When UCSB Professor Charlie Kolstad graduated from Maine\’s Bates College in 1968 the United States was still at war with Vietnam. Grad school wasn\’t on the immediate horizon, but focused on a military deferment, Kolstad\’s choices boiled down to teaching high school in the United States or in West Africa – with the Peace Corps.
\”In the end, it was a more interesting place to do the same kind of job,\” Kolstad said.
The Peace Corps has been popular with graduating seniors since its inception 40 year ago, and during those years UCSB has contributed its fair share of volunteers. Santa Barbara ranked 16th among large universities furnishing recruits in 2001 and has consistently been highly ranked in the past. The draft is no longer a serious concern, and the Peace Corps no longer offers military deferment, but thousands of students nationwide still turn to humanitarian work for gainful employment after college.
To date, UCSB has contributed 1,303 volunteers to the Peace Corps, and just under 50 are currently signed up to leave between spring and fall 2002.
The Peace Corps\’ ability to attract these numbers rests squarely on its ability to provide recruits with jobs. The employment market is tight in nearly every sector, commercial to industrial. Immediate matriculation into grad school, though becoming more popular, is still not widespread.
\”Most people think it\’s a flaky, fun thing to do, but it\’s a great way to step right over a boring, paper-shuffling, artificial lighting, nine-to-five, partition cubicle, two weeks vacation for a whole year job, into challenging, meaningful, fulfilling, all-expense-paid, international travel adventure,\” local Peace Corps recruiter Alexandra Saperstein said.
Eighty percent of volunteers are in their 20s, 86 percent have undergraduate degrees, and 13 percent have graduate studies degrees. Students are attracted to the Peace Corps because the two-year tour of duty makes great resume material, Saperstein said.
\”Because it\’s one of the most respected international development organizations in the world, you come back to open doors,\” she said.
The Corps succeeded in giving Kolstad some direction. Headed for a career in mathematics, he switched to economics because he viewed the field as more \”relevant to the problems of the world.\” Kolstad is now an economics professor working with the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. He focuses on developmental economics in the Third World and recently taught water management in Kenya. Aid work, however, is not solely the domain of the ambivalent and uncertain.
Kirsten Rohler, who graduated from UCSB with a biological science degree in 1996, started looking into the Peace Corps during her junior year. \”I was pursuing an interest in public health and I thought that would be a great place to get into it,\” she said.
Serving in Togo from 1997 to 1998, Rohler helped develop and implement a local AIDS prevention program, secure a grant from the Togolese government to build a school, and establish small business enterprises among villagers. Her story is an example of how the Peace Corps has changed and why it remains so popular.
Over the years, the Peace Corps has morphed into a specialized organization that can provide career-oriented job opportunities.
The Peace Corps is an independent arm of the Federal Government, but students provided the impetus for its creation in 1960. John F. Kennedy, then a candidate for the Oval Office, gave a spur-of-the-moment speech on the steps of the University of Michigan at 2 in morning urging students to rally to the humanitarian cause.
On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy issued an executive order creating the Peace Corps after the Michigan students collected over 1,000 signatures for such a program. Congress vetted the organization six months later, giving it the mandate to \”promote world peace and friendship\” – a vague mission statement aimed at skills training and cultural understanding.
The Peace Corps focused on teaching the English language and engaged in basic community services such as housing and sanitation, but did not provide specialized services or instruction. Today, the aid work is more sophisticated and broad. Volunteers can participate in one of six fields: education, business, environment, agriculture, health and community service.
By the end of its first year, the Peace Corps established operations in 13 countries in South America, Africa and Asia with the help of 750 volunteers. In December 1974 programs were operating in 69 countries, the largest number to date.
Today there are 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers working in 76 countries on 4 continents. President George W. Bush announced in his first State of the Union address Jan. 29 that he would like to see the number of volunteers double within five years. The Peace Corps\’ work is not done.
The Peace Corps limits its services to Third World countries. To date, the organization has \”graduated\” from 65 countries; that is, it closed up shop when the host progressed beyond Third World status. Most recently, the Peace Corps has ceased operations in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and it is currently in the process of leaving Latvia.
It\’s impossible to argue that there is any causal relationship between Peace Corps activities and a nation\’s ability to cast off its economic shackles. The success of humanitarian operations is measured locally.
The standard tour of duty lasts two years, though volunteers may extend for a third year or transfer to another location for two years, with a five-year limit. Saperstein, who volunteered in Bulgaria, said the Peace Corps strategy is based on total immersion.
\”You have a sustainable impact on the community. You\’re there for births, marriages and deaths. You\’re not a student, backpacker or tourist – you\’re an integral part of that community, and it takes two years for that to happen,\” she said.
Rohler said her experience in Togo was not a groundbreaking success, but that her work nonetheless helped the local community develop important skills related to business proprietorship and public health education.
\”I\’ve worked with non-profits before, but overall, the Peace Corps has an excellent reputation,\” she said. \”I saw other aid organizations operating in Africa, and what the Peace Corps does is more effective because it provides information and skills rather than material things and money.\”
The Peace Corps does have its critics, however. UCSB Black Studies Prof. Kofi Hadjor focuses on African politics and agues that much of the information and skills training that initially characterized Peace Corps work, namely English language instruction, was worthless to indigenous societies and only served to expand the Western sphere of influence during the Cold War.
The Peace Corps only maintains operations in countries that request its services, and then offers only those services that its host feels are necessary. Hadjor said that even this must be taken with a grain of salt. American aid, he said, is a package deal in which coveted economic aid is typically bundled with cultural aid that is far less desirable.
As a young man in his native Ghana, Hadjor watched his country welcome Peace Corps volunteers not, in his opinion, because the government desired assistance, but because it wanted to get in good with the Kennedy administration. \”There is no charity in international politics,\” he said.
Nevertheless, Hadjor has revised his judgment of the Peace Corps\’ work in light of continued aid and a broader, more practical scope since the late 1980s and the end the of the Cold War. Every year more UCSB students travel across the ocean to build dikes, wells and sanitary systems and to train entrepreneurs and environmental conservationists. But cultural exchange is still part of the equation.
\”Peace Corp volunteers are American ambassadors in a different sense,\” Rohler said. \”You share a piece of American culture that they don\’t know or that they have a jaded view of. Part of our job is to exchange our culture with them and then come back and share with Americans what we learned over there.\”
Unfortunately, the world is fiercely divided about whether or not this is a good thing. Forces of globalization are now stronger than ever and Sept. 11 illustrated that the often-overlooked cleavage between industrialized democracies and the Third World still runs deep. It is difficult not to respect the work of people who are willing to give up two years of their time and energy to gain a better understanding of the world around them.
\”I realized that the older I got, the less I knew, despite contrary popular opinion,\” Saperstein said. \”\’How much more was there to know?\’ I was afraid of becoming the sum of narrow experiences. I wanted the chance to have as many cultures and perspectives chisel away at what I thought I knew.\”
Students will continue to gravitate towards humanitarian aid work with Peace Corps as long as a job that offers that experience is available. Students return with a $6,075 \”readjustment\” stipend in pocket – not a fortune, but more than adequate. And if trends persist, UCSB will continue to contribute to that workforce.
\”UCSB is a hard school to get into and attracts highly motivated, ambitious students,\” Saperstein said. \”The university also has a lot of courses that educate people about the rest of the world – the Global Studies Dept. has a huge number of volunteers.\”
For those interested in volunteer opportunities, Saperstein is available in her 2315 Girvetz office every Wednesday and she is available by phone at (800) 424-8580. Information can also be obtained on the web at www.peacecorps.gov.