In the middle of the night after days of marathon campaigning, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts climbed the steps of the Michigan Union and made the first mention of a public service program – an effort “far greater than we have ever made in the past” – that would eventually become the Peace Corps. Today, 45 years after Kennedy first made public his vision, Peace Corps volunteers, veterans and officials will gather to celebrate his speech on the very steps upon which he stood. This anniversary is a momentous tribute to the power of idealism, a reminder to us all that once again “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” – to us.
Beyond being historically significant, it is more than appropriate that this anniversary celebration is being held on the steps of the Union; each year, the University graduates one of the country’s largest delegations of Peace Corps volunteers. Students have dedicated themselves to creating a better world than they inherited and have returned home changed individuals.
Yet the Peace Corps alone cannot change the world. It will take more than the roughly 8,000 volunteers currently scattered across the continents. But what these volunteers can do – and manage to do well – is offer help and expertise when it is needed.
Moreover, these volunteers serve as unofficial ambassadors, engaging in grassroots diplomacy through work at the community level. At a time when America’s international reputation is sagging, Peace Corps volunteers are a reminder that at some level America is still committed to international humanitarian engagement.
For many students at the University, Peace Corps seems an idealistic anachronism, a way for Residential College students and co-op dwellers to assuage their liberal guilt by planting trees and teaching classes. But the mission of the Corps is just as relevant today – to all students – as it was almost a half century ago. Especially for today’s student, who is under great pressure to quickly secure a well-paying job after graduation, the Peace Corps offers an alternative route, an unparalleled opportunity to experience a world otherwise hidden while doing something worthwhile.
A variety of programs that mimic the corps’s structure and underlying mission have taken shape, and today’s student looking to take time off before starting graduate school or a career will encounter a wide array of service opportunities. Americorps and Teach for America, two government-sponsored organizations that have applied the corps’s model on a domestic level, have been tremendously successful.
Kennedy’s election ushered in an era of idealism – his words launched America’s space program and helped open the doors of higher education to all, regardless of race. At home and abroad, he thought that men could solve man-made problems of poverty and war that “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” The Peace Corps is a lasting testament to that vision; a program that can answer Kennedy’s call to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle – against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”