The Future of the Peace Corps

Monday, July 14, 2008

The world is a very different place today than it was when the Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President Kennedy. As it nears its 50th anniversary, former volunteers are looking at what the program has accomplished, and where it should go in the future. Kevin Quigley (Thailand 1976-9) is the president of the National Peace Corps Association, Rajeev Goyal (Nepal 2001-3) is the director of the More Peace Corps campaign, and Judith McGuire was a volunteer in Nigeria from 1965-67.

Weigh in: We'd like to hear from former Peace Corps volunteers. How did the experience change your own life? Do you think you made a lasting difference in the community you served in? And how would you like to see the Peace Corps change for future volunteers?


Judith McGuire

Comments [21]

Susan from Jordan

I'm just finishing my two years as a PCV in Jordan. I'm 65, and I'm working in youth development. Go figure! I totally disagree with #18. When we arrived in July 2006, the crisis in Lebanon exploded and we all thought we'd likely be evacuated back to the US. It's been a calm and crisis free two years. Jordan is the only Arab Muslim country served by PC.

I think the work of building friendships is THE work. Jordan has an excellent infrastructure and I see people in Amman, the capital, driving cars I sure can't afford. But we all work out in the country where it's a poverty situation and have a lot of great, but yeah, some dumb things we do. That's life, nothing's perfect, but the Peace Corps is excellent and I'll always be happy I was here. Doesn't hurt that I can speak some Arabic either.

Jul. 17 2008 03:39 AM

Thousand Points of Light:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
-- Robert F. Kennedy

Peace Corps:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
-- Edmund Burke

Jul. 15 2008 01:35 AM
James Neal from Albuquerque, New Mexico

The main thing that I gained from my Peace Corps experience as an Agricultural Extension Agent in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the early 1990s was a true global perspective of world affairs and political economy as well as a profound understanding of African colonial history.

I lived with only a shortwave radio as my means of connection to the outside world. I shunned the propaganda of the VOA in favor of BBC World Service and programs from the Christian Science Monitor. I was very impressed by how unbiased much of this programming was and how wide ranging the coverage was.

I also developed a great love for and profound respect for acquiring many languages. Most of my neighbors spoke at least 3 or more languages in Zaire. I spoke French, Kiluba (the language of the Baluba), as well as some Swahili. I am reminded of the quote from Frantz Fanon, that "Mastery of language affords remarkable power". Indeed it does.

Jul. 14 2008 10:57 PM

Peace Corps has gotten too dangerous. The PC is pushing to keep countries and go into countries that are too dangerous. Fiji is an example of PC working closely with a military dictator put in power by a military coup and dissolving the government and courts of the country that signed the agreement with PC.

The Crisis Corps has changed it's name to PC Response, just after USAID came out with USAID Response. Legislation before Congress may involve both.

As journalists, maybe you should research Bolivia and the Philippines and the Knight Foundation various grants, Fulbright scholars' histories in PC and journalists.


Jul. 14 2008 08:55 PM
Ed from Bedford

Picking up on Susan's comment, my dauughter applied to the Peace Corps in 2004, but was not accepted until 2006. She shipped off to Senegal in September 2006 -- just two days before my wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although we both urged her to complete her in-country training, the strain of calling home and missing us (because we were in the hospital) proved to be too great and she came home to be with us through my wife's final days. Before she left, she inquired whether she could go back and was told that she could not reapply for a year, and then would have to start the process over from square one. Because there is one "class" that ships to Senegal/year, that meant at least a two year delay before she could go back to country. I cannot help but think that if she had been accepted in a timely fashion, she could have completed or nearly completed her tour before my wife's final illness. The PC thereby lost the services of a great volunteer, and the agency's attitude concerning her desire to go back after my wife's passing left a sour taste in all our mouths.

Jul. 14 2008 03:29 PM
Harris from NYC-Harlem

Hi Mamma,

Thanks for the comment. You are so is a balance to contend with. Also, for me an African-American in Africa, the locals generally accepted me warmly into their lives. However, they expected so much more of me than they did of my white Peace Corps Volunteer counterparts. It must had been kismet for me to be assigned to Guinea because I look so much like the Pulaar group of people from Guinea. In fact, if I did not speak and reveal my American accent, many just thought of me as another Guinean man. So, after the novelty of my presence there wore off, they expected me to be more like them with each passing day. For example, I should have learned the local languages quickly and fluently; I should have "instinctly" known of certain African customs and "do's & don't"; at age 26, I should have been married with serveral kids; for some, I should have been Muslim. They thought it very strange that I wanted to and liked to cook and that I doted on and spent much time playing with the kids.

I was a celebrity, I was lonely, I was a local, I was a foreigner. Yes I was!

Jul. 14 2008 02:43 PM
Mamma from Manhattan

Harris, you touch on a part of my PC experience that always makes me smile. I am a black woman and was continually followed and approached by my neighbors. I was a true oddity, since they were used to seeing white volunteers. After a while, though, my public celebrity and private loneliness became too much to bear. It's an extreme balance to contend with at 21 years old.

Jul. 14 2008 01:48 PM
Harris from NYC-Harlem

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa in the late 80s and a Small Business Advisor.

"Although I wasn’t the first American the villagers had seen, I was the first African-American that they had laid eyes on and generally accepted into their community. Was I a novelty? Indeed. Was I thought of as different? Of course. Were they curious about me? You bet. Occasionally, my life there was akin to that of a rock star in America. Children followed me down the streets everywhere I went, chanting my name. Women continually sent me fresh fruit and plentiful meals, certain that this young, wife-less American would otherwise starve to death. Villagers twice my age would give up their seats for me or serve me the best cuts of fish and meat. Young girls giggled innocently, some coquettishly, whenever I walked by. Boys asked question after question about life in the United States. Did I know Michael Jackson? Was I rich? And my favorite inquiry: Does your mother know that you’re here?"

