Viewpoint: A way of being in the world: Reflections on the Peace Corps, 50 years later

BY ALAN GUSKIN PH.D.

Published October 13, 2010

The Peace Corps began in the midst of a light drizzle at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, near the end of a tumultuous presidential campaign. John F. Kennedy won the election a few weeks later, the hopes of a new generation began to unfold and the Peace Corps became a reality on Mar. 1, 1961.

The idea that would lead to the creation of the Peace Corps came from an impromptu speech that challenged 10,000 University students to aid developing countries. The birth of the Peace Corps owes much to the context of the times: the spirit of social justice embodied in the Civil Rights Movement, students' stirrings for change on campuses throughout the nation, the emergence of young leaders in newly independent nations of Asia and Africa and the incredible optimism of a new decade sparked by the presidential campaign of John Kennedy.

I was present on that rainy night 50 years ago. Along with a few others, I helped to form a group that showed that students would respond to Kennedy's challenge, which asked if we were prepared to serve in developing nations. It’s said by Peace Corps chroniclers that Kennedy was moved by the University student response. A short time after his speech on the steps of the Michigan Union, on Nov. 2 — just six days before the election —he gave a major campaign address committing himself to the creation of the Peace Corps and mentioned the reaction of the students at the University of Michigan. He met privately with a small group of University students — including me — on the following day.

Robert Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, wrote in his memoirs: “It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty… Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”

Eleven months after the meeting with Kennedy, I entered the Peace Corps, spent three months in training at the University and then served two and a half years in the first group to Thailand.

The Peace Corps reflected the spirit of Kennedy. In fact, in many countries, volunteers were called Kennedy's children. Kennedy was not radical, nor revolutionary. Neither was, or is, the Peace Corps. Kennedy represented a new spirit and style domestically and internationally; so did the Peace Corps.

The experience of the Peace Corps volunteer

The real success of the Peace Corps, I believe, was and is the people-to-people, non-political nature of its programs and its specific assignments. For the volunteers, the Peace Corps was a noble and humble undertaking. Returned volunteers will tell everyone who will listen that we gained much more than we gave. Peace Corps volunteers didn’t create broad-scale changes; they impacted individual people's lives.

The Peace Corps today is doing what it always did well — creating programs in which host country individuals and organizations are served well and Peace Corps volunteers are deeply affected by their service. The results reflect the best of what early leaders like Sargent Shriver, Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford — and some of us who were younger, but just as idealistic — hoped would happen to the volunteers and those they served.

I have had the good fortune of knowing many volunteers over the last five decades, some of whom weren’t born when I served as a volunteer from 1961 to 1964. But somehow, the experience in one of the last five decades in vastly different countries created a bond that unites those of us who served and differentiates us from those who haven’t. It’s as if the experience overseas seared itself deeply into the volunteers' consciousness and became a formative part of their identity.

For most of us who have served, the Peace Corps represents the single most significant risk of our lives. At a young age, we left the comforts of school and society to enter a world of uncertainty in which our coping and survival skills were brought into question, underwent change and then re-stabilized. The cues that enable us to understand other people and how we should act had to be altered. Concerns for physical safety and illness became significant for people of an age group that often considers itself invulnerable. These are profound adjustments, and the more successful the volunteer was overseas, the more likely it was that these psychological changes were significant.

The impact of re-entering the United States on the volunteers was enormous and unexpected. The assumption throughout the Peace Corps was that a successful volunteer was defined by the strength of personality and character. The reality was that while these were important traits, the defining characteristic of success was much more determined by the volunteers' ability to integrate themselves into the customs, norms and lifestyles of the individuals with whom they worked in host countries. Returning to the United States required an abrupt return from this cultural integration. Ironically, success overseas often bred difficulty in reintegration into U.S. society.

It’s hard for many who haven’t served as a volunteer to fully appreciate the depth of the experiences of the volunteers and the feelings generated by those experiences. The overwhelming majority of the early groups of volunteers were recent college graduates for whom the Peace Corps was their first meaningful job. And it was no ordinary job. We were very special people given responsibilities far beyond our peers.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer meant heeding a call to make a real difference in the world. You’re pioneers, the early volunteers were told, in a bold venture the goal of which was to change the world, even if we knew that goal seemed much too ambitious.

We were doing things rarely done before by Americans. Not only did we speak the language and live like host country peers, we actively wanted to become part of our new culture. We came to work and live with the people. The more we integrated ourselves into the culture, the more special we were to our neighbors and new friends. It seemed as if our presence in a classroom or village enhanced the sense of pride of those whom we served.

The people in the U.S. loved the volunteers. The press was uniformly positive. The president met with many of the groups. In 1986, on the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the late Ted Kennedy summed up the words we heard over and over again in the early 1960s: "You have reminded us anew — as you did with your example 25 years ago — of what is best in ourselves, and what is best in our country."

Volunteers were living our ideals. We were serving others and asking for nothing tangible in return. To have acted in a concrete way on one's beliefs was a heady experience. To have done so in concert with hundreds and thousands of others and to be told by important people that this was a model for others had an important psychological impact, even if we were embarrassed by the adulation. Our sense of being important, while being sincerely humble about our work, was a profound transcending experience that doesn’t often occur in a lifetime.

The development of cultural humility

Whatever the problems that the Peace Corps experienced as successive presidents supported, rejected or neglected it, the experience of the individual volunteers in the field continued to be powerful and, in many cases, life transforming. Individuals served others in people-to-people programs in developing nations. And individuals continued to put themselves at physical risk in small villages and large cities. They continued to act on their idealism.

While many more volunteers in recent years have been much older than in the early 1960's, and in some cases more skilled, the overwhelming majority of volunteers of all ages still acquire the most potent and basic lesson to be learned during the Peace Corps experience: the development of a sense of cultural humility.

Volunteers develop this sense of cultural humility as a result of the psychological changes that occur as they integrate themselves into another culture. Volunteers identify with friends and colleagues who don’t share American ways of expressing personal emotions, norms regarding appropriate behavior, or meaning of individual and group pride. Volunteers learn and internalize the fact that people from other societies view their own culture as valid as we do ours and must be respected for doing so. And volunteers realize that effective human interaction requires people to appreciate and respect the similarities and differences in cultural perspectives.

Developing a sense of cultural humility may well be one of the necessary requirements for peace between people and among nations. It is, I believe, the lasting contribution of the Peace Corps to American society, as embodied in the growing number of influential volunteers.

The legacy of the Peace Corps

In the 1986 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Bill Moyers — its first deputy director and now one of America's foremost social commentators — summed up the Peace Corps experience in this way:

“We are struggling today with the imperative of a new understanding of patriotism and citizenship. The Peace Corps has been showing us the way...To be a patriot in this sense means to live out of a recognition that one is a member of a particular culture and society, but so are all other human beings, and their kinship and bonds — their sacred places — are as important to them as ours are to us. Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes, but we carry two passports — one stamped American, the other human being...

“We knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program or mission. Now we know — from those who lived and died for it — that it is a way of being in the world. It is a very conservative notion, because it holds dear the ground of one's own being — the culture and customs that give meaning to life — but it is revolutionary for respecting the ground revered by others. This is the new politics and the new patriotism that may yet save this fragmented and dispirited age, and it is the gift (the volunteers) gave us.”

Dr. Alan Guskin was a University graduate student in social psychology from 1958 to 1961 and from 1966 to 1968. He was Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1961 to 1964. He was an administrator in the creation of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. Guskin served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 1975 to 1985 and president and chancellor of Antioch University from 1985 to 1997. He is presently distinguished university professor in Antioch’s Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change.