October 14, 2004: Headlines: Peace Corps Directors - Vasquez: Journalism: National Press Club: Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez addresses the National Press Club

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Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez addresses the National Press Club

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez addresses the National Press Club

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez addresses the National Press Club





TIME: 1:01 P.M. EDT


MS. CHERRY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the National Press Club. My name is Sheila Cherry, and I'm a reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs and president of the National Press Club.

I'd like to welcome club members and their guests in the audience today, as well as those of you watching on C-SPAN or listening to this program on National Public Radio. I'd like to ask you to please hold your applause during the speech so that we have as much time for as many questions as possible.

And for our broadcast audience, I'd like to explain that if you do hear applause, it may -- I emphasize may -- be from the guests and members of the general public who attend our luncheons, and not necessarily from the working press.

The video archive of today's luncheon is provided by ConnectLive and is available to members only through the National Press Club website at www.press.org. For more information about joining the club, please contact us at 202-662-7511. Press Club members also may access transcripts of our luncheons at our website. And non-members may purchase transcripts, audio and video tapes by calling 1-888-343- 1940.

Before introducing our head table, I would like to remind our members of some upcoming speakers. On Friday, October 15th, Ernest Borgnine, the actor, will be our guest. On Friday, October -- on Monday, I believe that's October 18th, Senator George Allen of Virginia, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Senator Corzine of New Jersey, who is chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, will be here to discuss the upcoming senatorial elections. On Friday, October 22nd, Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York, chair of the Republican Congressional Committee, and Congressman Bob Matsui of California, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will discuss the upcoming congressional elections.

If you have questions for our speaker, please write them on the cards provided at your table and pass them up to me. And I will ask as many as time permits.

I'd now like to introduce our head table guests, and I'd like to ask them to stand briefly when their names are called. Please hold your applause until all of our head table guests have been introduced.

Raghubir Goyal of Asia Today International and India Globe; Valentine Wilber, an NPC member and a returned Peace Corps volunteer -- (laughter); Dena Bunis, Washington bureau chief for the Orange County, California, Register; Hoda Tawfik, foreign correspondent for Al Ahram newspaper; Daniel Nassif, managing editor for Radio Sawa; Bill McCarren, president of U.S. Newswire and chairman of the National Press Club Speakers Committee. Skipping over our speaker momentarily; Ken Dalecki, deputy managing editor of the Kiplinger Washington Editors, and the Speakers Committee member who organized today's luncheon. Thank you, Ken. Myron Belkind (sp), a new member of the National Press Club who just returned to the U.S. after working abroad for 40 years for the Associated Press; Hanan El-Badry of Egyptian Television; and Tobin Beck, executive editor of United Press International. (Applause.)

Our speaker today is the 16th director of the Peace Corps, an organization admired not only at home, but also around the world. The Senate unanimously confirmed Gaddi Vasquez in January 2002 after his nomination by President Bush to be the first Hispanic American to serve as Peace Corps director. Unlike some of this predecessors, Director Vasquez is not one of the more than 170,000 Americans who have been Peace Corps volunteers. But he has spent many years in public service, beginning as a police officer in Orange County, California. Director Vasquez was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors and served from 1988 to 1995. He had the dubious distinction of being chairman of the board when the county was forced to declare bankruptcy.

We're sure that's not going to happen in your new -- (laughter).

Prior to his appointment as Peace Corps director, he was a division vice president for public affairs of the Southern California Edison Company. Director Vasquez is a native of Carrizo Springs, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Redlands, and has been a trustee professor at Chapman University.

The Peace Corps has come a long way from its relatively modest beginnings under an executive order signed by President Kennedy in 1961. Today, more than 7,500 volunteers serve in more than 70 countries, from Mexico to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. In addition, volunteers face new cultural and security challenges, particularly in the growing number of predominantly Muslim countries being served by the Peace Corps. And that is one of the topics that Director Vasquez will address today. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to present to the National Press Club the director of the Peace Corps, Gaddi Vasquez. (Applause.

MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you very much. Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation for the opportunity to be with you today, and I want to thank Sheila for that kind introduction. I want to thank Ken for his helping in -- arrange and organizing this event. And I've come to understand that he has very close and personal affiliation with the Peace Corps, in that his wife served in the Peace Corps and is a returned Peace Corps volunteer. And Bill, thank you very much for your leadership as the chairman of the Speakers Committee.

I have a great honor and a great privilege of serving as director of the Peace Corps at a very historic time. It is a time of growth, it is a time of opportunity, and it is a time of change.

But I also want to point out that today is a special day in the history of the Peace Corps, because exactly 44 years ago today, then- Senator John F. Kennedy, while campaigning to become president of the United States, stood on the student union building steps of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and he spoke out and shared a vision for a new government agency. And he said the following, and I quote: "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; on your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country?"

He went on to say, "I think the answer will depend on whether a free society can compete. I think it can, and I think Americans are willing to contribute, but the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."