Jul. 14 2008 01:39 PM
John Copenhaver

I served in Kyrgyzstan (2004-2006) working with community development organizations and teaching in a university. I was the "old guy" in our group. I arrived in country at the age of 57 and left at 37. It was a terrific experience for me and I would like to see the Peace Corps expand their recruitment of older volunteers. We relative old timers have a lot of experience to share with the world.

Jul. 14 2008 01:34 PM
Jack McKeon

My wife Leslie and I went as a couple to Sierra Leone from 1966-69, partly as the most acceptable alternative to the war, partly as adventure. We taught in a Wesleyan Mission school - English and history. The experience gave me a profession - I taught high school for 36 years, and my wife a recently developed an avocation to help schools and to develop a solar energy project in the country, for which we and our daughter have engaged in many fund-raisers. All this came about from renewing contact with one of our students after the civil war in the 90's. We're helping him and his family, he's helped us with taking pictures that became a touring exhibit of life in-country after the war. The experience continues to resonate in our lives in very important ways.

Jul. 14 2008 01:31 PM
Judy from harlem

My boyfriend served in Tanzania from 2004-06 and we survived making it work through the arrival of technology in the developing world. We were able to text message regularly, send weekly emails and share the occasional phone call. New technology is radically reshaping the lives of host country nationals and PC volunteers. My boyfriend worked as a high school science teacher, and had an amazing experience. Part of the mission of Peace Corps is also to expose Americans to other cultures, and I believe the friends and families of PCV's (peace corps volunteers) is greatly enriched through sharing in their experience.

Jul. 14 2008 01:30 PM
Susan from manhattan

Why does it take so long to get called to service? My son just graduated from college with a degree in Biology. It's been several months since he got his approval, including his medical approval. He'd love to go to the Peace Corps. The problem he's facing is that if he doesn't get called soon he'll have to begin looking for a job elsewhere. It would be such a shame and I'm sure it has happened to others. Any comments?

Jul. 14 2008 01:26 PM
Mamma from Manhattan

I volunteered in Ethiopia in 1995. It was the most life-changing and frightening time of my life. Personally, I don't think I was prepared for the gravity of my mission - teach Engligh to nearly 50 students per class w/o proper teaching tools or skills. None of my students spoke a word of English and I barely spoke Amharic - which I learned in-country during my orientation. I was too young, lonely and inexperienced to really value the time I was there. I ended up leaving early due to depression and loneliness. I regret that I didn't finish. My husband and I now talk about re-joining (me re-joining, him for the first time) when our son is older. I can't wait. I think I'm ready this time around.

Jul. 14 2008 01:22 PM
justen from tampa

How likely do we see the realization of a mandatory national service program in the US?

Jul. 14 2008 01:21 PM
Denis from Brooklyn

thank you thank you thank you for this discussion. The Peace Corps is the only balance to the military fetish culture that dominates the U.S. I would love to see commercials on T.V. and in the movie theatres promoting the Peace Corps in the same way as commercials propagandize the Marines and the Army. Be all you can be. Be an army of One. See the World without killing people. The Peace Corps.

Jul. 14 2008 01:20 PM
michael Seltzer from Greenwich Village

Dear Leonard:

Thank you for bring the story of Peace Corps's upcoming fiftieth anniversary to your audience. What is often unreported is the story of the origins of the Peace Corps.

President Kennedy called an organization named Operation Crossroads Africa 'the progenitor of the Peace Corps'. I worked in Bafoussam, Cameroon in West Africa in the summer of 1966 as a Crossroader. The story takes on special importance for New Yorkers since the Rev. James Robinson, an African-American Presbyterian minister, whose parish was the Church of the Master on Morningside Heights in Harlem, founded Crossroads
immediately African nations gained their independence. Many of us gathered at Crossroads' 50th anniversary and there are currently 80 Crossroader high school students in Africa this summer.

In my case, once I returned from Cameroon, I switched my major to International relations with a concentration on African studies. Africa has continued as a focus of my professional and philanthropic interests all of these 42 years since I returned.


Michael Seltzer
Crossroader 1966

Jul. 14 2008 01:20 PM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

My father was a Brazilian working with the Peace Corps in Brazil. He got started because he saved a volunteer from an anti-American crowd of protesters attempting to kill her. He said that during the Vietnam era, he had a lot of great kids to work with (and also some CIA agents as well), but after the draft ended they lost a lot of the highly-educated, quality people they had enjoyed previously.

Jul. 14 2008 01:14 PM
Sean Bailey from Maplewood, NJ

I lived in a village in Belize (1992-1994) with Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees being resettled in the interior of that country. I think volunteers I worked with did make a difference--built a water system, a school, and created some income-generating projects. In our case, we had resources to get things done--the United Nations funded the projects through the International Rescue Committee. This is often NOT the case with many volunteer assignments. We were lucky in this respect.

The experience changed my life. When you live with illiterate, peasant farmers scratching out an existence from the rain forest, you can't ever forget the dignity and humanity of the people, displayed every day.

Jul. 14 2008 01:13 PM

thanks tF/1, very helpful and interesting.

Jul. 14 2008 01:08 PM

Bill Haddad -- what a great guy, and with an amazing (ongoing) career that only started with helping start the PCorps!

Jul. 14 2008 01:08 PM
tF from 10075

what about the future of greed, that's more 'american'

Jul. 14 2008 12:09 PM

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