Esprit de Corps: Peace Corps information session featured President and Mrs. Higdon

Sadly, it’s often the case that promotional materials can do little to completely communicate what a program is all about. Arguably, an example of this critique could be seen in a video that opened last Thursday evening’s Peace Corps information session in Blaustein. In a six-minute sample of persuasive media at its boldest and best, a sweeping and triumphant soundtrack supplied a pleasant counterpoint to audio clips of John F. Kennedy’s voice proclaiming the countless merits of altruistic patriotism. All of this soaring, idealistic rhetoric (which was, I have to admit, actually very moving) culminated with footage of a Peace Corp volunteer decked out in the native regalia of her “host country,” kneeling down so as to more easily receive the embrace of a young local child.

Any accusations of one-sided propaganda aside, joining the Peace Corps certainly does demand an altruistic spirit and a sincere desire to “make the world a better place.” During her segment of the information session, Kathryn Fidler, the Peace Corps recruiter for southern New England and a Peace Corps alumna, emphasized the personality traits that are essential to an aspiring volunteer: “commitment to service, leadership, cultural sensitivity, flexibility, curiosity and dedication.”

Indeed, it might sound downright saintly to first spend nearly a year on an application process that is, according to Fidler, “legendary for being long and annoying,” then to participate in three months of intensive training, and finally to commit a full two years of your life to serious work in a country to which you have been assigned. But according to both President Leo and Mrs. Ann Higdon, who were Volunteers together in Malawi from 1968 to 1970, this assessment would be light-years away from a true picture of the Peace Corps experience.

Reflecting on the consequences of her service, Mrs. Higdon said, “You think you’re being so altruistic, but they give you so much more. Things that you assume to be one way—you can be very mistaken… You learn so much about what makes people good people, and it has nothing to do with material possessions. It’s really trying to figure out what it means to be in a different culture, how best to make people understand you and try to understand them.”

Members of the Peace Corps serve in one of several strategic capacities—health and HIV/AIDS, education, agriculture, environment, youth and community development, or business and information/communication technology—in countries around the world that have requested the presence of volunteers. Most (about 40%) will spend their time overseas in a teaching capacity, yet President and Mrs. Higdon, as well as Fidler, seem to think that it’s often the volunteers themselves who are taught by their supposed pupils.

President Higdon repeatedly called attention to the “very basic skills that I developed as a Peace Corps volunteer: having a much broader perspective, eliminating any preconceived notions, developing your cross-cultural fluency… You don’t truly appreciate a foreign culture until you’ve gone and lived there. Those were life skills.”

These skills, hard-won through challenge and uphill struggle, can sometimes be inaccessible in the industrialized, sheltered Western world, which partially explains the Peace Corps’ continuing reputation for a competitive selection process and a rigorous, rewarding service experience. Still, altruism is far from the only motivation to join up, for volunteers receive benefits and advantages upon return as far-ranging as the reduction of student loans, preferential treatment in the federal government’s hiring process, and even “transition funds” of $7,425, which they may spend however they like.

But disregarding whatever financial or career benefits may accrue as a result of service in the Corps, a sense of purpose and a desire to truly help people remain the most important criteria for selection as a volunteer. President Higdon mused that choosing to volunteer “makes a statement about who you are and your values. When you talk about the Peace Corps, it just automatically says something about what’s important to you.”

“Not everything is about dollars,” Mrs. Higdon added, as their entire audience of young idealists nodded in earnest agreement.

1 Comment

  1. Helen, do I detect a hint of bemused cynicism in your piece? Are you one of those worldly-wise folks who are far more sophisticated than the “young idealists” who join Peace Corps? Do you feel the need to point out the “propaganda” in the Peace Corps recruiting video? If so, good job!

    But from my perspective as a returned Peace Corps volunteer (and, if I may say so myself, a somewhat philosophically sophisticated individual — and college professor on the subject of international development), your cynicism is arguably misplaced.

    The technologies I taught as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa were wildly popular — and profitable — for local people. Many doubled or tripled their incomes in the course of a year, and were thus able to do things they couldn’t do before, like buy a bicycle or a radio, access medicine when malaria hit (as it often did), pay school fees for /all/ their children, even the girls! People’s “life chances” greatly improved. By any measure, my project was a great success (as were a number of secondary projects).

    And, of course, it was personally very rewarding to me as well. Where in America would I have had the chance to make such a dramatic impact in the lives of thousands of vulnerable people? When would I have had the chance to learn another language well, to experience another culture deeply, and to make friends I will have for life? As any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, you get as good as you give — and more. People adopt you, and teach you. They’re as proud of their culture as we are of ours — and as interested in telling Americans about it. Think that peasant farmers have nothing of real value to teach the educated foreign “expert”? Think again.

    This is the real genius of Peace Corps development model. Where many rural-development projects involve a few hours of conversation with villagers and some top-down (often unsustainable) intervention, Peace Corps is a long commitment to true cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. Peace Corps projects tend to be socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally appropriate and sustainable because they’re implemented in /partnership/ with the true experts in local culture and conditions: the local people. In many ways, Peace Corps is the gold standard for rural development.

    But what does America get for its investment (a relatively puny one, by the way — I once calculated that, at its peak, the Iraq war would have paid for the entire budget of the Peace Corps throughout its 51-year history in just a few days)? It gets effective foreign-service officers who have a far more in-depth appreciation for the nuances of cultural differences. It gets enlightened citizens of the world — an antidote to the parochialism that plagues America. It shows another side of America to the world — one not focused on unmanned drones and heavy handed military adventures. In short, it lets people see Americans close up, warts and all, as human beings, rather than as characters out of Rambo, Baywatch, or the Jerry Springer show (which is, alas, available via satellite to most of the world). And it trains young — and not so young — Americans to get along more effectively and humanely in an increasingly interconnected, international world.

    From my perspective, the organization provides impressive tangible benefits to the most vulnerable people in the world at very little cost. It improves the lives of millions and it improves the quality of political discourse in America.

    It’s a win-win.

    Is international development a complex undertaking philosophically? Certainly. Does it in itself have effects both good and bad? Of course. (You might be surprised to hear that PCVs actually talk about, and debate, this stuff ourselves.) But in the end, if you decide to invest several years of your life — between the long and involved application, grueling language and technical training, and two or three years in a village — in Peace Corps, you’ve generally come to a conclusion that the pros outweigh the cons.

    It may be “safer” to sit home and do nothing. It may even be easy to justify doing nothing. (“Peace Corps is just a vacation for yuppie liberal arts majors,” is one criticism I hear sometimes. All I can say is, if it’s a vacation you’re after a cheap flight to Cancun would be a better choice.) But in the end, doing nothing was not something that I could personally justify. Peace Corps isn’t for everyone, but it’s for someone. If you’re one of those people, it’s an incredibly rewarding, even life-changing experience — for you and for the people you meet.

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