And it was from these remarks that President -- then-Senator Kennedy and then President Kennedy articulated this vision further and issued a call to Americans to serve in the Peace Corps. And on signing the executive order on March 1 of 1961 -- in March of 1961, President Kennedy said and again I quote: "Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy." And I think there are returned Peace Corps volunteers in the room right now who might be able to validate that, and I salute you for your service.

But he went on to say, "There will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed, doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language."

And course some early skeptics doubted that this program would ever really launch and that it would ever really take off. Yet, ladies and gentlemen, through 43 years the Peace Corps has become a way for the world to see Americans and for Americans to see the world.

This idea, this vision that President Kennedy articulated, 43 years later has produced over 170,000 volunteers who have served in 135 countries. Today the Peace Corps is one of the best known faces of America for millions of people around the world. This is why former Ambassador William C. Harrop, the ambassador to the Philippines, said, "There is no -- repeat no -- U.S. overseas program that yields as much return for the taxpayer's dollar as the Peace Corps," end quote.

As director I've had the privilege of meeting with leaders of different nations, and time and time again, I am reminded of the experiences, the contributions and the meaningful impact that volunteers have made throughout their service. The Peace Corps today is experiencing a time of opportunity, and just as in President Kennedy's time Americans responded to his call to service, Americans are responding today.

For it was President Bush who has been a strong supporter of the Peace Corps, who during a State of the Union -- or after the State of the Union address, at Ohio State University commencement, reiterated a call to service that he had made during the State of the Union. And he said, and I quote, "A life of service isn't always easy. It involves sacrifices. And I understand many other things will lay claim to your time and to your attention" -- as he was speaking to students. "In serving, however, you will give help and hope to others." You will -- "your own life will gain greater purpose and deeper meaning. You will show your love and allegiance to the United States, which remains what it has always been, the citadel of freedom, a land of mercy, the last best hope of men on Earth."

Did Americans respond to that call? Well, I'm pleased to tell you that they did. Because we saw shortly thereafter a 131 percent increase in the inquiries that we had on our website. But more importantly, applications increased significantly. And today I'm pleased to tell you that the Peace Corps is enjoying the highest level of volunteers in service in 28 years -- over 7,500 Americans, who have said, I'm willing to leave the United States and go overseas to work in a host country for two years and engage in this noble and incredible work that so many have experienced over the years.

Volunteers have left a powerful legacy in many countries. President Toledo of Peru, who's currently the president of that country, was taught by Peace Corps volunteers as a young man, and he remained friends with the volunteers who worked in his community. And they assisted him to go on to college in California, and later he would be elected president of his country. And one of the first things that he did upon assuming the office of the presidency of his country was to invite the Peace Corps to return to Peru after a 20- plus-year absence from that country. And he has time and time again remarked on how Peace Corps volunteers, Americans, made an impact on his life that has lasted a lifetime.

Even as the Peace Corps goes forward, it adapts to the times. But its foundation remains remarkably unchanged, and the principal mission of the Peace Corps is to promote global peace and friendship. And I would submit that if there was ever a time that we needed to advance the ideal of peace and friendship, promote cross-cultural understanding of people throughout the world, and promoting an understanding of Americans, that time is now.

Volunteers of all walks of life have gone on to great careers after Peace Corps service: members of Congress; governors like Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Governor Robert Taft of Ohio; Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut; and House members Chris Shays, Congressman Thomas Petri, Jim Walsh, Congressman Mike Honda and Congressman Sam Farr of California. Currently returned Peace Corps volunteers serve as ambassadors in countries ranging from Poland to South Africa to Bolivia. And according to the Foreign Service Institute, returned Peace Corps volunteers comprise 25 percent of U.S. Foreign Service officers. So this is one of the dividends that perhaps is not mentioned often, but is also a dividend for America because we have produced some tremendously successful foreign service officers, and men and women who are doing great work overseas. And of course, in the ranks of journalists we have people like Chris Matthews, who served in Swaziland; Alberto Ibarguen, who is the publisher of the Miami Herald; Al Kamen of The Washington Post; Maureen Orth, who has served in -- as a volunteer in Colombia.

So, ladies and gentlemen, these are good times for the Peace Corps. Americans are working, and we are now in 71 countries today with over 7,500 volunteers. And to provide some basics, volunteers are young; they are seniors. They are single; they are married. They are technical school or college graduates. They are African- Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic Americans. The opportunities abound, and Americans are responding. We have seen an increase in the number of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic Americans who are applying to service in the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps has evolved to new programs like information technology, business development, community development, and one of the most important programs that we have undertaken in many years, HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. Places like Botswana and Swaziland, where the work of the volunteers is dedicated entirely to HIV/AIDS education and prevention.

