Forty-eight years after former president John F. Kennedy first proposed the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union, the University remains one of the colleges most committed to the program.
The program, which allows college graduates to work for the public good in developing nations, drew 80 volunteers from the University of Michigan last year – the fifth-highest total in the nation.
Only the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Colorado and the University of North Carolina sent more graduates into the Peace Corps last year. Michigan State University produced the same amount of volunteers as the University of Michigan.
In exchange for 27 months of service in a developing country, volunteers receive a $6,000 stipend along with health coverage during their term of service, money for living expenses and the option to defer or even cancel some student loans.
Since Kennedy proposed the program in 1960, the University has sent the fourth-most students abroad through the program with a total of 2,235 volunteers. Berkeley has led the nation by sending a total of 3,326 volunteers since 1961.
Rackham student Amanda Miller, the University’s Peace Corps coordinator and a former volunteer, said the Peace Corps has succeeded because it allows students to focus on philanthropy while not abandoning their career goals. Many graduate schools and employers favor applicants who have the world experience that comes from volunteering for the Peace Corps, she said.
But that wasn’t what originally drove University alum Lena Bloom to serve in the Peace Corps. Instead, Bloom wanted to challenge herself by adjusting to a different environment – an objective that she reached while working in Ghana after graduation.
“I lived in a mud house with no electricity, no running water, no paved roads,” Bloom said.
Two years after leaving Ann Arbor, Bloom was hard at work keeping parasitic worms out of the water supply in a Ghanaian village of 1,000. While there, she also taught health education classes.
Now, Bloom is back at the University, pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Public Health.
But some students question the motivations of Peace Corps participants and their reasoning for joining the program. LSA senior Claudia Williams said she thinks some volunteers lack the experience necessary to tackle the problems in developing countries.
“Who benefits the most if a 20-year-old gets sent to Sub-Sahara Africa to help a farmer?” she asked.
Though Williams applauded the educational value of travel, she said programs like the Peace Corps are patronizing the people of developing countries.
Williams said she was skeptical of the “do-gooder mentality” espoused by Peace Corps volunteers.
Bloom had her criticisms, too, saying the Peace Corps sometimes includes people who aren’t completely committed to service. Some, she said, “didn’t know what else to do,” choosing the program because “their life was at a crossroads.”
Bloom said many take the opportunity to travel and enjoy themselves rather than work hard.
John Greisberger, the director of the University’s International Center, said that while some people apply to the Peace Corps for the wrong reasons, the program still produces good results overall.
Bloom felt the same way. She said that after the two years in Ghana, she learned more about herself than the Ghanaians learned from her.
While happy about the personal growth, Bloom said it’s important for people to realize there’s a limit to how much of a difference the Peace Corps can make in developing countries.
“If you’re looking at Peace Corps as a serious development agent, you’ve got a problem,” she said.