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During the 1960 presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 10,000 students at the University of Michigan, who responded enthusiastically to his challenge for them to serve their country by living and working in developing countries.

After he was elected, in his memorable inaugural address, President Kennedy appealed to Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He also pledged to help the world’s poor, “to break the bonds of their misery.”

On March 1, 1961, JFK issued an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Since then, more than 225,000 Americans have served in 141 countries.

Angwin’s John and Marsa Tully were college students on opposite sides of the country when they heard Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, speak about the Peace Corps. Although only a junior, John immediately rushed off to take the qualifying exam. Marsa recalls initially thinking the Corps might be “too tough.” Nevertheless, she persisted and eventually chose to serve in Thailand because one of her Berkeley professors had done research there.

John and Marsa met during a highly selective Peace Corps training that John describes as “scary.” Their terms of service were two years: however, both continued teaching English in Thailand for 15 more years and currently are longtime professors at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Kennedy envisioned his initiative as a vehicle that would promote a better understanding of America through personal interactions with American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). He also hoped young Americans would develop a better understanding of the world’s diverse peoples and cultures.

JFK grasped the concept of “soft power,” whereby America gains the support of other nations through the power of example. President Obama echoed those sentiments in proclaiming, “The true strength of America comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals — liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

While the popular image of PCVs is of young people, the agency welcomes older adults, like Vineyard Valley’s Eve Breckenridge, currently serving in Madagascar.

A visit to the Volunteering at 50 Plus website finds this comment from Dorothy Woodbrige, who served in Ghana. “I love sharing my story about being a Peace Corps Volunteer, especially with people who say, ‘I wanted to do that when I was in college, but my parents wouldn’t let me go, and I’m too old now.’ I turned 80 during my service.”

Kathy Collins’ son, Hank, served as a volunteer in Kenya. She remembers helping him apply to medical school because the lack of technology posed significant challenges. Kathy says the experience changed Hank’s life and he still communicates with people he met abroad.

Our daughter, Dr. Yasi Safinya-Davies, and son-in-law, Patrick, served in Suriname. On our visit to their riverside village, we found them treated as members of that community. Following their service, Patrick became a PCV coordinator, while Yasi managed the opening of that nation’s Habitat for Humanity program.

Steve Thewlis, former director of International Programs at Saint Mary’s College, served in Afghanistan and his partner, Michael Mercil, in Malaysia before the latter continued as a staff member. Steve says the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary Washington celebration drew thousands of former volunteers, adding, “You make friends while serving who become friends for life.”

Clarence Say is a PCV in Thailand after graduating from UC San Diego. His father, Geoffrey, says Clarence always displayed unselfish concern for others and earned an award for service as a Justin-Siena student.

“Imagine moving into the house of someone you just met who lives in a place you have never been, learning to eat with your hands, taking your first bucket shower while a spider family watches from overhead,” Clarence writes in his blog.

He continues, “I wake up every morning with a smile on my face. Tired but happy. Content with my life in a way that I have never before been. The challenges have been many, but the opportunities for learning and growth, are infinite. We live in little bubbles — worlds that we call ‘personal perspectives’ within which we carefully safeguard our most cherished thoughts and opinions about everything ‘other’ that exists outside ourselves. Being here has taught me the importance of traveling to other worlds.”

As Princeton Professor John Ikenberry notes, “American’s national security has always hinged as much on winning hearts and minds as it does on winning wars.” So, Peace Corps Volunteers, thank you for your service to America and to the world!

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He is currently a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com

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