A bout with cancer in midlife started Phyllis thinking about the future, but it wasn’t until she retired from her long career as a college math professor that she found her next pursuit, leading Servas, a cooperative cultural exchange network that connects hosts and travelers worldwide. Their goal is to “create peace in the world, one friendship at a time” — love that!
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Rochester, New York, the older of two girls. My father was a pharmacist—he would like to have been a doctor or scientist but his family could not afford to send him to more than the two-year pharmacy school. I think he wanted a son to whom he could pass on his love of science but he settled for imbuing me with that love. My mother had worked first as a social worker and then at a retail store but stopped to be a full-time mother when I was born. She was very creative and spent lots of time with me and my sister Karen doing a variety of artistic projects. While I thought they were fun, my sister was better at them. I really enjoyed math and science studies instead.
I went to Brandeis University, initially as a chemistry major. At that point in my life I thought I wanted to be a laboratory scientist. I described myself as “loving humanity, it was just the people I couldn’t stand.” My first chemistry course in college was sort of a disaster. The professor stated up front that the (few) girls in the class might as well forget getting good grades since the boys needed them to avoid the draft. This was in 1959. No one could make such a statement today but that was before my own feminist conversion and I just thought it was unfair not illegal. I was also enrolled in an honors mathematics course and when I declared I was no longer a chemistry major, my math professor enthusiastically recruited me. Along with my math major, I took a wide variety of other courses. Gradually I started to be more social and decided that I would teach math as a career.
I spent one year at Harvard School of Education to get a Master of Arts degree in teaching mathematics. The first job I got was teaching junior high school. By the end of one semester I had decided that I wanted to teach math, not children, and the two seemed pretty incompatible at that point in my life. I had major problems with discipline—both my own and that of the classes. To my delight, someone who had interviewed me for a job was on the board of directors of a local college. When a professor died during the term, he remembered that I had said my long-term goal was to teach junior high for a few years and then teach at a college. Did I want to switch in January to Salem State Teachers College? Oh, yes, you bet I did! So I taught math to prospective teachers and business majors for one semester. At the end of that I decided that if I wanted to teach at an academically better college, I would need a PhD in math for a “union card.”
It was late in the year to be applying for graduate school and only two still had graduate fellowships to offer: University of Minnesota and University of California at San Diego. I chose the latter on the basis of weather. I had no idea that one should look for specialized fields of math with a professor who could supervise advanced research for a thesis topic. So I did my graduate course work, passed some qualifying exams, and then realized that UCSD, with its relatively new graduate program, had no one with whom I wanted to pursue a thesis. Yet again I had a lucky break; a visiting professor mentioned someone at University for California Santa Barbara who was working in a field I might enjoy.
The next year, I was researching with Professor Paul Kelly at UCSB and working as a teaching assistant to Julian Weissglass in a class for prospective elementary school teachers. Together, Julian and I did some experimenting with discovery method teaching, something I had read about and tried a little at Salem State. This led to much of the innovative work I would do later in life. I also managed to complete a thesis with Professor Kelly.
While at UCSB, I met my husband-to-be Daryl Chinn. He was the President of a Human Relations Committee and I had been involved with some workshops on human potential at UCSD, so I phoned him to learn about what his committee did. Within weeks, the two of us were running Sensitivity groups for improving inter-racial relations at the university.
At the end of the year, Daryl went off to Johns Hopkins University to write poetry in the Writing Seminars. By November, he had phoned me and proposed. I accepted and we were married in a small ceremony at the home of my parents in Rochester. To back up a little: Daryl is American-born Chinese; I am Caucasian and Jewish. Neither set of parents was very happy with our marriage although they eventually reconciled to it—once they had grandchildren.
I finished my degree and moved to Baltimore, where Daryl was still studying. I was able to get a job at Towson State Teacher College (now Towson University) and taught there for a little over a year while Daryl and I saved half of everything we earned. I then took a leave of absence from teaching and the two of us traveled in Europe for a year, spending everything we’d saved. I loved traveling although it was pretty tiring doing it full time. Every day, we needed to make major decisions of where to eat, where to stay, where to go next, and how to get there! In some ways, it was too much closeness for us, often being the only English-speaking people around for days on end. We did survive though.
