Magazine Feature / People

Alumnus helps others make a difference

Paul Fischer received his MA in American history from DU in 1976, just a year after returning from Ethiopia where, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught English in a rural high school. Since then, he’s been a business owner, public affairs specialist and even a diplomat for the U.S. embassy in Santiago, Chile. Today, Fischer is not only back to teaching, but he helps coordinate volunteer placements in Chile for United Planet.

Through United Planet, a new nonprofit foundation based in Boston, volunteers can travel to any of 150 international sites where they build houses or assist in daycare centers or schools for two to 12 weeks. In Chile, Fischer says the need is great.

“There is no ‘safety net’ here for the very poor,” Fischer explains, “Those who benefit from the small wooden houses that our volunteers construct don’t qualify for government subsidized housing because they can’t even pay a very small monthly dividend. These families … formerly lived under plastic and carton coverings in conditions which are simply inhumane.”

Each summer, United Planet sponsors a homebuilding program in southern Chile exclusively for high school and university students.

Besides building houses, Fischer says volunteers assist Chilean English teachers, work in a daycare center or local foundation. Volunteers pay nearly $1,500, plus airfare, for a two-week immersion during which they stay with a Chilean family.

Finding service placements and home stays for volunteers isn’t a full time job for Fischer. He’s also a high school English teacher at Colegio Tabancura and part-time professor at the Universidad de los Andes.

“At the end of the semester, I invite my graduating students to a pub for a beer,” Fischer says. “I tell them it was John Livingston’s idea.”

Livingston, who was Fischer’s professor and mentor at the University of Denver, invited graduating seniors for Friday afternoon wine and cheese with other professors.

Fischer says DU prepared him for the range of skills needed in his varied professional life.

“I remember arriving the first day to classes at DU and being told the books we were expected to read. It was overwhelming, but I did it. I started to see that the limits on what we could do were self-imposed,” Fischer says.

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