By John Rex
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924 that established the Peace Corps. Six months later, Congress authorized this new program with passage of the Peace Corps Act, which states its purpose to be: “To promote world peace and friendship … and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.”
As a college senior in 1961, I was inspired by the idealism of our young president. Members of my generation were not simply “ugly Americans.” We could make a positive difference in the world.
So I joined, at the young age of 21, and found myself in the summer of 1962 in the chaos of a program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., along with more than 300 other mostly young Americans who were training to be the first Peace Corps volunteers sent to Ethiopia.
Those were amazing times, before Vietnam had overwhelmed the American psyche, when the Peace Corps was praised as being as American as apple pie and ice cream, to be shared with the world. We were “Kennedy’s kids,” both in a positive sense that we were “doing our part,” and in the negative opinion that we were naive and unprepared.
There was truth in both perspectives, but we were inspired by the amazing words of Sargent Shriver, first Peace Corps director and Kennedy’s brother-in-law, who spoke to our group while we were in training and who visited with us individually in our assigned posts overseas.
My assignment was to teach school in Debre Berhan, a small village about 80 miles northeast of Addis Ababa at an altitude of 9,000 feet. With 11 other young volunteers, I settled in for two years of living and working in a culture that, at that time, was little known in the rest of the world.
Those were amazing and challenging years that included a focus on simply living day-to-day in circumstances so different from those at home amidst customs, languages, religions, foods, seasons and challenges so very different from anything I had known before. Almost without exception, the Ethiopians we interacted with were gracious, warm and welcoming, and provided for us a sense of safety and acceptance – in spite of our “weird” American ways.
Before we went overseas, our training dealt vaguely with “culture shock,” the issues that arise when a person lands in a very different culture. In a strange sort of way, for me and for many of us, the culture shock we experienced coming home was even a greater challenge.
Having lived for two years apart from America, most of us had gained both a greater love and appreciation of America, and a perspective on how it is seen from abroad, especially when we are less than compassionate in our actions toward the rest of the world.
To this day, I wonder how much good I might have done for Ethiopia, but there is no doubt in my mind that Ethiopia did much good for me. I learned to see the United States and the world through different eyes, to some extent walking in the shoes (or bare feet) of “the other.”
I became a citizen of the world, between cultures, always advocating for the rights and well-being of every other citizen of the world, never the harsh arrogant rhetoric of “America first.”
Although you don’t hear very much about it these days, yes, there still is a Peace Corps, and, yes, there still are Americans willing to put their lives on the line to go out and help the rest of the world. My advice: Do it!