Thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps …
“It would be dishonest to pretend that I went because I wanted to turn the desert into a garden or to realize dreams that were thousands of years old. I went because it was different, because I wanted to go, because it was a road that might have an end. I knew I would not stay forever; I never thought of tying my future to this newness; I knew I would take the road back one day, but perhaps carrying with me a particle of the night’s silence, or the day’s honesty.” – Adapted from “Dust” by Yael Dayan
This poem, circulated among Peace Corps volunteers for many years, has multiple interpretations from the multiples of Peace Corps volunteers who have served over the years.
But what was it all about? What was the motivation 50 years ago, when the world was a very different place than today’s world? The world was much larger and mysterious without cell phones, the Internet, GPS systems or CNN. Travel by airplane was an impressive occasion. The concept of a strong Rosie the Riveter during World War II was gone, women’s place was again in the home while men were the leaders of our society.
My country was in turmoil. The civil rights movement in its infancy was creating mini-whirlpools of activity, with freedom rides, voter registration campaigns in Southern states ending in violence, the stepped up aggression in Vietnam and resistance to our military being there, the military draft for all men. Unrest was spilling over all around me.
In the midst of this chaos, the idea of the Peace Corps to be of service not only stirred my imagination and idealism, the opportunity to experience an unknown foreign culture was an overwhelming attraction. This was a challenge to be met!
Did I go to turn a desert into a garden or to help another person to realize their dreams? I knew I would not stay forever, but what I did not know would be that this experience would forever change me.
No longer could I take for granted the precious liberties and rich abundance of life as an American. Even with the myriad of social problems and obstacles within my country, the freedom and opportunities to realize our dreams are here.
In those earliest days, being a Peace Corps volunteer was not career enhancing, it could even be construed as career limiting. Service and the adventure were the motivators.
Today, as Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary; the organization has established its place as America’s most successful and least costly foreign service organization. The Peace Corps has placed more than 200,000 volunteers in 139 countries in the past 50 years.
Currently, Peace Corps has programs in 77 countries. Among its many successes over time, it is now notable that this is a career enhancing bullet point on a candidate’s resume. Sixty percent of the volunteers are female, 40 percent are male.