Taking the Peace Corps Challenge
When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, some skeptics dismissed the new program as "Kennedy's Kiddie Korps." Others criticized it as an arm of America's "interventionist" foreign policy. But the agency has outlasted, and transcended, such critiques. Through budget battles and shifts in emphasis, the Peace Corps has proven to be remarkably resilient, perhaps because it embodies what one writer has called "American practical idealism," a deep-rooted belief in the power of our goodwill and grassroots resourcefulness, our ability to improve the world and win friends, one person at a time.
Since the first group of volunteers ventured abroad, more than 178,000 Americans have answered the call to take on "the toughest job you'll ever love," serving in 138 countries. The total includes 166 Kenyon alumni. It's an impressive number for a small school. In 2002, for example, sixteen Kenyon graduates joined the Peace Corps, a number surpassed by only twelve other small colleges in the country. And, as the eight profiles in this article demonstrate, Kenyon's involvement has spanned the decades, starting with the first generation of volunteers in the 1960s.
What do Kenyon's Peace Corps volunteers have in common? Why did they go? What did they accomplish?
One answer, perhaps, lies in a key premise underlying the agency: that peace is more than the absence of war. The late Loret Miller Ruppe, the longest-serving director in the agency's history, once wrote that the "real enemies" of people everywhere are "hunger, disease, poverty, and illiteracy." The Peace Corps combats those enemies with "America's most potent weapon--her people."
It's worth pointing out, as well, that of the three goals set forth in the agency's founding legislation, only one had to do with actually meeting needs in developing countries. The other two focused on promoting understanding--showing other people what Americans are really like; showing Americans, in turn, the lives of people beyond our ample borders.
The schools, water projects, and craft cooperatives may last or founder. But the volunteers leave a legacy that, like the Peace Corps itself, has exceptional resilience: friendship.
The Ethic of Volunteering
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