Returned and future Peace Corps Volunteers host a weekend of events to commemorate their commitment to world service.
Fifty years ago, U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to create the U.S. Peace Corps, one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world. Today, the Peace Corps has nearly 9,000 volunteers serving to improve education, healthcare and development in 77 countries. Overall, more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.
Several of those volunteers are also part of the University of Denver community, which gathered this past weekend to reminisce about their time abroad and to honor the Peace Corps legacy.
Panelist Gloria Curtis, who served in Ethiopia from 1963-65 commented, "I was so new, there were no Returned Peace Corps Volunteers available to tell me what to expect. I had an open mind and open expectations and it turned out to be priceless, the best two years of my life."
A series of panel discussions concerning Peace Corps and Politics, the Future of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Through the Decades kick-started the series of events on Saturday afternoon. The latter panel, which also included Former First Lady of Colorado, Jeannie Ritter, featured a volunteer from each decade of service sharing his or her experiences and truly demonstrated the evolution of motivations for joining the Peace Corps, living arrangements, language training and communication methods over the years.
"I had an apartment on the Mediterranean," Ritter, who served in Tunisia, said. "And I ate organically, all this wonderful fresh food, and on the weekends I would take the ferry to these islands off the coast. Actually, I would just ride there and ride back; I didn't get off the boat and eventually the boatmen wouldn't even charge me. They thought I was crazy, riding back and forth. Imagine the opportunity though; if you close your eyes, you can still see it."
Not all the stories were as ideal, however; panel participants also discussed issues such as what it was like to be in a rural village in Ethiopia on the day Kennedy was assassinated, the lack of running water and electricity and how it felt t be a single woman living in Jamaica.
The panel overlapped with a subsequent one, "I Was There When...," during which volunteers reflected on how momentous historical events affected their Peace Corps service. From experiencing 9/11 in Cameroon to being evacuated from the Georgian conflict in 2008, volunteers reacted to both domestic and foreign conflict.
Joanne Roll was serving in Colombia when Kennedy was assassinated, and she described her situation as very different from that of other volunteers in the field at the time. Instead of an outpouring of sympathy and support, Roll was initially told that, "Castro had killed Kennedy," and was forced to leave her village for a larger town.
"As Americans, we were sad, but we weren't scared," Roll said. "But because we did not cry, the people assumed we were not American, but Russian! It was very serious because they assumed the Russians were going to take over the world and that we were there to take over their village."
In addition to the panel discussions, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado sponsored a celebratory gala featuring food from Peace Corps countries and three
bands playing music from around the world. The Josef Korbel School of International Studies' Peace Corps Community also hosted a farewell brunch, on Sunday morning for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
and current Master's International students waiting for their placements.
At the peace service, held on Sunday at the University of Denver's Evans Chapel, guests were asked to light a candle while asking for "peace to prevail" in their host countries. Most people partook in the blessing, asking for peace to prevail in Sierra Leone, Hungary, Turkey, Kiribati and countless other locations, effectively demonstrating the breadth of service and gratitude represented at the weekend's events.
"The one thing I took home with me from my service in Kazakhstan was the knowledge
that as an America, everything in the world is available to me, and I should take
every opportunity to make the most of that," said Arianne Burger, President of the
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado group.
.-Nirvana Bhatia, MA in International Human Rights
Josef Korbel School of International Studies
Read more about the Josef Korbel School's 50th anniversary Peace Corps celebrations.