June 1, 2002 - PCOL Exclusive: The Impact of the Peace Corps

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The Impact of the Peace Corps

Read and comment on this speech given by Liberia RPCV and NPCA Board Member Angene H. Wilson on the Impact of the Peace Corps at:

The Impact of the Peace Corps*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

The Impact of the Peace Corps

Last weekend we hosted at our home in Kentucky a Liberian woman whom we had not seen since she was our student when we were Peace Corps Volunteer teachers at Suehn Industrial Academy 40 years ago. She is the current president of the Suehn Association, was an assistant minister of trade in the Liberian government in the 1980’s traveling the world, and escaped with two children from the Liberian civil war to the United States in 1992. The Suehn Association had given us a plaque in 1994 recognizing our service as Peace Corps Volunteers, but Joetta’s memories were more personal. She talked about our new methods of teaching in English and history and even remembered the stories in a book entitled West African Narrative, still on our bookshelves. We looked at 40 year old slides of Suehn students, among us remembering many names and many good times -- learning about newly independent African countries, playing basketball, enjoying music.

Today I am going to talk mostly about the impact of Peace Corps on those of us who were volunteers, but we did have an impact on individuals in the countries where we served as well, as Joetta reminded us. Sometimes that is hard to remember when those countries are in turmoil. Besides Liberia, we lived in Sierra Leone and Fiji: Sierra Leone is just beginning to recover from a civil war and Fiji has had several coups in the last few years. My sister and brother-in-law were volunteers in Afghanistan.

Before I talk about the impact on us, let me share some general Peace Corps history and a little personal Peace Corps history: Many of you will recall that in his first inauguration speech, John F. Kennedy said: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can for the freedom of man.”

The Peace Corps was signed into being on March 1, 1961. Jack and I were college seniors and among the first 100 to apply. We stapled our applications together because our wedding was planned for August and we obviously wanted to go overseas together. A telegram awaited us when we returned from our honeymoon, stating that we were to report to Puerto Rico where we would be trained for the Philippines. Since I already had a contract for a teaching job and Jack had been accepted to graduate school, we asked for a delay until the next summer, and thus ended up in Pittsburgh in 1962 training for two months to be teachers in Liberia I for two years. Jack taught English, I taught history.

By the end of 1963, 7,300 volunteers were in the field, serving in 44 countries from Afghanistan to Uruguay. More than half of us were teachers. By June of 1966, more than 15,000 volunteers were in the field, the largest number in Peace Corps history. After two years at home to finish masters degrees, in October 1966 we returned to West Africa, to Sierra Leone where Jack was an associate director upcountry working with teachers, nurses, and agricultural workers. Our oldest daughter, Miatta, whose name has Gola (Liberia) and Mende (Sierra Leone) meanings, celebrated her first birthday in Sierra Leone. We were in Washington, DC in 1969 while Jack served on the Nigeria desk at Peace Corps and then went to Fiji in 1970 where Jack was Peace Corps Director. Fiji regained its independence in October of that year. Both Miatta and Cheryl, our second daughter, thrived in Fiji – we all returned 25 years later in 1997. I have been no help with advice to Cheryl on bringing up toddlers in the U.S. since we lived overseas when both girls were one to three – never snowsuits, never tv, always babysitting and household help when I was teaching.

When we returned to the states in 1972 we spent some time campaigning for the McGovern-Shriver ticket. Shriver had been the first Peace Corps director. (By the way, he is still vigorous in his 80’s and spoke to those of us who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial the weekend after September 11, our scheduled 40th anniversary. His message was: “Serve, serve, serve.”) In the 1970’s Peace Corps was put into ACTION that included Vista and several other service agencies. It became independent again in 1979. RPCVs were concerned when President Bush seemed to try to put Peace Corps under his new umbrella organization in January, but he has promised that it will remain an independent agency.

In the 1980’s Peace Corps was kept alive by a wonderful and our longest serving director, Loret Ruppe. The number of volunteers was about 5000 in those years. By 1980 two senators were RPCVs, Dodd of Connecticut and Tsongas of Massachusetts. Dodd is still a senator and there are five representatives who are RPCVs. Today other prominent RPCVs include the governor of Ohio and the presidents of Michigan State and Miami universities.

