Peace Corps celebrates 45 years of service
|Top: President John T. Casteen III addresses attendants at the Peace Corps dinner. Middle: African jazz folksongs were performed at the dinner. Bottom: U.Va. alumni, all of whom were Peace Corps volunteers, share their experiences during a panel discussion.
By Ashley Edmonds
Namibia. Mozambique. The Philippines. Rich photographs of people and villages from these far-off places cover the walls of U.Va.’s Kaleidoscope Center for Cultural Fluency, telling the stories of the over 800 U.Va. alumni who have served in the U.S. Peace Corps. Festivities to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Peace Corps and to honor U.Va.’s role as the No. 1 producer of volunteers among mid-sized universities were held throughout the day on March 15, culminating in a reception and dinner in the Rotunda that brought together past and future Peace Corps members.
Earlier in the day, returned Peace Corps members shared memories and artifacts from their experiences in a panel discussion aimed at inspiring the next generation of Peace Corps volunteers. Representatives from Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America and the Caribbean were present.
“I’ve been out for 12 years and done some really amazing things, but something always brings me back to the two years that I spent in the Peace Corps,” said Ethan Taylor, a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama from 1993 to 1995.
“It’s like a fraternity or a sorority of which you’re automatically a member,” he said. “You always have a couch to sleep on, no questions asked.”
Returned volunteers answered questions from prospective volunteers about their adventures. They stressed the importance of enthusiasm and flexibility when joining the prestigious group.
“You create your own identity when you join the Peace Corps,” said Bob Vernon, a volunteer in Venezuela from 1971 to 1973.
“I have not heard of a single volunteer returning from duty who regretted the experience,” said Taylor. “There may be challenges, difficulties, frustrations, but no regrets.”
The panelists joined other former volunteers, honored guests and prospective volunteers awaiting their country assignments at a dinner in the Dome Room of the Rotunda that evening. Prior to the dinner, volunteers had a chance to mingle with one another, catching up with old friends and making new ones.
“You were in Jamaica?” exclaimed former volunteer Aharon Laufer to Mark Bellinger, a recently returned volunteer from Kingston. Laufer also spent his two years in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. While the two had never met, they immediately began sharing stories of experiences, places they had both been and people they had in common.
Laufer’s wife, Amy, also spent two years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica. “It’s amazing,” she said. “I haven’t talked about this stuff in years, and to be around people who know exactly where I was and what I was doing is incredible.”
President John T. Casteen III welcomed guests. “We admire very much the quality of mind and spirit exhibited by Peace Corps volunteers,” he said. Casteen honored the relevance of the Peace Corps’ mission and people to the dinner’s location, Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda and Academical Village. “The Peace Corps is education put to work.”
Dinner guests were treated to a performance by Africa Soul, featuring former U.Va. visiting music professor Heather Maxwell. The group performed African jazz folk songs with Peace Corps themes. African lyrics about mixing oral rehydration formula for children and getting vaccinations were fused with rich African rhythms. “Perhaps we should think of using music as a tool of the Peace Corps to spread the message of peace,” said Maxwell, herself a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mali.
U.Va. Diplomat-in-Residence Leonard Robinson introduced former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, the newly appointed director of the Miller Center for Public Affairs. Baliles expressed his admiration for the Peace Corps and his belief that all Peace Corps volunteers bring back to the Unites States a “well-founded understanding of other cultures.”
“They are a valuable resource,” he said.
Deputy Director of the Peace Corps Jody Olsen was the keynote speaker of the evening. A volunteer herself who served in Tunisia, Olsen recognized U.Va.’s contributions to the Peace Corps.
“My father loved Thomas Jefferson, so as I grew up, Jefferson always had a certain aura around him,” she said. “I feel so honored to be here at U.Va. and to recognize the culture of its faculty and students who have made such a commitment to service.”
Olsen outlined the Peace Corps of today, which represents a much broader face of America than ever before. Minorities and those over 50 are well represented as volunteers. Sixty percent of volunteers are now women, a number that was once reversed and weighted toward men.
Volunteers currently serving now number more than 7,800, the highest number of volunteers in 30 years.
“Since 9/11, the desire to show the world about America has added passion to those who want to serve,” said Olsen. “Peace Corps volunteers are cultural translators.”
Olsen concluded with the story of a Peace Corps couple that moved in with the crowded family of a poor young boy in Peru. That poor young boy became the president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, and he credits the couple with making him “who he is today.”
Olsen presented Vice Provost for International Affairs Leigh Grossman with a special plaque honoring U.Va. for its 45-year commitment to service in the Peace Corps.
“There is no sophisticated technology that will substitute for the warmth of the human heart,” said Olsen.