Design by Madison Grosvenor.

At 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., stood on the steps of the Michigan Union to call students to global service and establish the Peace Corps

After a televised presidential debate with Republican nominee and then Vice President Richard Nixon, Kennedy decided to stop at the University of Michigan, without a speech in hand, to speak with students. Kennedy ended up delivering a speech that day that led to the launch of the Peace Corps program at the University and across the nation. 

“On your willingness to do (work in foreign service and travel abroad), not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete,” Kennedy said. “I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past. Therefore, I am delighted to come to Michigan, this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.”

Kennedy did not propose the Peace Corps program then, but his words inspired students. Within weeks of Kennedy’s address, 1,000 students signed a petition to form the Peace Corps, an organization that would be based on the University’s campus. Less than a year later, after winning the presidential election, Kennedy took office and the federal Peace Corps program was founded.

The Peace Corps has worked in over 60 countries around the world and has a three pronged mission statement. The Peace Corps works to help countries by sending trained young people to projects abroad; to promote knowledge and understanding of foreign service and people in need of service abroad; and to further knowledge about foreign communities in the United States.

Today, the University still ranks fourth among large schools in the category of Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities. In Oct. 2021, the University’s Peace Corps Prep program ranked eighth among schools that prepare students for Peace Corps service. 

PCP works with undergraduates to certify students in preparation for service abroad, most specifically with the Peace Corps. Their four competencies include sector-specific skills, foreign language proficiency, intercultural competence and professional savvy and leadership. PCP organizes information sessions for students, runs panels with returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and hosts application workshops.

Vania Tally, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Paraguay and graduate student in the Ross School of Business and  School of Environment and Sustainability, is a student adviser for PCP. Tally said the program receives approximately 30 applications a year and students of any class standing are eligible. 

“It is of course advised to join earlier in your undergraduate career because it gives you a little bit more time to work through the requirements with some intentionality,” Tally said. “We were actually ranked in the top 10 Peace Corps Prep programs nationwide, and we graduated 19 participants. So in the Class of 2021, graduated in May, we had 19 certificates awarded.”

Tally explained there are six sectors of the program that students can pursue, then taking courses to gain skills in their chosen field and gain intercultural competency. 

“It’s a really neat program because it’s completely student-led,” Tally said. “We have lots of course lists to choose from, and they can really tailor it and make it their own. And so the idea is that it’s adding to their experience and not detracting away or forcing them to enroll in all these extra classes. It’s really giving them great benefits during the course of the program.”

Tally also spoke about her own experience with the Peace Corps when working in Paraguay. The first three months were spent getting involved with the community, creating connections and building communication skills and trust, she said. 

“Peace Corps really promotes this idea of letting the community lead rather than the Peace Corps volunteer lead,” Tally said. “And so I got a lot more comfortable with waiting, with getting to know people and establishing relationships. There were days where I, on the surface level, didn’t accomplish anything. But I know that I did, because by sitting and talking with people, I was able to get to a place where I was able to bring more impactful programming to the community.” 

University alum Elise Pelletier graduated with a certificate from PCP. She chose to focus on agriculture and said she looks forward to working with the Peace Corps in the future. 

“I think one of the main things is … it helps me realize how to evaluate when (engagement opportunities were) ethical, and when it wasn’t,” Pelletier said. “Like, who is this program or this project centering? Is it the community or is it you? Or it helps me pick out examples of voluntourism, which is like when people volunteer just to travel and it’s not super ethical.” 

Pelletier said one of her favorite parts of the program was weekly coffee chats with returned volunteers in the International Center.

“We could just ask them literally anything, and just (get) to hear (about) what it was really like,” Pelletier said. “It’s just one thing to read about it or hear about it from recruiters and stuff, but to hear about it from someone that actually went there … helped me make choices of which sector I wanted to be in and if I really wanted to do it for two years.” 

Public Policy graduate student Jess Williams works as a strategic campus recruiter at the University and is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who worked in China from 2018 to 2020. Williams’ undergraduate program did not have a PCP program, but she said working with the University’sprogram has given her additional insight. 

“Something really cool about having the Peace Corps Prep program at Michigan is just there’s a ton of resources that I didn’t have as an undergrad, and I think it would have been really helpful to have,” Williams said. “So, I’m learning more about it now that I’m actually working at the University, but it’s not something that I actually participated in.” .

Williams said working as a recruiter for PCP and other organizations on campus brings her expertise to the application process. When asked about what kind of students would succeed in the , she said people who are self motivated, mature and flexible are a good fit. 

“I think we’re really looking for people who care about the mission of Peace Corps. They’re not looking for a vacation or traveling and stuff, and actually care about the work they’re doing,” Williams said.

Daily Staff Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at mintzrac@umich.edu.