The Peace Corps at 50: A Legacy of Public Service


Op-ed, October 21, 2010

On October 14, 1960, a young candidate for president arrived at the University of Michigan and delivered an impromptu speech that would ignite the signature service movement of our times. It was late—nearly 2 a.m.—but roughly 5,000 eager students converged on the student union to hear John F. Kennedy.

His speech lasted just a few minutes and didn’t use the soaring rhetoric that would later draw generations of Americans into public service. But in challenging young Americans to delay their future careers and instead volunteer in developing countries, Kennedy unknowingly launched a grand experiment that would change the world – and our country.

Kennedy asked whether students were willing to contribute to an international effort “far greater than we have ever made in the past?” It took only days for more than 1,000 students to sign a petition volunteering to serve – an unequivocal response that showed Kennedy he had unleashed a reservoir of enthusiasm and energy. Within weeks of becoming president, he established the Peace Corps with the stroke of a pen.

Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, later asserted that the Peace Corps would have probably remained just an idea if it were not for the “spontaneous combustion” of Michigan students and faculty. Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans, including 2,400 Michigan alumni, have served in 139 countries around the world.

Although the Peace Corps was created in a different time, its mission to promote world peace and friendship is unchanged. It is as fully relevant to today’s world as when JFK electrified students with a revolutionary idea to train and develop our nation’s next generation of public service leaders.

And the demand for those leaders to serve in vulnerable overseas communities only grows. This past year alone, the Peace Corps opened new programs in Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Colombia. We continue to value the legacy of volunteer initiatives as we face complex global challenges: poverty, disease, famine, food security, and illiteracy, often exacerbated by climate change, government instability, and natural disasters. Thousands of volunteers work with local communities in the far corners of the world as grassroots educators and leaders in public health awareness and HIV/AIDS programs, small business development, sustainable environmental practices, agriculture initiatives, and women’s empowerment issues. They meet these challenges with innovation, creativity, determination and compassion.

As much as it has improved other nations, the Peace Corps changed America, too. It is the model for service programs that inspire today’s college students – programs such as Teach for America, America Reads and Americorps. At the University of Michigan, more than 80 percent of students graduate having performed community service. This willingness to give back is a shared value among today’s young people, with the Corporation for National and Community Service estimating that more than 3 million college students volunteered more than 300 million hours in 2009.

JFK’s 1960 appearance at Michigan established a fundamental link between colleges and universities and the public service movement. In preparing the next generation of volunteers, higher education gives students the necessary skills and knowledge to address today’s challenges, and instills an appreciation of different cultures. The world is the college campus of today, and students demand to understand it. That education continues outside of the classroom, with study abroad, faculty exchange programs, and service -learning that expand the cultural competency of today’s college graduates.

The Peace Corps was a grand experiment that continues to capture the imagination of Americans, with nearly 9,000 volunteers serving in 77 countries around the world. It is rooted in an idealism that for 50 years has transformed both Americans and the global communities they serve, and is growing with the support of another young president committed to expanding public service opportunities.

John F. Kennedy challenged Peace Corps volunteers. “The life,” he said, “will not be easy, but it will be rich and satisfying.” At this historic anniversary, we ask Americans to respond anew to President Kennedy’s visionary challenge by supporting and participating in more public service opportunities both at home and abroad.

Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan and Aaron S. Williams is director of the Peace Corps.