And a historic moment was achieved just a few days ago when the Peace Corps began its first program ever in Mexico. Interesting about Mexico so that you understand that volunteers are not just young people is that the average age of the volunteer going into Mexico in the first group is 45 years of age. Degrees range from doctorates in environmental science and engineering to MBAs to bachelor's in civil engineering.

So the fact of the matter is is that the Peace Corps is diversifying, it is changing, and we are being responsive to the conditions in the world today. We have now expanded our efforts in new countries. We've expanded in the areas of agriculture, in community development, in girls' youth groups and programs. And this afternoon I'd like to very briefly share with you some of the programs that we have embarked on in Muslim countries, programs that have been expanded.

And I can point to Mohammed A. Shekaki (sp), a Muslim American education volunteer, who served in the Muslim area of Cameroon from 2001 to 2002. And he said and I quote: "People in my community were surprised to learn I am an American and a Muslim. Some people would actually say, 'No, really, where are you from? You're not American.'"

"Some of the young Muslim boys there identified with me," he said. "And when I sat down and spoke to them, I could really see that they listened. So that was something that I found pretty special, and I'm glad that it worked out the way that it did."

I had the personal experience in Casablanca, when I was visiting Morocco, as I was leaving a mosque, and a young -- Moroccan young man stopped me, and he said, "Where are you from?"

I said, "I'm from the United States."

And he said, "Tell me about life in the United States. What's it like in your country?"

I described our country and the life and housing, and he wanted to know a lot of things. In mid-conversation, he stopped and he said to me, "You don't look like an American." And I said, "What do you mean, I don't look like an American? Why do you say I don't look like an American?" He said, "The color of your skin. You don't look like an American." And I said, "Well, my grandparents came from Mexico to the United States, pursuing dreams and opportunities."

And it gave me the opportunity to put a face on America that he did not understand, because there is this perception -- and I don't want to sound like I'm preaching to the choir, but there is a perception that Americans look a certain way, and when they don't look a certain way, you probably are not an American.

But volunteers are changing that, because volunteers come from all backgrounds, all ethnic origins. And I'm pleased to tell you that the new group that went to Mexico recently includes a volunteer who was born in Iran, who was born in Armenia, who was born in the Czech Republic, and was born in India.

And I was fascinated with the idea that here are individuals who were born in other countries, who are now American citizens, going overseas to be Peace Corps volunteers, to put a face on America that is unique and different in the 21st century.

People like Mohammed (sp), who I mentioned, eradicate and help eradicate the ignorance that feeds negativity and has had such profound implications. But the world needs to see the face of America as it really is, and in my view, there is no better organization to do that than the Peace Corps.

We've steadily increased volunteer numbers where Americans are serving. Currently 18 of our 71 countries are -- our programs are in predominantly Muslim countries, and these programs account for about 20 percent of our volunteers.

Last year we opened a new program in Azerbaijan, and we returned to Morocco, to Chad, Jordan and Albania, all predominantly Muslim countries. These countries, I believe, want to better understand America, and volunteers want to better understand their host countries and the people of those host countries.

Volunteers in Islamic countries work in all six Peace Corps sectors, implementing innovative ideas like showing farmers in Senegal how to maximize their cashew yields, demonstrating computer skills to students in Bangladesh, and creating after-school programs in the Gambia that combine sports with information, and preventing also, through education and prevention programs, the spread of HIV.

To provide a better picture of the importance of the Peace Corps, I'd like to mention just a couple of profiles of volunteers.

Amy Petriss (sp), who is assigned to a mountainous area of Morocco. She's assisting her community with the planting of some 3,500 olive trees, paid for with funds from USAID and the local High Atlas Foundation. And the aim is to improve income generation and create jobs within four to six years, to enhance natural environment as trees prevent soil erosion and desertification, and to promote environmental education.

In Uzbekistan, Daniel Ben (sp) helped the community of Ishtiksan (ph) build a new school. And after submitting a grant proposal, the community was awarded a grant in excess of $70,000 to build a new school. The New Lyceum was opened on September 1, 2004, and compared to the old school, the current school has increased capacity in many things -- heat, electricity, blackboards, large classrooms and enough desks and chairs for all of the students.

The girls youth group program in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Peace Corps volunteers, in collaboration with the Ministry of Womens Affairs, have established girls mentoring centers where young Mauritanian women and students come together to study for school and discuss issues of interest. And each year, the Peace Corps hosts a national annual girls education conference. The program not only helps to build the young girls' self-esteem, but also exposes these young women to female Mauritanian role models working in government, academia and other sectors. The approach to reaching out to young women in a culturally appropriate manner has been well received.

Comments and feedback and opportunities remain very, very positive. I'm often asked, "Are Americans willing to go overseas, given the turbulent times in which we live?" And I can say with great confidence that Americans are willing to serve. And today we have a list of 27 countries that have requested Peace Corps programs where programs do not exist today. So I like to say that I have supply and I have demand in the Peace Corps world. What we hope for is additional funding from Congress to be able to increase the number of volunteers going forward in the 21st century.

