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At 2 in the morning on October 14: More than 1,500 gather for Peace Corps 50th anniversary

BY STEPHANIE BERLIANT
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 13, 2010

Members of the University community gathered on the steps of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m. on Thursday, marking 50 years to the moment and place that then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy delivered his speech that would eventually inspire the formation of the Peace Corps.

There was even a slight drizzle as the event got underway, just as there was that night 50 years ago.

Despite the rain, about 1,500 students, faculty and other Ann Arbor residents gathered for the 2 a.m. celebration Wednesday night, officials said. The event featured a variety of speakers involved in the Peace Corps and other community service organizations talking about what’s changed over the past 50 years in regard to global service and what’s stayed consistent — mainly the University’s strong culture of community service.

The origins of the Peace Corps have become engraved in the University’s history, proudly recounted by tour guides to prospective students and their parents in their first days on campus. The story of Kennedy’s impromptu, middle-of-the-night pit stop at the Union to address students and his words encouraging students to serve developing nations abroad still resonate within the University community today, as they did with students in 1960.

Less than a year after Kennedy first proposed the idea, the first group of Peace Corps volunteers was sent to Ghana and Tanzania in August 1961.

John Greisberger, director of the University’s International Center who was involved in planning the 2 a.m. event and spoke at the start of the occasion, said in an interview on Monday that the story of Kennedy’s spur-of-the-moment speech continues to captivate students and encourage them to serve abroad.

“Kennedy asked students 50 years ago to use education for a higher purpose,” Greisberger said on Monday. “I believe that purpose is serving others in developing nations to help bring a better way of life. If we have more people with the basics in life, that’s the foundation for peace in this world.”

Greisberger continued, “That’s what students today want to keep doing. They want to continue to serve, to accept Kennedy’s challenge.”

Al Guskin, who heard Kennedy speak on the Union steps as a University graduate student 50 years ago, returned Wednesday night to talk about how he went from just another student in the crowd to being a key member of a team that put the Peace Corps into action.

Guskin explained in his speech why University students reacted so strongly to Kennedy’s proposition. He credited students in other parts of the country participating in Civil Rights Movement sit-ins for bringing social justice to the forefront of Americans’ minds.

“I’m proud of what happened, but it would not have happened without four courageous students in North Carolina,” Guskin said, referring to members of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in in North Carolina.

Students today are much more active in social and political issues than in the past and urged students to continue this trend, Guskin said.

Arriving in Ann Arbor straight from a trip to Ghana last night, Aaron Williams, director of the Peace Corps, encouraged students to serve, calling the University “Peace Corps territory.”

“This bold experiment, the Peace Corps, still calls out to you,” Williams said. “Now this is your time.”

LSA senior Steven Weinberg, co-founder of the national student organization Will Work for Food, spoke about the similarities between students’ attitudes toward community service today and 50 years ago.

Will Work for Food was established at the University in 2007 and has since spread to 30 colleges and high schools across the country, Weinberg said in his speech. Participants of Will Work for Food collect monetary pledges for charities around the world in exchange for completing local volunteer work.