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

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.

During his speech, Weinberg also highlighted the parallel of the formation of Will Work for Food after Bill Clinton spoke at the University’s 2007 Spring Commencement ceremony and the formation of the Peace Corps after Kennedy’s inspirational speech.

“Similar to the speech Kennedy gave on these steps, President Clinton’s speech had an underlying call to action for those in the crowd to live as global citizens,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg collaborated with friends and faculty members to form Will Work for Food and took a year off from school to solidify the organization. He said he is not alone in his commitment to community service.

“Will Work for Food is not unique,” Weinberg said in his speech last night. “Countless other students could be speaking about organizations they created.”

Pat Wand, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia during the 1960s and a University alum, who was in attendance at the 2 a.m. event, said the celebration made her think back to her own experience volunteering abroad.

“We were novelties because I was serving in Africa and there had never been an American there before,” Wand said.

She said she remembers not only the excitement of the organization’s establishment, but also the criticism that it faced during its beginnings.

“It reminds me of how tenuous the whole program was and for many years people were very critical of it and how dangerous it was for them to send young people abroad because they would make the United States look bad and we showed them up and made it look better than anyone has ever made it look,” Wand said.

Many students who attended the event — including LSA freshman Aaron Handley — said they were inspired by the celebration.

Handley said he felt re-energized to get involved in charitable efforts after listening to the speakers’ recount the history of the Peace Corps.

"The Peace Corps is evidence of something that came from the efforts of
students," Handley said. "At the University, especially at Michigan, we have the
opportunity to do something big."

LSA freshman Anne Krema said she “felt like part of that history” after attending the symposium.

"I was intrigued and I didn't know if something was going to happen or what
to expect," Krema said. "But I came here and it was pretty moving to be here
exactly 50 years later.”

But LSA sophomore Michael Guisinger said he expected all of the students
gathered on the steps of the Union to rise to immediate action, and felt let down by the commemorative speeches.

"I felt disappointed that we weren't encouraged to do more and that we had
all these people here and nothing came of it," Guisinger said. "Nothing was
sparked, nothing was started, and nothing was begun. I wanted something
here and right now where everyone is organized to do something together.”

The event on the steps of the Union last night was directly preceded by a 1 a.m. showing of a documentary detailing the journey from Kennedy’s campaign idea to the realization of the Peace Corps.

As part of the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration, earlier Wednesday night, hundreds of students gathered around tables at a student symposium entitled “Challenges and Opportunities of International Service” to discuss the state of community service on campus. Most students were involved in one of many service-related student organizations at the University.

Gabe Krieshok, a second-year graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in the School of Information, said in an interview on Monday that the student symposium was meant to foster the spirit inspired by Kennedy’s speech.

“The story here was that the student response was so overwhelming. They were the ones to put the petition in the hands of JFK,” Krieshok said. “We want to get people talking.”

Krieshok said he hopes students will leave the event with new ideas, contacts and inspiration for future service organizations. He said the goals of community service clubs at such a big university can become similar and repetitive, so generating fresh ideas through dialogue with others in the service community is essential.

“Students are reinventing the wheel all the time with service organizations,” Krieshok said. “The goal is to show participants that there’s a community of people doing like-minded things who can offer not just inspiration but practical ideas.”

The response to the symposium was “enormous,” Krieshok said, with about 25 student applicants for six speaker spots and about 260 total people registered to come — double the room’s capacity.

“We have way more people signed up than we have room for, but that’s a great problem to have,” Krieshok said.

— Daily Staff Reporter Michele Narov contributed to this report.