-term career in foreign services.
"I was going to a Christian theological seminary at that time and trying to figure out what to do with my life," Eckerson recalls. "So I signed up for the Peace Corps."
The agency assigned him to Togo, Africa to work on pigeon gardens and community development but he wanted to live in Ethiopia and work on educational television, a program he had heard about from a friend. He turned down the offer, despite the agency's insistence that his chance to serve in the Peace Corps would now be slim to none.
"Well, that's all right," responded Eckerson, who then finished his degree and hitchhiked across America, planning to "do it on my own."
About a year later, a friend asked if he would be interested in working as an epidemiologist in Ouagadougou in Upper Volta.
"I went to the dictionary to find out where that was," he said. Epidemiologists, typically doctors, study the transmission and control of epidemic diseases. "There was a program [available and] supported by the United States Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps. I decided to do it."
After two years serving in Upper Volta, "I was hooked," he said. Upon returning to the US, he was picked up by USAID, an independent federal government agency, and went to Yaounde, Cameroon. Development became his niche.
Today, Eckerson is mission director for USAID/Uganda, a foreign services program that supports about $340 million worth of activities. Its biggest missions include work in agriculture, education, democracy, governance and health.
"Our program, in the world, is probably the 11th largest," Eckerson said. "Obviously, we have Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan [and] Pakistan, but we're up there because we've got significant U.S. government interest in Uganda, and the Ugandan government is very supportive of American policies. [It's] probably one of the most stable countries in East Africa."