We went back to Baltimore and stayed there for another six years. Our daughter Allison Hai-Ting Chinn was born in 1973, about two years after our return from Europe. At that time, Daryl had been working in a camera store and writing poetry. We decided that childcare would cost more than he was earning so he quit and became a full-time homemaker and father. In those days, this was a much more unusual step for a male and he was not always admired by others for his choice. It was good for me though, since I was able to continue teaching at a college. When Allison was two, I got a job offer from Humboldt State University in northern California. Daryl had always wanted to return to the area where he was raised so we packed up everything and moved to Arcata.
Our son Wesley Chee Chinn was born a year after we arrived in California. I continued to teach, moving more into courses for prospective teachers and away from what might be considered mainstream math classes. I also was involved with classes in the Women’s Studies Department, team-teaching the introductory course with someone from Sociology and then developing a special course called “Math Confidence” for women who were afraid of math. I continued doing some discovery method teaching and lots of hands-on activity teaching especially for the prospective teachers.
When did you start to think about making a change?
When I was 42, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a small lump and I opted to just have it excised without any radiation or chemotherapy. While this might be more common now, in 1983 it was an unusual choice and I had to fight with my surgeon for the right to refuse anything beyond the surgery! As part of my recovery, I worked with a visualization therapist and thought long and hard about what I wanted my future to be like.
I continued teaching math but with more and more emphasis on the creative parts. I received a grant from the National Science Foundation and, with Dale Oliver as co-Director, I spent six years running workshops for professors who prepared math teachers, emphasizing hands-on activity learning. The Common Core that is current educational policy in most states reflects the kind of teaching and learning that Dale and I had modeled for years. One of the results of my work on this grant and further workshops was that I selected for the 2010 Louise Hay award, given annually by the Association for Women in Mathematics for Outstanding Contributions to Mathematics Education.
Having made a mark in the field of math education, I began thinking about retiring. The California State University system has what they call the Faculty Early Retirement Program—one can retire, collect retirement salary, and teach half time for up to five years. I did this from ages 64 to 69. By the end there were fewer and fewer classes I really wanted to teach and it was clear that I was ready to stop formal teaching.
What is your next act?
I am the Board Chair for Servas United States. The basic premise of Servas is that we can create peace in the world, one friendship at a time. It was founded after the Second World War to help rebuild Europe. Currently people join as hosts or travelers or both. Hosts offer two nights of free housing to approved travelers in return for conversation and cultural exchange. All members are interviewed so there is a sense of common purpose and safety.
One of my early experiences with Servas was when I went to a math conference in Denver. Instead of staying in a hotel, I stayed with a couple who are Servas members. They took me to a Chautauqua meeting in a large barn about an hour from their home, where we heard a classical concert that included the world premiere of a piece by an Australian composer for western orchestra and didgeridoo! An aborigine in traditional garb came down the aisle playing this wild instrument (see sample video here). Years later, I still appreciate this wonderful evening with new friends that I never would have known about or been able to attend without Servas.
In Poland, my husband and I stayed with Servas hosts in Warsaw. We selected them because they shared an interest in birding. We ate meals together (our hosts cooked one for us and we cooked one for them), delighted in the antics of their one-year-old daughter, and went together on a fabulous birding trip!
In Buenos Aires, my husband and I stayed with a hostess who shared our love of tango. We went dancing together and she invited several of her friends to meet us over a traditional Argentine barbeque and evening of folk singing.
In San Francisco, my husband and I had just arrived at our hostess’ home when she said she was going to a book signing at a neighbor’s house and did we want to go with her? Of course, we said yes. One of the ideas of Servas is to do whatever your host suggests! When we got to the book signing, our hostess introduced us by saying “These are my friends Daryl and Phyllis.” At that moment, I realized Servas consists of over 15,000 friends I haven’t met yet.
Travelers with Servas are given lists of hosts in an area where they travel. A country list includes some information about the hosts such as where they live, how old they are, what languages they speak, what their interests are, and what organizations they belong to. It also tells things like how much notice they want to say whether it is convenient to host you, how many people they can accommodate, whether they have pets, whether there are steps to climb, how to contact them, etc. In contacting a host, it is appropriate to say what in their listing made you want to meet them and why they might want to host you. The traveler attaches a copy of their Letter of Introduction so that the host knows the traveler is a current approved member of the organization. This is part of the safety of Servas.
