Director: Peace Corps’ ideals retain relevance

Lauren Pond

Serving in the Peace Corps has its difficulties, but it’s increasingly important in a needy world, Peace Corps National Director Gaddi H. Vasquez told a Northwestern audience Tuesday.

“Here we sit today in 2005, realizing that if there was ever a time and place where we needed to be promoting global peace and friendship, it is now and it is today, ” Vasquez said.

Vasquez explained the history and purpose of the organization to an audience of 60 gathered in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum. The speech was co-sponsored by the International Studies Program, Hispanic/Latino Student Affairs, Northwestern Community Development Corps and University Career Services.

The Peace Corps, founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, sends volunteers to 72 countries to help in education, agriculture and promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The program’s goals are to provide countries with trained men and women, to promote understanding of Americans and to bring back knowledge of other cultures, Vasquez said. Of the nearly 8,000 volunteers participating this year, 31 are NU alumni.

The Peace Corps allows volunteers to change the world and puts a new face on the United States, Vasquez said. The program is at the highest number of volunteers in 29 years, he said.

“(The Peace Corps involves) Americans like you and me, Americans … who have looked at things in the world and decided that they are not content to be spectators, but want to be participants in helping shape a message and creating a face of America,” Vasquez said.

After a rigorous selection process, volunteers spend two years abroad in their assigned countries.

Though the experience can be isolating and volunteers may encounter a language barrier, overall the benefits outweigh the hardships, Vasquez said.

“You live there, you socialize, you eat with the people, you interact with them on a daily basis and you learn to build trust and confidence,” he said.

Living in areas without such necessities as running water helps volunteers integrate into their communities, Vasquez said.

“There’s a sense of fulfillment, and the bonding that goes on between the volunteer and the community is very deep,” he said.

Training programs teach students about their country’s language, culture and value system, Vasquez said. They also have access to medical facilities.

“We equip you with the knowledge you need to be a successful volunteer,” he said.

The Peace Corps is a valuable experience with an important mission, Vasquez said.

The parent of one volunteer expressed concern that his son was losing weight, but the son chose to stay, Vasquez said.

“‘I don’t want to go home,'” he said, quoting the volunteer. “‘I have a job to do.'”

Weinberg and Communication senior Julia Vanderham said the speech was empowering.

“He was really eloquent, and I’m definitely more interested than I was when I came in,” she said.

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