A plan for peace: How in 1960 two University graduate students helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps

Courtesy of the Bentley Library
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BY BETHANY BIRON

Published October 11, 2010

At 4:15 a.m. on a summer morning in Guatemala, Alexis Guild stumbles out of bed and makes her way to the coffee maker for a fresh pot of java. Quickly dressing, she gathers her things and heads to the Capitol Building, where at 5 a.m. a bus waits to take her on a two-hour ride through the mountainous Guatemalan countryside.

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When she arrives at her destination — a Guatemalan primary school — a class of young students waits for her to teach them their daily health education lesson. Today, Guild emphasizes the importance of hand washing and teeth brushing and demonstrates the correct methods for each.

After teaching the students from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Guild takes a bus back to town with her colleagues, where she talks with locals and buys groceries in small stores nearby. She finally retires to her adobe house and bathes in a small stone basin, using water she saved before the dry spell that left her town waterless for days.

This was a typical day for Guild, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current University graduate student, during her service in Guatemala. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Wellesley College in 2003, she worked for a reproductive health organization in Maryland before helping with political campaigns for U.S. and state senators in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

But throughout the duration of her post-grad work, she longed for something more. After spending time abroad in college and hearing stories from friends who had recently returned from mission trips in other countries, Guild knew she wanted to venture outside the country and be a part of something life changing. So she decided to apply to the Peace Corps.

Guild was accepted and was sent to Guatemala in April 2007. Her mission was to help implement healthy lifestyles and teach health education to students in primary schools in the area. She also engaged in infrastructure projects to increase the availability of running water so locals could engage in hygienic behavior, and worked on secondary programs that involved HIV/AIDS education and teaching English as a second language.

Guild’s experiences in Guatemala would not have been possible, however, without the help of the University of Michigan students of the 1960’s. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s speech on the Michigan Union steps on October 14, 1960, two students in particular played integral roles in the formation of the Peace Corps.

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Al and Judy Guskin, a young married couple in graduate school, were among the hundreds of students on the steps of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m. listening to Senator Kennedy’s speech. At that time, they had no idea that they would soon play a pivotal role in propelling the Peace Corps movement into action.

“We were excited that Kennedy was saying that we had some responsibility for peace and for things that were important in the world and that we had some ability to make a difference, but we weren’t sure what to do about it yet,” Judy Guskin said.

A few days later, Chester Bowles, foreign policy adviser to Senator Kennedy, came to speak in the Michigan Union Ballroom about his son and daughter-in-law’s experience helping locals in Africa. The Guskins attended, and afterward went to dinner and passionately discussed the impact that student participation abroad could have in developing countries. On a whim, they wrote a note on a napkin to then editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, Tom Hayden, emphasizing the importance of student participation abroad.

The Guskins dropped the note off at the newsroom, and the Daily published it on October 19th, 1960. The note asked students to send letters to the Daily or the Guskins articulating support for an international aid program that they would in turn send to Kennedy and Bowles.

“If it is at all possible, we would like students to start asking others in their classes, dorms, sororities, fraternities, houses, etc. to send letters expressing their desire to work toward these goals,” the letter read. “With this request we express our faith that those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive an education will want to apply their knowledge through direct participation in the under developed communities of the world.”

Almost instantaneously, the Guskins were flooded with letters and telephone calls from students voicing support for such a program. In response to such widespread support, the Guskins drafted petitions and urged students and faculty members around campus to sign them.

“It just took off like wildfire,” Al Guskin said.

Shortly after, the Guskins received a call from Kennedy’s campaign manager telling them that the senator wanted to meet with them at the Toledo Airport on Nov. 3. The next day, the Guskins were off to Toledo to discuss the project.

“I gave him the petitions and he looked into my eyes,” Judy Guskin said excitedly in a recent interview with the Daily. “He was a big guy, this big tall man that came to me, and with very large hands. That’s what I remember. And he listened, he really was attentive.”

“I was really impressed with the fact that all he wanted to do was say hello to us and meet us,” Al Guskin said. “He wasn’t interested in making any big deal for the press about it, and it was kind of fun. We talked for a little bit, he teased us a little bit. He asked us if he could take the petitions.”

The Guskins were hesitant about what would happen next. They were worried that Kennedy wasn’t truly interested in developing the program, or even if it would be feasible. In response, Kennedy assuredly told them that after Election Day, the Peace Corps would be his main focus.

“Until Tuesday, the election. After that, the world,” Al Guskin remembers Kennedy told them.

Kennedy was elected president on November 8, 1960. In December, University students held a conference in which faculty and students discussed how to best launch an international aid program. They held workshops where they outlined what members of the program would do abroad, the needs of various countries and other issues relevant to the group.

In the summer of 1961, the Guskins came to Washington D.C. to work on developing the Peace Corps program. By that time, a national student group had been formed and a conference was held at American University that featured over 400 different campus representatives. The Guskins and other Peace Corps supporters lobbied on the Hill for increased support, attracting national attention.

