Aaron S. Williams
The Peace Corps will continue to meet the world’s challenges with innovation, creativity, determination and compassion. Aaron S. Williams is director of the Peace Corps. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the small town of Monte Plata, Dominican Republic, from 1967 to 1970.
Fifty years ago presidential candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan’s campus to deliver a campaign speech. It was late — nearly 2 a.m. — and the students were tired. But in Ann Arbor that cold October night Kennedy issued a daring challenge to the students:
“How many of you who are going to be doctors … are willing to spend your days in Ghana? How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” Kennedy asked the students.
Kennedy’s off-the-cuff speech lasted only a few minutes, but in that short time he described a vision for young Americans to serve their country by serving abroad. That vision lives on in the more than 200,000 Americans who have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 countries since 1961. And, while the world has changed significantly since the Peace Corps’ founding 50 years ago, the mission of promoting world peace and friendships remains the same.
Today’s volunteers meet the world’s challenges with innovation, creativity, determination and compassion. And they have tools unimagined when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s. I used to stay in touch with my mother by writing letters — yes, letters! — with real stamps and envelopes. I’d walk to the local post office and hope that my notes arrived to my family safely.
Today, Peace Corps volunteers have technology at their fingertips. They e-mail, Skype, blog, text and tweet, and volunteers who serve in some of the remotest parts of the world can communicate with family and friends in the United States. They are able to teach other Americans about the countries and cultures in which they serve long before they return to the United States.
Volunteers also use technology to bolster creativity in new ways. Last summer, Peace Corps volunteers in Namibia created a health education program geared toward teens and young adults. Volunteers used text messages to receive and respond to questions on health-related topics like birth control and HIV/AIDS prevention. In the first month alone, volunteers sent more than 1,000 text messages in response to inquiries from the young community members.
For so many who serve, their time in the Peace Corps influences everything else they go on to do. As one returned volunteer from Sierra Leone put it, “I can never repay the people of Sierra Leone, but I can take those lessons, that personal growth, that broadened perspective, and apply it to my work back here .... Any accomplishments that I might contribute, any difference that I might make in even the smallest sense ... will in some way be shaped by my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer.”
For me, like so many others, the Peace Corps was the beginning of everything. It was the door to the rest of my life.
When I applied to serve with the Peace Corps, it was the biggest risk I’d ever taken in my life. I worked in a small town in the Dominican Republic as a teacher’s trainer, helping 50 rural primary-school teachers earn their high school degrees. For two years, I visited the teachers in their communities on horseback, motorcycle, or by foot to help them apply new teaching methods. The teachers voluntarily attended all-day Saturday classes during the school year and gave up their summer vacations for even more training. They wanted to become better teachers, to access better opportunities, and I was determined to do everything in my power to help them succeed.
And what I took back when I returned to the United States was a belief in the power of unity and teamwork: That when we work together for a common goal, we can achieve magnificent things.
Volunteers return to the United States as global citizens, with leadership skills, language skills, technical skills, problem-solving skills, and cross-cultural insights that position them well for careers across fields and industries.
Although we’ve come a long way since President Kennedy’s 1960 speech, our journey is not complete. As long as there is suffering and strife in the world, we know that our work is not done.
I envision a Peace Corps that grows and adapts to the challenges of our time. I envision a Peace Corps that carries the torch of President Kennedy’s dream and is still going strong 50 years from now.
This towering task that is the Peace Corps still calls us to action. Let’s see what we can build together in the years to come.