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Nation & World 9/17/01

Camelot lives on
The Peace Corps, President Kennedy's idealistic vision, turns 40 amid kudos and, also, concerns


Back in 1968, Bob Sullivan could have taken his new Cornell University M.B.A. and headed to Wall Street or, perhaps, to a Fortune 500 company. Instead, he joined an idealistic new program: the Peace Corps. First stop, the library, to check where Ethiopia was–and then he set off to teach business at the national university there for two years. As a famine devastated the poor nation, he stayed for five more, teaching and aiding relief efforts. He also adopted two young Ethiopian children. "I couldn't turn my back on them," he says.

Those were character-forming times. "I wouldn't be where I am today without the Peace Corps," says Sullivan, now dean of the business school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. And a generation later, his daughter, Almaz, followed him as a volunteer in Ethiopia from 1996 to 1998. Says Almaz: "The Peace Corps taught me how to break down a problem and find a solution, how to effect change with your personality, skills, and values."

Talk to former Peace Corps volunteers, and almost invariably they will say the experience was transforming. That's partly why the program endures. This year, the bastion of 20-something idealism turns 40. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy summoned a new generation to join "a grand and global alliance" to fight tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. Thousands who heeded his call will gather in Washington September 20-23 to commemorate the service of the 161,000 volunteers who lived in tents and huts and worked in clinics, schools, small businesses, and farms over the past four decades.

Initially, the Peace Corps dispatched 124 volunteers–predominately white, Ivy League men–to a dozen countries. Today, there are 7,300 volunteers in 75 countries. Almost two thirds are women; 14 percent are minorities. Most come from big public universities, not elite schools. And the cadre is older today–including 10 percent over 50. The mission has broadened, too. Volunteers teach English and business skills in former Soviet countries. Tech skills are in demand. In fact, the Peace Corps recently ran ads in a San Francisco weekly: "Dot Come, Dot Gone? Now It's Time to Network With the Real World."

What has not changed is the Camelot-era goals: helping other countries educate students and workers while promoting cultural understanding. "The Peace Corps has become a symbol for things that are perceived to be good about our country and people," says a former chief of staff, Thomas Tighe.

The Peace Corps has had its share of rocky times. The latest controversy involves President Bush's director nominee, Gaddi H. Vasquez, who resigned from the Orange County Board of Supervisors after the California county went bankrupt. Former volunteers are upset because Vasquez, who donated $100,000 to the GOP last year, has no experience in international development or volunteerism. And Sargent Shriver, the legendary first Peace Corps director, is dismayed that the corps's ranks are less than half of the 1966 peak of 15,000. "It should be at least twice or three or four times that," he says. "The world needs it."

Even as they praise their experiences, ex-volunteers at times question their achievements. "I ask myself what did I accomplish in Sierra Leone, if the country has become synonymous with hacking off limbs," says Kevin Lowther, a regional director of Africare. "I have concluded that Peace Corps volunteers can have an impact, but it is narrow. You aren't going to change the future of a nation, but you will impact specific individuals or specific communities."

Lemma Senbet is proof. Peace Corps volunteers taught him in Ethiopia in the 1960s, and one encouraged him to come to America. He got a master's at the University of California-Los Angeles, a doctorate at SUNY-University at Buffalo. Now a University of Maryland finance professor, Senbet says, "I wouldn't have succeeded without the Peace Corps." A recruiting poster couldn't say it better.

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