How an Aspenite met Sargent Shriver and joined the Peace Corps
August 12, 2010
In fall 1960, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, in a presidential campaign speech at the University of Michigan, challenged the students to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. Two thousand students responded, saying they wanted to serve. This is considered the beginning of the Peace Corps. Officially the Peace Corps was established in September 1961. Michigan, the University of California, Santa Barbara and other groups are celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2010, while the 50th anniversary will be celebrated all over the world in 2011.
On the day President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, I was sitting in a San Francisco hotel room, waiting for an early flight to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to fulfill a contract with Michigan State University and the Ford Foundation. I listened to the new president tell the nation: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I was deeply moved and inspired. It echoed my commitment to do something for my country, which had given me so many opportunities since my family escaped from the Nazis.
My MLS degree in library and information science and my experience overseas prepared me for the assignment to establish a library. It involved the training of two male college graduates, one a Bengali, the other a West Pakistani, as librarians for the two Academies for Rural Development, one in Comilla, East Pakistan, and the other in Peshawar, West Pakistan.
The two academies were established less than two years previously, with the assistance of the U.S. government, as training and development centers for local farmers and incubators for rural development. After the long flight to East Pakistan, I took the train from Dacca (now Dhaka) to Comilla, a small town with a population of perhaps 65,000. It took six hours, even though Comilla was only 65 miles from Dacca.
I was the only woman on the faculty of the Comilla Academy. Indeed, it seemed like I was the only Western woman in the entire town. The wives of my Pakistani colleagues didn’t speak English and were never seen. Fatima was the only exception, and we became good friends. She often joined her husband, my two trainees and me on excursions in the countryside. I would have felt very isolated in this all-male environment without her occasional presence.
In early summer 1961, Sargent Shriver, brother in-law of President Kennedy and director of the budding Peace Corps, visited Comilla. The Peace Corps’ mission, both then and now, is to provide technical assistance to interested countries and to help people outside the United States understand our culture, as well as to help Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries.
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Over the years, Peace Corps volunteers have performed a variety of services in many countries: building schools and latrines, training teachers, teaching English, providing public health services and improving agriculture. More recent efforts have included developing information technology and nurturing small business.
Shriver came to meet Akhter Hameed Khan, the founder and director of the Academy for Rural Development. Khan was a well-known development activist who started probably the first bottom-up community development program in Asia.
I was introduced to Mr. Shriver when he toured the campus. With his warm smile, he showed an intense interest in everything he saw and the people he met. He was surprised to meet an American woman and asked about my work. He wanted to see how I lived. I showed him the little one-room guesthouse where I lived that had a shower and a kitchen. He also visited the Japanese, who were advisors to the Academy on rice growing. Before he left, he had a meeting with the faculty, but I was not invited. After all, women in East Pakistan at that time were second-class citizens; there was not even a women’s restroom in the entire campus. I either had to drive the six miles back to my house, or use the men’s room while a colleague stood guard.
After Shriver left, his assistant arrived and we talked for many hours. He asked me many questions about working and living in Pakistan, and gave me more details of the newly established Peace Corps. It sounded like a wonderful program, so I told him that I still had to go to Peshawar, but perhaps I would like to join the Peace Corps when I returned to the U.S. Later in Peshawar, I met another staff member of the Peace Corps, Jim Moody, who later became a congressman from Wisconsin. I was now very much inspired and excited about this new agency.
Before I left Comilla for Peshawar, the faculty of the Academy sought my advice as they prepared training materials for future Peace Corps volunteers. I suggested including some understanding of the Quran, as it was important for living in a Muslim country.
After my stint in Peshawar for five months, I returned to visit my parents in Los Angeles. I had hardly been there a week when a call came from the Peace Corps in Washington D.C., asking me to come to Washington the following week. I went to Washington without knowing what I was going to do, nor what my salary would be. But that was the way Mr. Shriver recruited many of the Peace Corps staff.
From 1961 to 1966 I worked for the Peace Corps. At first I was a training officer, the only woman among five colleagues. Later as the number of volunteers and staff increased, I was made deputy director of training and university relations for NANESA (North Africa, Near East, South Asia).
Our duties were to design training programs, to choose universities and other organizations to train volunteers, and to find appropriate faculty and language teachers. During those years I traveled half of the time, working with many universities all over the U.S. I also traveled to India, Nepal and Thailand to visit volunteers and evaluate training programs.
These were hectic and wonderful years, although we often worked and traveled 24-hour days. We learned by doing. We were not a bureaucratic government agency. We were all infected by the enthusiasm of Sargent Shriver and the passion, idealism and energy of the volunteers.
Perhaps my Peace Corps job was the most rewarding that I have ever had. When I left in 1966, I continued to do international development work with both non-governmental organizations and government agencies, working on training, research and population education projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
I stayed in touch with the organization and with individual volunteers. In the 1980s I did some consulting for the Peace Corps in Senegal, on volunteer training. I attended the 20th, 35th and 40th anniversaries of its founding in Washington, D.C. With the assistance of many returned Peace Corps volunteers, I organized a successful program under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for the 40th anniversary. Now I am actively helping with the celebrations of the 50th anniversary, which will take place in 2010 and 2011.
The National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers was founded in 1979 and incorporated in 1983 as the National Peace Corps Association. I joined almost immediately. NPCA leads the Peace Corps community to foster peace by working together in service, education and advocacy. There are about 150 member groups in the United States and abroad, and in the mid-1980s I served on the board of the Santa Barbara National Peace Corps Association.
I believe that after almost 50 years the Peace Corps has been a most successful organization. It has resulted in life-changing experiences for all who were involved. We hope the number of volunteers will increase and the Peace Corps will be better and bolder in the coming decades. At the moment there are about 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers in the field, roughly half of the number in the mid-1960s.
The 200,000 volunteers have had a significant impact on their hosts, the people with whom they worked and those that befriended them in 139 different countries. Upon returning to America, these volunteers brought the world back home.