No, if you are thinking that the title has anything to do with me, you are many years too late.
I’ve often said that if I had a magic wand, I would have every young American spend time abroad. I’m not just talking about the thrill of viewing the Tower of London or the Great Wall of China. It’s more -- an opportunity to live and work and develop an understanding of other environments. The exposure to other cultures opens one’s mind. Seeing things that are “different” stimulates new thoughts and perspectives. But also, by contrast, you learn so much more about what you have at home. For many who take what we have for granted, an appreciation is gained of what we truly have and how much effort it took (and takes) to have it.
Fifty years ago, a new organization came onto the world-wide scene. In 1960, speaking to University of Michigan students, then-presidential-candidate, John F Kennedy, challenged them to serve their country by working in developing nations. Previously, in 1957, Senator Hubert Humphrey had introduced a bill to create a Peace Corps, but received little attention. However, in March of 1961, the newly elected president enthusiastically signed an executive order that made it a reality.
The stated goals of the Peace Corps were simple: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Perhaps the most important was implied, rather than explicit -- to help Ameicans better understand and appreciate their own country and become more effective change agents.
During the last 50 years, more than 200,000 Americans, of all ages and backgrounds, have become part of this noble effort -- working in 139 different countries. It is a substantial number, but, unfortunately, just a tiny percentage of our total population. Currently 8,655 people serve in 77 countries. Approximately 60 percent are women. Ninety percent are single. The average age is 28, although 7 percent of the volunteers are over 50, and 90 percent have an undergraduate degree or higher. Main areas of activity include: education, health, business development, environment, agriculture and youth development.
I first encountered the Peace Corps when I was living in India, in the early 1960s. The state in which I lived was dry, but as a foreigner I had a permit and was allowed to import alcoholic beverages several times a year. There were many Peace Corps volunteers working in the country-side nearby. One of their acquired skills must have been a way to seek out watering holes, and my home became a gathering place for volunteers when they came to the “big city.” I was impressed by their dedication, their knowledge of the country (which, in my opinion, far exceeded that of U.S. decision makers in our New Delhi embassy) and their wonderful spirit.
After returning from India, I had the opportunity to serve on the staff of a Peace Corps training program -- with two former colleagues from my India experience. We were training volunteers to go to India -- mostly engineers -- to help with small businesses there. Peace Corps volunteers are not paid. They receive allowances to take care of their basic needs which enable them to live “in a manner similar to people in their local communities.” (Medical, transportation, home leave are included, as is a stipend at the end of their tour, to help them get relocated back home). We had three months to prepare them for their 24 month assignment. The training location -- Boston.
One of the most important qualities of a volunteer is the ability to relate to the people and the environment in which he/she will be working. In developing countries, living “in a manner similar” is usually a far cry from what one has here at home. Intensive language education is part of the process, as is absorbing as much as one can about history, art, religion, and local practices of the community where the assignment will take place. But we needed to go further -- to create an environment that would give the volunteers “practice” before they “hit the ground. The task was to create an environment that would then become familiar and comfortable.
We started with an easy challenge -- front-end-funding a business start-up that would serve them Indian food. That worked beautifully for all concerned, and Cambridge, Mass., was also the beneficiary of an excellent new restaurant. Then the question was how to create somewhat similar living conditions. We found that in a closed Girls Scout camp, where facilities were minimal and we kept them that way. It was amazing to see the camaraderie that developed and the great esprit de corps -- in a group where the youngest was about 25 and the oldest was 73.
But now came the real challenge. If they were to be effective, it was likely that they would have to make their own way in India. We had little hope that specific assignments would be waiting for them and that everything would be in place. They might have to find their own lodging -- but more importantly, they might have to find people who could use their talents but would have to be sold on the idea. So we sent them out into one of the more economically depressed areas around Boston with an assignment. They had to find a small business person to work with, develop a meaningful project, and complete it in the allotted time.
We were there to provide support and guidance and to point out the differences in their experiences in the Boston area from what they would likely be once they were on assignment. But as to the contacts, they were on their own. It was not all smooth sailing – particularly relating to the work assignment. A few dropped out. But the rest developed a resiliency and self-confidence and set of skills that led to great success once the group was in the field.
The Peace Corps has created a body of Americans with detailed knowledge, including language skills, of most of the developing world. [It would be nice to find ways to tap more of these perspectives.] It has also created leaders -- people who are creative and have learned to innovate and achieve their goals, often under difficult circumstances. It has been a wonderful benefit to our nation, both at home and abroad.
One of the bittersweet things I saw over the years was the frequent unhappiness of volunteers with the way U.S. foreign policy was being perceived or implemented abroad. Some invariably vow that they will pursue State Department careers and bring about change. Many of them either become disillusioned and drop out, or carry on, over time, losing sight of their original objectives. But, be that as it may (or may not be), there is no question in my mind that this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the great government programs – and perhaps the strongest legacy to the nation of JFK. I only wish we had more people in the program. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Peace Corps were funded at the level of (and instead of) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Alas, no magic wand!
Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.