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WORLD FOCUS: William & Mary and the Peace Corps

June 26, 2014
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps, as a volunteer program run by the United States government. Later in that year, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act.

The program's purpose, declared the Congressional resolution, is "To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower."

Serving at that time as the foreign news editor of the Hungarian Daily in Cleveland, Ohio, I have interviewed scores of college students. I was impressed by their enthusiasm to embrace the program and their willingness to take part in it.

I was a bit skeptical, however, about the Peace Corps' future. In its first year of operation, the organization experienced some serious setbacks. A postcard from a volunteer in Nigeria, in which she described the situation there as "squalor and absolutely primitive conditions" was intercepted by Nigerian college students. They accused the volunteer of being an "American spy" and the Peace Corps as an instrument of "neocolonialism."

Nevertheless, within two years more than 7,300 volunteers were serving in 44 countries. This number increased to 15,000 by 1966.

According to Drew Stelljes, assistant vice president for Student Engagement and Leadership at the College of William & Mary, alumni at W&M have been volunteers in the Peace Corps from early on. Today, W&M remains one of the top producers of Peace Corps volunteers, with 30 alumni currently serving. Since the inception of the organization, 588 W&M alumni have served in the Peace Corps.

I asked Stelljes what made W&M such a fertile ground for producing Peace Corps volunteers.

"The College of William & Mary's history gives us a unique perspective on the significance of civic engagement and public service in democracy," he said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.

"Contemplating the accomplishments of the four United States presidents who have studied at the college," he continued, "we are well positioned to appreciate the importance of steady leadership. Many of our alumni have dedicated themselves to local communities all over the world by starting nonprofits that meet critical human needs."

Indicative of the engagement of W&M students in community service was the first campuswide assessment of service that was conducted in 1994.

"It found that our students had completed 34,500 hours of service in the previous year," Stelljes said. "In 2012, a similar study documented 320,000 hours of service in the previous year. About 75 percent of seniors reported participating in service activities on a weekly basis. Of this group, 90 percent expressed their intention to continue volunteering after graduation."

I was wondering about what the Peace Corps is looking for when recruiting volunteers.

"That an applicant's personality and life goals should be consistent with volunteer service under challenging conditions," Stelljes said. "Applicants should be willing to give of themselves. They should not have rigid or overly high expectations about overseas service, and joining the Peace Corps should relate to their past experiences and future plans."

There are many other requirements that make a volunteer suitable for service overseas, Stelljes noted. Above all, a candidate must have the ability to understand the experiences and problems of others.

"The Peace Corps wants candidates who've had experience with coping with stressful working and living situations, cope with separation from family and friends, and developing friends and a support system lacking familiar environment," Stelljes said.

Apparently, W&M alumni possess a rich mixture of ingredients that the Peace Corps is looking for in a recruit.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.



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