But the reality, and perhaps one of the most important elements of Peace Corps work is the ability and the opportunity to put a face on America, to promote and build that cross-cultural understanding that is so vital in our times. And Americans, young, middle-aged, retired, older, couples, are prepared and willing to serve.

First Lady Laura Bush said on "The Today Show" in 2002, and I quote, "I want to urge young people as they graduate from college, or older people who are in mid-career, to think about joining the Peace Corps and working in other countries to really help spread how important all these values are, how important we think" -- Americans think -- "the values of life and liberty and human rights are. And that's really what a Peace Corps volunteer does, besides helping educate people," she said.

As we embark on the 21st century and move forward, the vision of President John Kennedy was the right one. When I traveled for the first time as director of the Peace Corps, I had the task of going to Afghanistan. And I had a meeting with the Afghan deputy prime minister then and minister for women's affairs, Sima Samar, and I was going to talk about the Peace Corps and share the concept, the vision, the mission of the Peace Corps. And again mid-conversation she stopped me and she says, "Mr. Director, you don't have to tell me about the Peace Corps. It was the Peace Corps volunteers who taught me English the last time the Peace Corps was here in Afghanistan."

This conversation happened just weeks after military action had come to a halt in Kabul. And that moment reminded me, and I have reflected on it many, many times, that the work that Peace Corps volunteers have done over 43 years, both in Muslim and non-Muslim countries, is a living and a lasting legacy as men and women who have been taught by volunteers in their childhood, in their youth, have come to understand Americans a little better, have established friendships, stronger friendships and alliances, with some who have sustained them for a lifetime as many volunteers return to their villages and communities over decades after their service is complete.

So ladies and gentlemen, I will close my remarks by reporting to you today that the Peace Corps is at a 28-year high in the number of volunteers who are in service, and we have achieved that for one reason and one principal reason alone, and that is that Americans with strong spirits, with a determination and a desire to make a difference in the world are stepping up and stepping out to put a face on America.

Martin Luther King once said, and I quote, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life's most persistent and most urgent question is `What are you doing for others?'"

Well, in our time many Americans are asking themselves that question, and many are answering that question by volunteering to be Peace Corps volunteers in the 21st century.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. CHERRY: The first question of Director Vasquez is, what is the status of the Peace Corps operations in Russia?

MR. VASQUEZ: Just about two years ago, the program in Russia was closed. The Russian government communicated its desire to end the relationship between the government and Peace Corps. And the Peace Corps -- and those of you who have been volunteers and who have worked at the staff level know that part of the Peace Corps history has been that volunteers serve in countries where we are invited to serve, and that countries have the option, as does the Peace Corps, to cease programs or operations. And we were requested to close the program, and we complied as per our agreement with the Russian government.

MS. CHERRY: And this person asks you to tell us what the Peace Corps is doing in India. Was there any government cooperation on your task? And they point out that Mr. Carter (sp) was a great Peace Corps volunteer.

MR. VASQUEZ: We do not have a program in India at the present time. It is one of the countries that we are looking to, perhaps, in the future. But at the present time, we do not have a program.

The program in India did have a very rich history in terms of the numbers of volunteers, which literally numbered in the thousands, who served in that country. And so we look forward to the possibility of something in the future. But again, I go back to the issue of funding as being the principal obstacle to responding to those countries that have requested programs.

I might add that, of the 27 countries that have requested programs, about 13 of those countries are Muslim countries. And so we continue to have great interest across the board.

MS. CHERRY: And about that, this person asks, it seems like you are saying that there are about 1,500 Peace Corps volunteers in Muslim countries. What kind of funding increase would you need to triple that, and how long would it take?

MR. VASQUEZ: We requested $401 million this year from Congress to be able to embark on an expansion. President Bush a couple of years ago proposed the doubling of the Peace Corps, from 7 (thousand) to 14,000. That proposal was made. We sought the funding from Congress. We were not able to achieve full funding. So we have had not to necessarily scale back, because we've increased the number of volunteers, but we have not been able to grow at the pace or at the levels that we would like to.

And I believe that Americans have demonstrated a willingness to serve in the Peace Corps. Our recruiting and our applications, for example, this year are up, so far this year, 16 percent over last year. So Americans continue to apply in record numbers. Again, older Americans are applying in record numbers, couples in the Peace Corps. People of color are applying and serving in record numbers. And so we have a very, very significant opportunity, but it has been dollars that have stood in the way.

We evaluate our resources on a country-by-country basis, and so for us the opportunity to grow programs in-country is based principally on program opportunities, the quality of the experience for the volunteer -- and this is for countries across the board -- and third is of course the safety and security component, to ensure that countries that serve as Peace Corps countries are places where volunteers can do their work safely and securely and have the fulfillment of a quality experience.

MS. CHERRY: A high percentage of volunteers in difficult venues, such as West Africa, fail to complete their training or their two-year tours. Can't the Peace Corps do a better job of training to weed out those who lack the strong commitment needed to serve?