The 1990’s saw Peace Corps begin programs in many new countries. In 1990 the first volunteers left to service in Hungary and Poland. In 1992 small business volunteers went to work in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 1993 the first group of volunteers went to teach English in China. In 1997 the first group began service in South Africa, and by the end of 1998 the first volunteers were in new programs in Jordan and Bangladesh and Mozambique. Currently, there are 7000 volunteers in 70 countries. The aim is to raise the numbers again to 10,000 in the next few years.

More than 135,000 Americans have served in 135 countries over the past 40 years. The three goals of the Peace Corps remain the same: 1) to help the people of interested counties and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers; 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The National Peace Corps Association was founded in 1979 to help implement the third goal of Peace Corps. It is an alumni group for those who have served as volunteers and staff, with 135 affiliated groups and more than 10,000 members. We publish a magazine entitled WorldView; run a global education program that includes a biweekly listserv, a bimonthly newsletter, a website with lesson plans, and educator travel opportunities; work in peace/conflict resolution/bridge building; and advocate on international issues such AIDS. I am the board member who chairs the Global Education committee.

Now that you are acquainted with some basic history of the Peace Corps, I’d like to talk specifically about the impact of the Peace Corps on the volunteers. To do that, I’ll use a visual aid that I constructed when I was doing research for my book, The Meaning of International Experience for Schools. Some of that research was done through interviews of returned Peace Corps volunteers, some through interviews with teachers and students who had had international experience in other ways, for example, through travel, by being an immigrant, by being an exchange student.

How many of you have traveled outside the U.S.? To Mexico or Canada? To Europe? To the former USSR? To Latin America? To Asia? To the Middle East? To Africa? I hope as I go through these categories and give you Peace Corps and other examples, you may be able to think of examples of your own. Perhaps international experience has also impacted you.

Substantive Knowledge

My first category is Substantive Knowledge. I know a lot about African history because I had to learn about it to teach and because I found it fascinating. These two books I found in the Muslim bookstore in Monrovia, Liberia in 1962, and they started me on a quest to learn more that resulted in a masters in African Studies. Over the years I have regularly found opportunities to teach about Africa, sometimes whole courses, sometimes a demonstration unit, this year an African novel for summer reading for a fall methods course. We all learned a lot about “our” countries, from the independence day date to how rice is grown. Substantive knowledge isn’t necessarily “book” – for the traveler in Great Britain it also includes knowing how to use the Tube in London, for the traveler in Ecuador it includes knowing enough Spanish to give directions to the taxi driver.

Perceptual Understanding

My second category is Perceptual Understanding. Perceptual understanding includes open-mindedness, perspective consciousness, anticipation of complexity, resistance to stereotyping, inclination to empathize, non-chauvinism, and reflective thinking. This bilo from Fiji represents my open-mindedness to learning a new culture. I had to learn how to hold it, drink from it (even if it tasted like dishwater), and clap properly afterward. I also understand that I have a perspective and that there are different perspectives and cultural differences because I have lived with them. In importance of private property, for instance. I gave the young Fijian woman who worked for us a beautiful piece of cloth for a dress. After a few months, I didn’t see her wearing the dress and asked about it. A friend had admired it and she had passed it on. Or in the importance of time. Although the posted time for Sunday church service at the Suehn mission where we taught was 10:00, church usually began about 11:00. At one point we kidded our older daughter that we needed to send her back to West Africa because she was such a time conscious American. Time is not money in Africa and in some other parts of the world.

You, too, may have learned that when you are in a different culture, it’s important to have the ability to fail (for you will!) and a sense of humor (to laugh when you say “banana” in the language when you meant “afraid”), and a tolerance for ambiguity (because it’s not always clear exactly what is going on). We see what’s behind our own eyes with our own sunglasses, our own culture. Perception is so important, probably more important than facts in many situations – for instance, the Israeli-Palestinian situation today.