Can you tell us more about the safety aspect?
In order to become a member of Servas, an American goes to usservas.org and creates a login account, then fills out a profile. (People from other countries join through their national secretary via a similar process.) One you have filled out the information to become a traveler or a host, you request an interview from one of the nearest interviewers. This is a requirement for new members. Typically an interview lasts about an hour and includes information about the ways to host or travel and also about your contributions to peace in the world. While Servas hosts do offer free housing, it is for the purpose of cultural exchange, not just free housing. Unless the interviewer already knows you, he or she will ask for two letters of recommendation.
Once you complete the interview successfully, the interviewer will contact the national office to say you are approved and whether it is as a host, a traveler, or both. If you are traveling, the fee is $98 for the first year and $88 for subsequent years. The office will contact you to say your application is complete and you can pay for your Letter of Introduction. At the moment, there is no fee to be a host, although hosts are encouraged to make a donation. The donations help to keep the office running. United State Servas is a 501c3 non-profit so all donations are potentially tax deductible.
How did you first get involved with Servas?
In 1989, after our daughter had gone off to college, we rented her room to a graduate student from Germany. He told us about an international peace organization to which he and his parents belonged. This was my first introduction to Servas International (servas.org). A few years later, Daryl and I joined this wonderful organization.
We traveled some with the organization but we also became interviewers and active at the national level. When I went to out-of-town math meetings, if I was going to be free in the evenings, instead of staying alone in a hotel, I was able to find local Servas hosts and stay with them. I had wonderful times with new friends and learned things about local communities that I could never have done otherwise.
When the office in New York City lost its lease, I raised my hand at a meeting and said that Humboldt State University would be a great partner organization. Almost the next thing we knew, Daryl was in New York packing boxes to move the national office to Arcata! Daryl served two three-year terms on the Board. By the time he was done, I had retired and was elected to the Board. I have now been on the Board for five years and served as Chair of the Board for the last two years. I also spend lots of time as a volunteer in the office.
I was initially reluctant to be on the Board. When I was first asked, I said Daryl would make a much better Board member. That was true in many ways. I have a hard time telling someone if I don’t think they are doing well. For example, we needed to replace one office administrator. If I had been Board Chair instead of Daryl, I don’t know if I could have done that. I did watch what he did for six years and talked with him about it a lot so that helped when I took over on the Board.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I am much more social now than I was when I was young. I like doing tasks that have a clear endpoint and I can tell when I am finished. I like traveling in small doses rather than for long periods of time. In random social situations, I am still rather shy. If I have a well-defined role, I am comfortable assuming it. Chairing a meeting or speaking to a large crowd are not difficult for me. However, mingling and starting conversations in a crowd are difficult.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention later in life?
Go for it! If you need more education, look to local colleges – they often have programs for part-time students or retirees. Think about traveling alone or with a friend. It will enrich your life and maybe give you more ideas of what else you could do. If you stay with a Servas host, consider asking to be hosted by someone who is doing or has done something you think you might way to try yourself. Step a bit outside your comfort zone and discover that you might become more comfortable afterwards.
What advice do you have for those interested in getting to know locals when they travel or showing off their hometown to visitors?
Go to usservas.org and sign up as a traveler and/or host. If you have a spare room or a couch in a living room, hosting can bring people from around the world to you. Typically, a host offers two nights’ housing and often breakfast or other meals, but most importantly time for conversation and increased cultural understanding. If you don’t have room for someone to sleep at your house, you can sign up as a day host. This is a person who is willing to meet a traveler for a few hours to share information and learn about someone from another part of the country or world.
As either a day host or two-night host, you fill out information about yourself in your Servas application, including why one might want to visit the area where you live and why they might want to stay with you. This information is only shared with approved travelers, again as part of the safety offered by Servas.
Hosting and traveling with Servas is fun, safe, and enriches your life. Many single women offer hosting and if you are a woman traveling by yourself, staying with them can make travel less scary.
What resources do you recommend for travelers?
Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman
Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World by Rita Golden Gelman
The World Is My Oyster: Travels With A Cheapskate by Marilyn Kilpatrick
Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves
What’s next for you?
My son and daughter-in-law have two children so a good part of my future is grandparenting. Also, my daughter is a professional opera singer and another part of my future is traveling to see her perform around the world—and visiting Servas hosts when I do that!