MR. VASQUEZ: The process of selection -- the selection process for Peace Corps volunteers is a very diligent and very thorough process. It is one that can require -- nowadays we strive for about a six-month window from the time that someone applies to the time that they're invited to serve. Volunteers -- as opposed to the old process, which some of you may remember in the audience who served, where training used to occur here in the United States, that training is now done in-country overseas so that the trainee has the opportunity to start experiencing the culture, the language, making the adjustments. And we strive then to ensure that the volunteer has the training, the understanding of projects and programming so that we keep our termination or our early termination rates, as we call them, to an absolute minimum.

But the fact of the matter is, and to be candid here, is that I tell trainees and nominees and interested people that the Peace Corps is an opportunity that requires physical and mental and social agility. That is to say that if you are an applicant and you are looking for a cookie-cutter job that's nicely packaged in a nice box with a little bow wrapped around it and is waiting for you in your host country, the Peace Corps is probably not for you, because there are challenges and there are difficulties. And we do as much as we can to establish quality programming, quality training, but once you are in the field, and those who have served know what I'm talking about, you have to become somewhat self-reliant; you have to be a self-starter; you have to be willing to take on responsibilities that you may have been unaccustomed to. But I will tell you that many volunteers have told me that some of the highest and most significant gratification comes from some of the toughest countries in the Peace Corps. And volunteers enjoy that experience and the tough challenges. So it is an ongoing opportunity that we face of improving our programs and obviously improving our retention rate.

MS. CHERRY: The Peace Corps has been in some countries for more than 40 years where volunteers still work on providing very basic health and other services. Is there any feel of frustration at not having made more progress in overcoming such basic needs in poor countries?

MR. VASQUEZ: I think the Peace Corps volunteer recognizes that once they have an opportunity to complete their training, they have an understanding of the country, they have an understanding of (where ?) the country evolves. And I think that -- I sense very little frustration in the context of the longer look at a country where we've been in for 40 years. I think what volunteers look at is the immediate opportunity to make an impact, to leave a lasting legacy in a community, to make a community independent, self-reliant. And that's what we strive for is that programs that we undertake are programs that have sustainability, so once a volunteer completes his or her service, there is an opportunity for a community to continue that which was established. And we've had great success in that regard.

And we face challenges, but new opportunities. Countries evolve. The information technology, the evolution of technology has presented new opportunities for Peace Corps in countries where we've been for 40 years, but technology has now evolved to the level in -- as an example, Mauritania, where I witnessed a program that volunteers are involved in where training -- computer training and technology training is made available to a community that would not have had it otherwise. And that's an evolution, notwithstanding the fact that we've been in that country for some time.

MS. CHERRY: What is the Peace Corps doing in the country of Armenia, which is a Christian country surrounded by Muslim countries?

MR. VASQUEZ: The program in Armenia has been incredibly successful. It is a program where the country has extended great hospitality. Volunteers are having great effects in the area of education, in the area of health education, community development, youth development.

One of the most moving moments that I've had as director of the Peace Corps was visiting a rural radio and television station in the second largest city in Armenia. And as we were getting ready to leave, the owner of the station said to -- first invited me to stay and have some refreshments. I was late on schedule but, you know, he was persistent, and I'm glad he was. And so I sat down and had refreshments. And he said to me, "When I get enough money, I am going to build a bust in front of my building in honor of Eric Pacific (sp)."

"Well, who's Eric Pacific (sp)?"

He said, "Eric Pacific (sp) is the Peace Corps volunteer who helped me build this radio and television station. And this station is now used for education and information for the Armenian people. And during some of the great earthquakes that have occurred in Armenia, that have devastated the country, radio has become a vital way of communicating public information and education." And he said, "And it was Eric who helped me put this station together, a bit primitive, but it worked and it served a positive purpose in the country and in the community."

And that is an example of what I talk about legacy, leaving sustainable development in country, and it has now probably resulted in perhaps saving lives, enhancing the level of understanding and education in that country, and Armenia has been a very successful program for the Peace Corps.

MS. CHERRY: Do Muslim countries that receive Peace Corps assistance allow Peace Corps staff to wear Western clothing, like shorts, or jewelry, like crosses if they are Christian, or have Christian or Jewish services?

MR. VASQUEZ: Those are measured on a country-by-country basis. We rely on our country staff, our country director, to provide guidance to the volunteers as to the appropriate attire, conduct. But one of the things that is most important, and it's fundamental to the Peace Corps, is that volunteers are encouraged and are tasked with the following, and that is to respect, to appreciate the culture, the traditions and the values of the host country.

Former President Mejia of the Dominican Republican once said to me, "What I really love about the Peace Corps volunteer is that the Peace Corps volunteers respect my people. They respect our country, our values and our traditions." And that is something that we have observed, sustained, encouraged volunteers to do, because it's the right thing to do. It is a positive relationship, it's a collaboration, and part of that is the mutual respect that needs to exist.