Personal Growth

My third category is Personal Growth. Personal growth typically includes independence, autonomy, and self-confidence. Some of my students now (I teach a course for our students who will student teach abroad) are amazed that we could not even talk on the telephone with our family and friends when we lived in Liberia 40 years ago. However, even if you can talk on the phone and email today, you are living in another country. Whether exchange student, student teacher abroad, or Peace Corps Volunteer, the returnee often says, “After this, I can do anything.” This kente stoll represents my self-confidence – I went to Ghana by myself five years ago for six months. The stoll was a special parting gift from my department at University College of Education of Winneba. When my husband read this speech, he added dependence and trust in the margin by this paragraph. Those are important attributes to add – in another country one is dependent on others and has to trust others who are not Americans. Our usual American arrogance gets knocked down a notch because we are in someone else’s country and need to learn and play by their rules.

Interpersonal Relationships

My fourth category is Interpersonal Relationships. I have already given an example from less than a week ago: Joetta’s visit. But Saturday afternoon she left a message that she arrived in Lexington while we were talking on the phone to our Liberian “son” from Suehn who lives in London, England. Another example: One of our Liberian colleagues in teaching in 1962-64 later married one of our students and went on to manage the farm at Cuttington College in Liberia. His son came to Berea College in Kentucky just before the civil war began in 1990 and lived with us for a year after college. What a marvel now to be able to be in email contact, too. About ten days ago, on one of our frequent all day awful rainy days recently, I sat at my computer and in that one day, was in email contact (back and forth) with folks in Lebanon, Switzerland, Ghana, and the U.S. to organize a day at a teacher institute in June. And the mail works as well. This week I sent the commencement program to my Ghanaian colleague when I was a Fulbright Scholar there in 1997. He finished his doctorate at UK last September so was not here to see his name and dissertation title in the program. For many of us, interpersonal relationships can be formed right here in the U.S. Last week I also exchanged email with a South African friend for whom we were host family when she studied at UK several years ago. Her email will represent interpersonal relationships.

Cultural Mediators

Finally, I argue, as a result of my research, that people with international experience often become cultural mediators. We, some of you, may be the ones who help a person having trouble with our English language in the airport because we have been in Greece when we don’t even recognize the letters! I am glad to take a couple visiting Kentucky from Portugal out to dinner, not because I have been to Portugal but because so many people in other countries have been kind to me. We get involved with refugee resettlement, with English as a Second Language teaching, with letter writing to members of Congress about international issues of all kinds. We become citizens of the world, as JFK said, thinking about what we can do together to make the world a better place.

The recipients of the Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service (hold up booklet), given by the National Peace Corps Association, are shining examples of what cultural mediators can do: the founder of a clinic in eastern Kentucky, the founder of Pedals for Progress whose organization has sent 46,000 bicycles to 23 countries, the former president of our Friends of Liberia organization who led fact-finding and peace-building missions to Liberia during the civil war.

The recipient of the 1991 award was Marjorie May who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She is now 92. She joined the Peace Corps at 65 after she retired from 45 years of teaching and went to Malaysia. (She isn’t the only older volunteer, by the way. Jimmy Carter’s mother was the most famous. Our pastor’s mother in law was in the first group to China. Our Liberia I group also included a 65 year old man, Ralph Rogers, whose son was later Peace Corps Director in India and whose granddaughter also became a volunteer. Our local returned group includes a couple who did two tours after 65.) But Marge May got her award for her service before and after the two years in Malaysia in the 1970’s. At the time she won her award she had inspired her friends, students, and other RPCVs to donate over $100,000 to build more than 93 schools overseas. They accomplished this task primarily by holding garage sales and flea markets. By 2001, she had spearheaded fundraising efforts through the Peace Corps partnership program that resulted in donations to 149 schools in 26 countries. What a model of lifetime service.

What is the impact of Peace Corps, of international experience more generally? I believe that impact is eloquently summed up in three of my favorite African proverbs. I have a copy of them for you if you wish.

The person who has not visited another village will think only her mother's cooking is sweet.

If you look only in one direction, your neck will be stiff.

The world is like a Mask dancing; you cannot see it well if you stand in one place.

About the Author

Angene H. Wilson is Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Kentucky where she has taught and supervised high school social studies teachers since 1975. She also teaches a preparatory course for those who student teach overseas and "Crossing Cultures in Schools" course for ESL certification. She taught social studies as a volunteer in Liberia 1 from 1962 to 1964 and later taught in teacher training colleges in Sierra Leone and Fiji before getting a doctorate from The Ohio State University in 1976. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Ghana in 1997.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Speaking Out; COS - Liberia



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