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.