AU Peace Corps Symposium Offers Many Perspectives on the Purpose of Peace Corps Service

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22 March 2013 by ryandalton2013

Yesterday evening, I attended an event that—full disclosure—I had a hand in helping conceptualize and realize. (The real heroes of the event were various Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, staff at the AU library, Stephen Angelsmith, Leanne Dunsmore, and my good friend Bob Schleheuber.)


The event was AU’s Peace Corps Community Symposium that served as a sort of “ribbon-cutting” for the Peace Corps National Archive, which is being housed in Bender Library on campus. The name, or theme, of the event was “Waging Peace through a Lifetime of Service”. Peace Corps Volunteers of various backgrounds, who served on every continent, and worked in various sectors were invited to speak in brief five or so minute presentations about their service, what it meant to them, and what service on the whole means to them.


Many volunteered because they were looking for adventure. Many to understand how to live in a foreign setting and test their cross-cultural adaptation skills. Most went with the desire to build the capacity of host country nationals. One, however, spoke more directly: to combat poverty.


Congressman Sam Farr offered a very emotional story. It seemed to move the entire audience. It was a profoundly sad and tremendously courageous story. At first, he was rejected by Peace Corps due to inadequate language comprehension. He persevered and was eventually accepted a year later. During his service, his mother fell terribly ill with cancer. Once it became clear she would not survive, Peace Corps sent him home. After two weeks at her bedside, Peace Corps asked for his decision to return or to quit. His mother told him to continue his journey and his passion and go back. He did, and his mother died the day after he left.


Following her death, Congressman Farr’s father decided to send his daughters to visit his son as a way to keep the family’s spirit intact. Congressman Farr and his sisters spent some time in his small village. One day, while on horseback, one of Farr’s sisters was thrown from the horse and hit her head. She was transported by canoe to a hospital. It was determined that she had a concussion and that she would be alright. However, it was eventually discovered that it wasn’t simply a concussion. She suffered a massive hemorrhage and despite having a skilled surgeon flown into the hospital, she died mid-operation.


Despite all of his loss, Congressman Farr sees more than ever the importance of Peace Corps. Had the infrastructure been developed or the health systems been more advanced, his sister may not have died so tragically. It became his mission to promote the Peace Corps so as to reduce the possibility of such devastating, preventable loss from ever occurring to anyone again. He wanted to eliminate the sort of poverty that created the conditions for such possibilities for terrible loss.


He also stated that had Sargent Shriver and John F. Kennedy’s vision of 100,000 Volunteers been realized, the costly wars we have been engaged in over the last 10 years may have never happened. Furthermore, the tensions between other nations would probably be greatly reduced. He spoke specifically of Iran and that had we maintained the Peace Corps in Iran and in much greater numbers, perhaps the sieges at the Embassy may have never happened and the attitude toward Americans in that country would be far, far different.


Instead, Peace Corps and its 7,000 active Volunteers receive an annual budget of no more than one-fourth of what the country spends on defense in a single day. It reminds me of the Richard T. Arndt (24-year vet of the USIA) article, “The Hush-Hush Debate” from Public Diplomacy Magazine. The U.S. isn’t doing enough cultural diplomacy. We aren’t sending enough Americans abroad for long enough to build relationships, forge bonds, make friends. It’s something I hope for and care about very deeply, like Richard T. Arndt and like Congressman Sam Farr.


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