March 1st marks the 60 year anniversary of the United States Peace Corps. Over two generations ago, President John F. Kennedy asked idealistic young Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”On that historic day in March, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, sending 750 volunteers on a historic journey to 13 countries. Northwestern has certainly done its part as one of the top volunteer-producing universities in the country. Since the program’s inception, Northwestern has sent nearly 1000 volunteers to serve overseas in the Peace Corps.
I swore into the Peace Corps with my cohort of 37 in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, in 2016. During the ceremony, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa referred to us as “grassroots ambassadors,” a pretty accurate description of our mission. Now all the grassroots ambassadors are gone, as the Director of the Peace Corps Judy Olsen made the historic decision last March to recall all 7,000 volunteers in over 50 countries back to the United States due to the ever-increasing risks associated with COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic. This was the first time in the storied 60 year history of the Peace Corps that there have been no volunteers in the field. As I hope for a quick return of the volunteers into the field, it has become apparent that in a post-pandemic world, the U.S. Peace Corps will be needed more than ever.
During the pause in service, many volunteers have continued volunteering in their local communities, providing badly needed assistance to the frontline heroes in our hospital wards across the country. With the blessing of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the National Institute of Health, the newly formed National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network began training Peace Corps volunteers as contact tracers last October. Peace Corps volunteers also serve in the fields of education, trade and community development. The Peace Corps may very well be the best value for the taxpayer dollars. Volunteers only get a small monthly stipend over a two year period for all the good they bring into the world. To put this in a proper perspective, just one Northrop B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber costs 2.2 billion dollars for the military, while the whole annual budget of the entire Peace Corps is only 410 million dollars.
Early in 2017, during one of the many in-service conferences, I learned about the wonders of PEPFAR, or the U.S. President’s Plan for AIDS Relief. The State Department website touts the success of PEPFAR, which has saved 20 million lives, and has been crucial in preventing millions of HIV infections in over 50 countries. PEPFAR has also enabled 2.8 million babies to be born HIV-free to mothers living with HIV. Initiatives like PEPFAR, Girls Leading Our World and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” are just a few of initiatives sorely missed during the pandemic.
Idealism, optimism and the can-do spirit of the Peace Corps is needed now more than ever during these trying times. Anti-apartheid leader, freedom fighter and President of the Republic of South Africa Nelson Mandela is right in saying that, “a winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” Volunteers have always thrived in less than ideal conditions, answering the calls of the old tried and true adverts from yesteryear. My personal favorite, “we need someone with a good back, strong stomach, a level head and a big heart,” perfectly encapsulates the Peace Corps experience.
A big heart is central to the Peace Corps oath, “…I promise to share my culture with an open-heart and open-mind…” The Peace Corps mission is as simple as it is profound:world peace and friendship. They will provide a sense of purpose to thousands and provide the sensitivity sorely needed in a post-pandemic world. Happy birthday to the Peace Corps, I hope that in the very near future, they will soon recommit to a global reentry plan with a renewed cross-cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion for all.
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