Note: In addition to his work at the International and Area Studies Library, the author is also the Peace Corps Recruiter for the University of Illinois campus community. He served as a Volunteer in the Education sector from 2008 to 2010 in the Republic of Cabo Verde. Join Peace Corps at UIUC and the International & Area Studies Library from 3:00-4:30 on March 30, 2016 in the Main Library Room 106 for our “Peace Corps and the University” event.
Volunteer Mary McFall, 60, teaches dressmaking, math, and English at the National Women’s Training Centre in Madina, Ghana in 1980. Ghana was the first nation to receive Peace Corps Volunteers, starting in August 1961, five months after the agency was officially established. Source: Peace Corps Media Library.
When John F. Kennedy said the famous words “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” during his presidential inaugural address on January 20, 1961, the plans were already in place to put substance and resources behind such a call to action. Soon later, on March 1st of that year, the U.S. Peace Corps was signed into law via Executive Order 10924:
This year, the Peace Corps celebrates 55 years since that day. Now, over 140 countries have been served by over 220,000 Volunteers, all working to promote the three goals of this independent federal agency:
To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women;
To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served;
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Since its inception, many books have been written about the Peace Corps experience. Perhaps most well-known are those of the travel writer Paul Theroux. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works since he served as a Volunteer in the southern African nation of Malawi from 1963 to 1965. Theroux’s own Peace Corps story is a fascinating mix of adventure, political dissent, and humanitarianism.
The Ugly American, a novel by government insiders William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, was first published in 1958, when the seeds of the concept of international development support and “soft” diplomacy were just beginning to be sown in civil and political discourse. Contrary to what the title might seem to connote about U.S. hegemony and Americans’ bad behavior abroad, the eponymous “ugly American” of the story is in fact one of the few foreign nationals who integrates into the life of his adopted home, the fictional southeast Asian country of Sarkkan. His humility, goodwill, and skilled guidance in engineering allow him and his wife the opportunity to help their local community in a much more effective and sustainable fashion. This is contrasted with the more questionable approaches of the majority of other foreign workers in the region. Ideas such as Lederer’s and Burdick’s were integral to the earliest and most long-lasting principles of Peace Corps service.
John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man shows what can happen when a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) is tempted to use intimate knowledge of his host country for the benefit of an exploitative, for-profit endeavor after his service. The memoir offers a major caveat on the risks involved in international relations when large corporations are also interested players. This book also helps explain why the Peace Corps model may sometimes be viewed as suspicious by citizens of receiving nations.
If you’d like to know more about the Peace Corps, realities of service, how to apply, or any other related information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our Facebook page. The events below are also planned for the remainder of the Spring 2016 semester. All are welcome! Of particular note is the panel discussion on March 30th, “Peace Corps and the University,” which will bring together four University of Illinois faculty and staff members to discuss how their Peace Corps service led them to their current positions in various fields. This event is organized in collaboration with the International and Area Studies Library.