February 9, 2003 - University of New Mexico: Peace Corps 35 Years

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By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 1:33 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps 35 Years

Peace Corps 35 Years

Peace Corps 35 Years

By Terry Gugliotta

It was a time when the Ugly American was running around the world taking photos of things different," says Ernest Orona, who recalls events 35 years ago as if they had happened yesterday.

"Peace Corps changed my life. My family doesn't live by the Kentucky Fried mind--the pressure of doing what the media throw at us. Peace Corps gave its the opportunity to learn that things different are just different."

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order creating the Peace Corps. Kennedy's idea was that young people serve their country in places like Asia, Africa and Latin America assisting people in community development. This included training people in public health and recreation, building roads and schools, and teaching everything from farming to English, math and science.

College campuses across the nation scrambled to be a part of the excitement and UNM was no exception. Baby boomers were searching for meaning in their lives and UNM was searching for ways to increase its ties with Latin America and Mexico - an effort that started in the 1920s with President James Zimmerman. Peace Corps had what students and administrators wanted.

To get the Peace Corps on campus, the Associated Students of UNM wrote state legislators and Congressmen. They sent a student delegation to Washington to lobby for a UNM training center.

Popejoy observed, "The university never had been so interested in a particular project."

Meanwhile, Washington had recruited Marshal Nason, then professor of modern and classical languages, as the Peace Corps' director of program development and operation for Latin America. On his return in 1961 from a yearÕs leave to supervise Peace Corps projects, UNM applied and was rejected three times to be a training center for Latin America.

In the summer of 1962 UNM had its chance. A group of trainees bound for Columbia were to prepare for their service abroad at UNM.

"I was in the army, stationed in Iceland, when I first heard Kennedy speak about the Peace Corps and I thought, 'I'd much rather be serving my country in Peace Corps.' So when I got out of the army, I signed up and was sent to UNM for training,Ó says Don Lucero.

By November 1962, UNM's struggle was over-UNM had proved it could handle the demanding task of training volunteers. UNM was designated the year-round Peace Corps Training Center for Latin America--the first such program of the Peace Corps, according to Nason, who was the center's director from 1962 to 1964. It was a group effort and professors from across the campus helped. UNM Faculty adopted a resolution granting academic credit for Peace Corps training.

Volunteers were trained to assist host countries in community development, public health and teaching. Their field exercises included construction, public recreation, urban development and social welfare in Spanish-speaking areas of New Mexico.

Academic preparation covered area studies, Spanish, Communism and world affairs. Volunteers were immersed in language training.

"We had language tables at the university dining hall where the Peace Corps trainees all went and ate lunch and were expected to converse in Spanish," said Nason. "We hired natives to spark the, conversation and supervise them."

Volunteers also learned community development and worked on their physical and mental stamina.

"We went to hell and back as a group during our- four- months of training. It was like boot camp," says Margaret Orona who, with her husband, went to Columbia from 1962 to 1964. "Many of us are still very close."

Nason recalls training exercises at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch: "Al Bearce, the director of the ranch, was extremely capable and had all kinds of enthusiasm and undertook anything that had to be done. Students learned how to use backhoes to build roads arid ditches and were taught jeepmanship."

They took on a community development project in Taos. ÒThere was no door-to-door mail delivery because there were no street signs," says Nason. "Volunteers went in and designed, built and installed signs."

Even the best intentions were not always well received. In Placitas, residents resisted a project to clean ditches that carried water- from Las Huertas Creek to Orchards. Nason says it was a very good acculturation event ... to know what power structures might look like in rural communities and who's calling the shots and how you deal with existing hierarchies."

Physical training was referred to as "Outward bound," a label that predated the wilderness school of the same name. Training included drown-proofing, rappelling, map reading and horsemansliip. Man still recall students rappelling down the front of Zimmerman Stadium across from Carlisle Gym. Elaborate psychological testing was also included in training. The main purpose was, according to Nasoti, "simply to eliminate volunteers who would not be good risks overseas."

From 1964 to 1967, 782 volunteers were trained for service in Latin America. David Benedetti, director of the UNM training center during that time recalls, "Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of operations was the fine response of the training center staff to the challenges of mounting training programs in several different specialties."

Excitement and support for the program continued. Training was modified based on recommendations from Peace Corps directors in the field. UNM continued to receive high marks. A letter from Columbia trainee Robert Oppenheimer in 1965 said, "Peace Corps should use the excellent staff at New Mexico as much as possible. I have found their training program to have been superior in preparing me for all situations."

By late 1965 the number of' Peace Corps volunteers was beginning to decline. Recruiters stepped up efforts. A four-page Peace Corps news supplement in the Daily Lobo detailed the successes of Peace Corps around the world and the good relations they enjoyed with colleges across the nation.

However, college students were beginning to focus their altruistic energies in areas other than Peace Corps. As the war in Vietnam escalated so did student protests. There were changes in draft policy, the emergence of the free speech movement, open support of Communism and general distrust of the "establishment," including University administrators.

"Peace Corps was," according to Benedetti, "a rather separate operation from the University and slightly encapsulated from it." Still, enrollment in Peace Corps continued to decline. The addition of training in host countries also affected the numbers of trainees sent to centers like UNM.

Despite the seemingly unending success of UNM's program, problems began to arise in the summer of 1966. Washington obtained the services of the American Institute for Research to help UNM with its community development program. The result was generally favorable.

However, the institute wanted to enter into a contract with UNM and provide community development materials, consultants and training for $30,000 a year. Benedetti was happy with the new UNM community development coordinator, Byron Hopewell, and saw no need to demote him. Shortly after, UNM's refusal of the new arrangement Washington canceled the Peace Corps contract.

UNM was not the first University to be canceled due to policy problems with Washington. Popejoy responded, "It seems to me that it is an appropriate time for us to give more attention to instructional and research programs which relate to UNM."

In all, UNM trained over 1,800 volunteers for, service in eight Latin American countries. In the end, the Peace Corps relationship was "an enjoyable one and one which had brought mutual benefit," said Popejoy.

UNM continues to operate a Peace Corps recruiting center, one of only eight on college campuses in the country. The university currently runs a Peace Corps sponsored program at the Gallup branch for returned Peace Corps volunteers that offers former volunteers the opportunity to teach on the Navajo reservation and take classes to obtain their teaching certificates.

Thirty-five years later, the Peace Corps lives in the experiences of its volunteers.

"The Peace Corps became a vehicle," says Ernest Orona. "It allowed us to raise our girls as individuals, free from the Gucci peer pressure. We tapped into the universality of every human."

from Quantum, v. 13, No. 1
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updated: 13 July 1997

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Peace Corps Training; Peace Corps History; COS - Colombia



By kip durrin on Friday, March 21, 2003 - 3:49 pm: Edit Post

I like your website. That was a lot of work. But you left out the Colombia ETV group. We trained at UNM too. There were only 13 of us, but we built one hell of a project that was turned over to the locals, as planned, and continues today.

By Debt Advice ( on Tuesday, February 24, 2009 - 3:57 pm: Edit Post

Lamentably, the explanation is typically something that is so simplified it would simply require a precise period of time to get into place, but is typically excluded.

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