MS. CHERRY: Two questions. The first is, is the Peace Corps doing enough to ensure the safety and security of volunteers, and is there any more that can be done? And also, if a prospective volunteer is worried about terrorism, can they decline to go to a particular country?

MR. VASQUEZ: We have undertaken some major reforms in the way that we manage safety and security at the Peace Corps. I suspect that those of you who served some years ago, if you came back to serve in the Peace Corps today, you would note the difference. It's substantial. It's significant. But we do so because we believe it is important to maintain the vigilance of safety and security, whether it's Guatemala or it is Belize or it is the Philippines. We have systems, processes and programs in place and encourage the volunteers to put into practice a conduct, behavior, personal habits and things in place where they live, where they work, to ensure that they achieve a safe and secure experience.

So we do everything that is within our capacity to create optimum conditions for a volunteer to have a safe and secure experience. And I think the record of the Peace Corps is quite remarkable when you consider the number of volunteers who have served over 43 years, the countries in which they have served. And frankly, I've had many a volunteer who has said to me, "You know, I feel safer in my village in my country than I do back home in the United States." And that's quite a commentary about the hospitality, but also the environment and the quality of the host families and countries in which they serve.

We work with placing volunteers so that it is a safe and fulfilling experience. We work with them when it comes to placement, where their interests, our interests, our needs, and we try to create -- in terms of the second question about volunteers worried about terrorism, can they go to a particular country -- our placement folks at Peace Corps work with the applicant to try to find a suitable placement for the volunteer where issues are raised.

MS. CHERRY: The Peace Corps used to send volunteers to South Korea, but that country has become so prosperous that they are no longer needed. How many other countries once served by the Peace Corps are deemed to no longer require its assistance?

MR. VASQUEZ: It is on a country-by-country basis that we evaluate a country, both the program effectiveness, the safety and security, the ability of volunteers to do productive and meaningful work. So we evaluate countries from time to time to see and put a qualitative analysis on programs, and then make determinations of where programs should be sustained, where countries have advanced economically and otherwise, resulting in perhaps the shifting of resources from one country to another. That is a process that the Peace Corps has engineered and has worked with for a number of years, but it's an ongoing process. If I understand the question correctly.

And so we continue to evaluate, but we also look at countries, as we expand, on the basis of where can we be effective. People ask, "Well, how do you prioritize the countries that request programs?" We look at a number of areas: program, safety, security, access to health facilities, support, and infrastructure for the volunteers are all key components of countries where we work and countries where we contemplate or consider establishing programs.

MS. CHERRY: This questioner says, "I was an older volunteer, beginning my service at age 44. I was struck by the youth of many staff members and felt that this resulted from the five-year rule; one can only, with some exceptions, work for Peace Corps for that time period. Does this rule still apply? And what is your opinion of it?"

MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you for that question. (Laughter.) The rule still does apply. The Peace Corps is unique as a federal agency in that it has a five-year rule. Your term of service -- and there is opportunity for extensions -- but principally, it is five years of service as a Peace Corps staff person. And it still does apply.

There is increasing discussion, both on the Hill, and I have some concerns about the five-year rule in that there are upsides and there are downsides. Perhaps the greatest downside is the loss of institutional memory and continuity that occurs when you have term limits, so to speak, on staffers and their tenure at Peace Corps. And so we are evaluating -- and in fact, Congress has authorized the director of the Peace Corps to grant exemptions from the five-year rule to positions within the Peace Corps that relate to safety and security. And the purpose of that and the spirit of that authorization and that legislation is to give the director of the Peace Corps the latitude to develop and to retain essential personnel or positions that are involved in safety and security. So we are moving to evaluate, to better understand how the five-year rule serves a positive and sometimes serves in a negative, and we want to look at that and continue looking at it and expanding some horizons in that regard. But the five-year rule still remains, but it's under study.

MS. CHERRY: What percentage of return Peace Corps volunteers become teachers? With a growing need for more teachers, isn't this a key social benefit for your program?

MR. VASQUEZ: I don't have a specific percentage or number of return Peace Corps volunteers who come back and become teachers. With 135,000 -- I'm told about 135,000 return Peace Corps volunteers who are living, we try to do as much as we can to track careers and what they're doing in life. But I will tell you that there are states where having been a Peace Corps teacher counts as experience when applying for a teaching position. I know in the state of California, for example, the two years of service as a teacher in Peace Corps count when you compete for a position out in California. I know because I sign the letters that validate the service of a teacher in the Peace Corps.

Teachers have become great recruiters for Peace Corps. There are many, many school teachers -- professors, high school, middle school, elementary -- who talk about their Peace Corps experience, share the experience in the classroom. And I know because when I travel, and I've been to 35 countries during my tenure, I've asked volunteers, where did you get the Peace Corps bug? And time and time again, the most frequently mentioned contact is a school teacher in high school or elementary school who shared the Peace Corps experience -- planted that seed in that child, that young man, young woman's mind, and once they completed college resurrected that interest and pursued Peace Corps service. So teachers are a tremendous asset to our recruitment efforts.

