This article is from the July 2011 issue of Spectator.
By Sara Epstein Moninger
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps as a way to help people in developing countries; within six months the first group of volunteers was deployed. Half a century—and more than 200,000 volunteers—later, little about the independent government agency has changed.
“The Peace Corps still follows the same core goals—we provide skilled workers to countries that request help, and work to promote world peace and understanding among the people served and also among Americans,” says Meredith Mahy Gall, The University of Iowa’s Peace Corps campus representative and a volunteer in Botswana from 1995 to 1997. “In Botswana, I found their views of Americans often to be informed by what was seen on TV shows such as Jerry Springer’s. Not only did I work to give them a better image of Americans, I, in turn, learned about Botswana and shared that knowledge with my friends and family.”
In early July, Peace Corps volunteers past and present converged on the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to commemorate the agency milestone—and the celebration will continue throughout the year.
Gall says participation in the Peace Corps is at a 40-year high, noting that 41 UI alumni currently are in the midst of their 27-month assignments, with some 603 UI alumni having served since 1961. Those figures don’t include current students, staff, or faculty who served but are not alumni. Spectator recently spoke with three members of the UI community who are returned volunteers and one who is presently serving to find out how the experience has shaped their lives.