“The Washington Post followed us around all day and we didn’t even know how important it was to be in the Sunday paper of The Washington Post, that’s how naive we were,” Judy Guskin said. “But we finally let him interview us.”

While in Washington, the Guskins worked on the Peace Corps selection division and helped develop criteria for student applications and choosing countries. Judy Guskin said she remembers working late into the night.

“We had a lot to do, “ Judy Guskin said. “It was very, very exciting. We worked long hours. We would stop when it got dark and we got too hungry and we’d go out to eat, and then we’d come back and…people were still working up there, so we went back to work.”

After guidelines were set, the Guskins took charge of the “Thailand Project.” Judy began doing research on the country and talked with the Thai embassy to determine how volunteers could help in Thailand. Somewhere along the way, Judy became infatuated with the country.

“I fell in love with Thailand, that’s as simple as it is,” she said. “I got a National Geographic magazine. I read about Thailand. I knew very little about it. I went to eat at the one restaurant — “Jenny’s Pan Asian” in Washington, D.C. — that had some Thai food on the menu, and I fell in love with Thai food.”

“I decided I didn’t want to go back to graduate school, I wanted to go to Thailand,” she added with a laugh.

Judy and Al were part of the Thailand 1 program, where Judy taught English to undergraduate Thai students and Al developed the first social psychology program for a university in Thailand.

The Guskins developed close relationships with their colleagues and the Thai students they worked with. Five of the 45 Peace Corps volunteers in their group ended up marrying Thai citizens they met during their experience with the Peace Corps, something Judy Guskin says is “not so unusual in the world of Peace Corps.” Another one of her colleagues adopted a Thai child.

While in Thailand, Judy received a letter stating that she needed to help develop the domestic Peace Corps. So, instead of returning to Ann Arbor, she and Al were once again off to Washington. There they set up the first 13 training programs for future Peace Corps trips, which were being developed simultaneously with many other blooming Peace Corps programs.

The Guskins worked briefly with migrant workers in Florida before finally returning to Ann Arbor, where Al finished his doctorate degree and Judy changed careers and pursued a degree in educational psychology.

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Though Guild ultimately reached the level of intimacy within her Guatemalan village that the Guskins reminisced about, it took her time to get used to the indigenous Guatemalan way of living. Various restrictions were placed on women, including the prohibition of a beloved college pastime — drinking. Women were barred from local cantinas and Guild said any recreational drinking was “frowned upon.”

Moreover, Guild had to get used to a lifestyle that was much different from hers in the United States. Bathing and other water-related activities were carried out in a stone basin. At times, because of drought, water would be limited for extended periods of time, so she had to be diligent about saving surplus amounts. Electricity was also a bit haphazard, she said, but overall worked pretty efficiently.

Despite the lifestyle differences, Guild said a crucial part of the Peace Corps is living like the locals and realizing that the Peace Corps isn’t supposed to be lavish.

“You don’t go to the Peace Corps expecting to have a luxurious lifestyle,” Guild said. “That’s not the point of Peace Corps. The point of it is to go into a community and live the standard of the community. And if people don’t have water, you don’t have water. You are embedded in the community.”

Privacy also became somewhat challenging for Guild. As the only American in her community, she generated a strong sense of curiosity among locals. Since she was constantly being monitored, Guild had to exude a happy exterior at all times and restrict her emotions to not frighten locals, something she found draining at times.

“You’re constantly in people’s view and they know where you are at all times because you’re unique and different in the community,” Guild said. “It’s difficult to adjust to the fact that you’re such an anomaly and that you don’t have as much privacy as you would in the States.”

Despite this, she rose above these challenges, eventually acclimated to the culture and soon felt as if she was a true part of the community. The town treated her like she belonged, and she soon developed lasting friendships and relationships that made her feel truly comfortable in Guatemala.

“They really took me in as one of their own,” Guild said. “I felt really safe, I had friends. It’s a unique experience that you don’t get when you just travel to a country and that takes a long time to establish. And the fact that I was just able to meant so much to me.”

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Al Guskin said last week that even at 73 years old, he automatically feels a bond with young students recently coming out of the program.

“I meet with them and there’s a bond immediately because we had this powerful experience,” Al said. “I’ll meet a returned Peace Corps volunteer who’s 30 years and we start talking about our experience. It’s a powerful experience that changes people’s lives. We gain much more than we give. We really gain so much.”

Both the Guskins will be in Ann Arbor to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech and to be present at the various programs in honor of the Peace Corps and their contribution.

To Judy, the anniversary has allowed her to delve into her past and remember the moments that enriched and forever transformed her life.

“Basically I’m reliving wonderful days,” Judy said. “Thinking about my students, thinking about Ann Arbor. And that’s what this is giving me an opportunity to do.”