MS. CHERRY: Which state or cities produce the most Peace Corp volunteers?

MR. VASQUEZ: Well, Dena, historically, the state of California. In fact, I think it's 23,000 over 43 years. I just was looking at the chart just a couple of days ago, and California, Texas, New York -- for obvious reasons, states with large populations. But there are unique places like Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota -- small states that have produced large percentages of Peace Corps volunteers. And I think the University of Wisconsin continues to be the number one campus -- large campus in the Peace Corps world that produces the largest number of volunteers. And so they continue to be the number one campus.

But I will tell you that amongst university and college campuses, it has become very competitive, because the big schools want to be in that top 25. Every year we recognize the top 25 big schools who produce volunteers in the United States, and then the small mid-size colleges and universities. And the top 25 big schools and universities have become very, very competitive.

Q This person says, when I applied for Peace Corps in 1988 my application was held up for quite a few months due to my father's 36- year career in the CIA. Do you support such scrutiny, and if so, why?

MR. VASQUEZ: We have always ensured that the Peace Corps maintain its independence, that we protect any perception or view that the Peace Corps is involved in any other activities because it is important for us to maintain the independence of the volunteer and the Peace Corps, to ensure that our processes are very diligent in evaluating the suitability, the background, the history, the knowledge of individuals, men and women who apply for service in the Peace Corps. It is very, very important for us to do that, and sometimes the delays can be for a variety of reasons, everything from background to the inability or tardiness of applicants to provide medical records. As I look at our medical director here, many, many times volunteers or applicants complain that "my process is taking too long. Why are you questioning my background?" Because at the end of the day we want to have the best and the brightest serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps, and it requires us to be very, very deliberate, very diligent in what we do.

But let me just be real clear about something, and that is that the Peace Corps volunteers who serve in the Peace Corps are there in- country to train men and women in their host countries, to promote cross-cultural understanding, to put a face on America, and to learn about their host country and bring that experience home. That is the limit, that is the purpose, and that is the scope of Peace Corps service. That is entirely the scope of Peace Corps service.

MS. CHERRY: Some volunteers have served in very hazardous conditions, even in war zones. Do you think those who have given such service deserve special recognition, perhaps a service medal of some kind?

MR. VASQUEZ: That's an interesting question. It's interesting because I would find it very difficult to try to render judgment on an -- on establishing an index of difficulty, and based on some form of an index determine that one volunteer deserves recognition over another.

Let me tell you that we have volunteers who serve in the Peace Corps who have disabilities, who have physical challenges, who exert great energy and great effort to serve in the Peace Corps. And there are others who live in areas where the environmental conditions are challenging and are difficult. But I don't think you can put a measure on one volunteer having a greater hardship over another because every volunteer faces challenges and difficulties. Everything from environmental issues in terms of climate, in terms of housing, in terms of remoteness to contracting infections and some of the illnesses that volunteers contract during their service.

So there's all kinds of elements of difficulty, and I think that every volunteer -- every volunteer in the Peace Corps is unique and special in my view. And I like to say that the reason we don't pay a salary to Peace Corps volunteers is because they are priceless. (Laughter, applause.)

MS. CHERRY: In October 2003, you announced that you would resign as Peace Corps director, but you changed your mind. Can you explain?

MR. VASQUEZ: When I expressed a desire to make a change, it came about as a result of a -- of a family health situation that emerged within my immediate family that today continues to be a formidable challenge for a member of my family. And in further discussions with family and coupled with the deep passion that I have for this work -- and I will tell you that I've been blessed to have a lot of great jobs in my career and I've had some really great jobs, but this is the best job that I've ever had in my life. It is fulfilling, it is gratifying.

My father always taught me that before you could become a leader, you needed to know how to be a servant. And the Peace Crops has helped me understand that on a much grander scale. And so the opportunity, then, to be able to stay here and to continue the service to my country, to serve the president of the United States, was compelling, persuasive, and I'm delighted that I did, because since that time, we have been able to achieve some new milestones, some historic highs in advancing the mission and the purpose of the Peace Corps. Because the beauty of serving as director of the Peace Corps is that it's not about the director, it really isn't, it's about the Peace Corps. It's about what you leave as a legacy not for yourself, but what you leave for the world and what you leave for America, for the United States. And for all those who have served, I must tell you that I consider it a high privilege, because I have met some of the best, some of the brightest and some of the finest Americans I have ever known in Peace Corps service, and I count it a high honor to continue my service alongside with the volunteers.

MS. CHERRY: What do you see as the greatest challenge in the future for the Peace Corps? Will it ever be so successful that it is no longer needed?

