For most University students, the story is well known. On an October night in 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy stood on the Michigan Union’s steps and challenged students to serve their country by volunteering abroad. The idea led to the creation of the Peace Corps.
University administrators joined Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet on those same steps Tuesday to commemorate Kennedy’s historic speech. At the event, Hessler-Radelet announced the Peace Corps had received the highest number of applicants since 1975. She said the Peace Corps received 23,000 applications this year, a 32-percent increase in applicants from the previous year.
“What these application numbers tell us is that Americans today are as passionate about service as they have ever been, and that they are clamoring for the opportunity to make sustainable change in communities around the world,” Hessler-Radelet said. “Today’s Americans, from all walks of life, are ready to put their skills to work making a difference and when given the opportunity to make their mark on the world, they will raise their hands to serve in record numbers.”
Hessler-Radelet, who served in the Peace Corps in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983 before working in public health, told the crowd that the University’s commitment to community service and human rights is impressive.
“The University of Michigan has been a real beacon of hope and prosperity and human rights for so many years,” she said. “The bond between Peace Corps and the University of Michigan could not be stronger.”
Members of the University community may not be aware, however, of the crucial role University students and faculty played in the formation of the program, a government organization that deploys young adults to developing countries to provide assistance and promote cultural tolerance and interaction.
University alum Al Guskin, president emeritus of Antioch University, was a doctorate student in social psychology at the University 55 years ago when he attended Kennedy’s speech.
Guskin recalls Kennedy asking the crowd of about 10,000 students: “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
Four days later, Chester Bowles, Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser, spoke to a crowd in the Union ballroom. He discussed the work his son and daughter had been doing in Nigeria.
“Making Kennedy’s challenge such a concrete reality triggered something deep inside me,” Guskin said.
That night, he wrote a letter to The Michigan Daily on a napkin, challenging University students to commit to serving abroad.
Before the letter was published in the Daily, Guskin gathered with fellow students and friends to discuss ideas for the creation of a foreign service program. Together they formed a group that developed materials on what such a foreign service would entail and collected roughly 1,000 students’ signatures of those committed to serving.
According to Guskin, Kennedy’s Michigan campaign manager heard about what their group was doing on campus and asked them to send their materials to him so that he could give them to Kennedy’s aides and speechwriters.
“Kennedy was taken with the idea — the fact that students had responded to his challenge,” Guskin said. Six days before the presidential election, Kennedy announced his commitment to the creation of the Peace Corps during a major foreign policy speech in San Francisco.
The Peace Corps was officially formed on March 1, 1961, and Guskin and his wife served with the first group to go to Thailand from 1961 to 1964.
University President Mark Schlissel spoke later in the day at a panel for returning Peace Corps volunteers to share their experiences serving abroad.
“I’m delighted to be able to renew our collaboration and enhance our work to build a better future for our world. At the University of Michigan, we’re tremendously proud of the global opportunities we provide to students, and the Peace Corps is an essential component to our work,” Schlissel said. “The transformative experiences provided by the program closely align with the University of Michigan’s global engagement philosophy.”
Schlissel noted that the University is the fourth largest producer of Peace Corps volunteers over the course of the organization’s history.
“At the core of this philosophy is the University of Michigan’s passion for advancing the public good. High quality global collaborations enhance our ability to address the biggest challenges in our society while providing students with a cross-cultural foundation that will help them lead in a rapidly changing environment.”