50 Years Later: Personal and National Lessons from the Peace Corps

October 14, 2010

By Victor C Johnson

Peace CorpsFifty years ago today, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in now-famous remarks, challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country by volunteering a year or two abroad in the service of developing nations. Less than six months later, the new president signed an Executive Order creating the Peace Corps to serve as our country’s official vehicle for such service.

I was a sophomore in college at that time, and I knew immediately that I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer. I joined immediately upon graduation in 1963, when the Peace Corps was still new—the first wave of volunteers, sent out in 1961, had not yet returned.

It’s hard to imagine a more transformative experience than the two years I spent as a volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. I was quite aware of my transformation when it was happening—but I could have had no idea at the time that even now, nearly 50 years later, I would still be processing my Peace Corps experience. It is still common for me to express an understanding of something and realize that I first learned it when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, even though I couldn’t articulate it then.

President Kennedy laid down this challenge because he understood that the security of our nation was linked in important ways to the willingness of our people to serve abroad. It still is—and in ways that are remarkably similar to those that he saw. We aren’t competing with the communists anymore, which was the primary rationale of the Peace Corps then, but the three goals of the Peace Corps set forth in its enabling legislation still resonate today. They are:  to provide trained manpower to help the people of developing countries address their development needs; in so doing, to increase those countries’ understanding of America; and to increase Americans’ understanding of those countries as the volunteers return home and share their experiences.

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A welcome movement is underway to increase opportunities for Americans to volunteer abroad. (A “summit on global citizen diplomacy” will address this issue November 16-18 in Washington, DC.) Those spearheading this effort would do well to remember what has made the Peace Corps successful, and to do everything they can to emulate it. The following paragraphs are taken from NAFSA’s 2008 paper, International Education: The Neglected Dimension of Public Diplomacy:

The Peace Corps provides trained volunteers to live with the people of poor communities and help them work toward development objectives defined by the communities themselves. Volunteers share their skills with their communities, but also learn from and are enriched by their communities, and they bring their experiences back home to enrich Americans’ understanding of other peoples…

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the concepts of reciprocal learning and responsiveness to local communities for public diplomacy. The America that people learn about from Peace Corps Volunteers is not an America that sells itself to them, has all the answers, or gives them things. It is an America that respects them, listens to them, shares with them, and learns from them—and that is an America that people can love. These concepts are absent from much of today’s public diplomacy conversation; that conversation would benefit greatly from focusing on what has made the Peace Corps successful.

If the new programs that grow out of today’s volunteerism movement are based on an understanding that the key to success is the volunteer’s link to the community, working with people on their own self-defined needs, and engaging in mutual and reciprocal learning and understanding, then these programs will serve our country well.


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