MR. VASQUEZ: I hope and pray for a day when the service of the Peace Corps would no longer be needed; that the world would achieve the total eradication, elimination of HIV/AIDS, poverty, disease, and all that goes on in the world today. But until that time, we have a tremendous window of opportunity to make an impact, to make a difference in people's lives.

I was in Botswana just a few weeks ago, and I had one of the most remarkable experiences I think any Peace Corps director could have. I met Peace Corps volunteers who were born in Russia, Israel, Cape Verde, Liberia, and Nigeria. These are American citizens who were born in another country, who came to the United States, became U.S. citizens and are now Peace Corps volunteers serving overseas in the United States Peace Corps. And I will tell you, it took my breath away to meet these young volunteers and to think this is what is amazing about the Peace Corps, that people who are born elsewhere would come to the United States and then go overseas to put a unique face on America; to be able to talk about being born in Russia, and then coming to the United States, and then going overseas to a country like Botswana. Tremendous, tremendous impact.

So, there will be great opportunities for the Peace Corps in the future. And as the world evolves, we will also evolve. And I believe that's why the Peace Corps is uniquely positioned in the 21st century, because if there was ever a time that we needed to promote peace, understanding and friendship between our country and countries of the world, the time is now.

MS. CHERRY: That said, who do you think benefits more from Peace Corps service, the host country or the United States?

MR. VASQUEZ: First, I think the volunteer does. I think the volunteer gains a priceless experience and an opportunity to understand a foreign country, the culture, the values, the traditions of that country, and then be able to bring it home. And we say you're a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, but you're a return Peace Corps volunteer for a lifetime, because after that volunteer serves, he or she is in a unique position to put a face on Mauritania and be able to share with American audiences what life is like in Mauritania or Costa Rica or Guatemala or Paraguay, and to be able to share that with communities and colleges and universities and students, and so on, is a unique opportunity.

As to the benefit to the United States and the host country, it is a mutual benefit, because at the end of the day, if we can promote better understanding, everyone wins.

I saw a large poster as I was traveling not long ago. It was a picture of the Earth taken from a space shuttle, I believe it was, or a satellite, and it was just the Earth, and beneath, the caption said, "Our Home Address." I thought, you know, that's the kind of reminder that we need on a daily basis. We all live here and we all need to strive and work to make the world a better place, because it is our home address.

MS. CHERRY: Director Vasquez, I'd like to thank you for coming today. And I'd like to do so by presenting to you this Certificate of Appreciation for coming and sharing your vision of this agency with us here today.

MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you very much.

MS. CHERRY: And in a peace offering, I would like to present you with the coveted National Press Club mug. Thank you very much

MR. VASQUEZ: Well, thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. CHERRY: And for our last question. We've been told that your education was your mother's top priority and she had a unique way of encouraging you to study. Could you please elaborate?

MR. VASQUEZ: I don't know if I should put her on the spot, but I will. My mother who is a tremendously strong woman and who is a major influence in my life. I am the first college graduate in the history of my family. And I really appreciate the form that my mother used to raise us, because we have a 25-year-old son who's graduated from college, and we use modern-day techniques. We use persuasion, dollars, gifts, a little mediation, arbitration, intervention, self- help books, tapes, everything that -- you know, parenting, the whole nine yards. We use those techniques.

But my mother, who never graduated from high school but had a determined sense that we were going to achieve something good in life, and the way we were going to do it was to get an education, she was not into self-help books or tapes or psychology. She was not even into negotiation or arbitration or mediation. When we didn't want to do homework, she just simply -- and they were migrant farm workers, I might add -- she just went out into the yard and broke a branch off of a tree and took the leaves off and came at us.

And someone said, "It sounds to me like you were an abused child." And I said, "No, I was a highly motivated child." (Laughter.) My mother's priorities were my instant priorities.

So you can imagine her pride and joy when I became the first in my family to graduate from college, and even more so to go on to become the director of the Peace Corps. My grandparents came to this country from Mexico. And I suspect that if they were alive today, they would just be astounded -- proud, I suspect, but astounded at the thought that their grandson is director of the Peace Corps. But that's what makes this nation a great nation, because there is opportunity for all of us who wish to pursue and realize our dreams.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. CHERRY: Director Vasquez, thank you so much for coming here today. And I have to confess that many members of MY family were raised on the "twig method" of educational motivation as well. (Laughter.)

I'd also like to thank National Press Club staff members Melinda Cooke, Pat Nelson, Jo Anne Booze, Melanie Abdow and Howard Rothman for organizing today's lunch. And thanks to the National Press Club Library for their research.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we are adjourned. (Applause.) #### END

When this story was posted in November 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

Your vote makes a difference Your vote makes a difference
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RPCV Carl Pope says the key to winning this election is not swaying undecided voters, but persuading those already willing to vote for your candidate to actually go to the polls.

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Story Source: National Press Club

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Peace Corps Directors - Vasquez; Journalism



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