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MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews “became the family Democrat” as a result of his Peace Corps experience four decades ago, when he spent two years teaching business skills in Swaziland in southern Africa.
Aaron S. Williams found his life’s calling in public service when the Peace Corps sent him to the Dominican Republic, where he helped teachers in a small village earn their high school diplomas. Today, Williams leads the Peace Corps as its 18th director.
And Francoise Castro, a 2001 UCLA alumna, said her two Peace Corps years in Mozambique educating communities about HIV/AIDS prevention changed her priorities. “I realized that what’s most important are family and friends rather than my career or other things we focus on here in the U.S.,” she said.
They came to campus March 2 for “Peace Corps: The Next 50 Years,” a panel discussion examining the 50-year legacy of the agency and its future. Moderated by Matthews, the discussion — ranging from the heartfelt to the humorous — drew an audience of about 1,000 to Royce Hall. Also on the panel were UCLA alumni Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair special correspondent and founder of the Marina Orth Foundation; Frank Mankiewicz, who served as regional Peace Corps director for Latin America, president of National Public Radio and press secretary for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; and Haskell Sears Ward, senior vice president, government relations for SEACOM, an international telecommunications company.
The event commemorated UCLA’s longstanding collaboration with the Peace Corps. More than 1,800 UCLA alumni have served in the Peace Corps, including 92 volunteers currently serving in 46 countries. Many of the former volunteers were in the audience, which also included Maria and Bobby Shriver, two of the children of Peace Corps founding director Robert Sargent Shriver.
UCLA’s work with the Peace Corps began in 1961, when the first group of volunteers heading for service in Nigeria received training here in that country’s history, language and culture.
Ward, enroute to Ethiopia, received his training in Westwood starting in 1963. Raised in the impoverished, segregated town of Griffin, Georgia, then graduating from all-black Clark College, UCLA felt almost foreign to Ward. “It was the first time I had ever seen an integrated school, the first time I had white friends,” he told the audience.
Ward worked as a teacher in Ethiopia and developed relationships with the country and its people that he maintains to this day. Recently, he negotiated a contract to connect Ethiopia to the Internet — “and it was all possible because of UCLA and the Peace Corps,” Ward said.
Williams recalled applying for the Peace Corps “secretly” 40 years ago, quietly defying his family’s expectations that the young African American from the south side of Chicago would “settle down and teach… But I found myself drawn to public service, inspired by President Kennedy.” Ultimately, his mother supported his desire — “somehow she knew that this was the right thing for me.”
Orth, like most Peace Corps volunteers, was in her early 20s when she went to live and work in a Columbia barrio — crowded, noisy, and swarming with chickens and cows. “It gave me such a sense of freedom,” Orth recalled. It was a time in America, she said, when many women felt their career paths were limited to nursing or teaching. “If you wanted to travel, you could be a stewardess on an international airline,” Orth said. “For me to be able to go down and be thrown in the middle of a barrio all by myself, that was a very liberating experience.”
Both Williams and Ward cited the eye-opening experience of being among the first black Americans that some locals had ever met. "Although I was only 20 years old, I came to be seen as the expert on America and on civil rights," Williams recalled. "I interpreted every speech by Martin Luther King. I talked about foreign policy. I had to consult my soul about what it meant to be an American."
Matthews recounted a magical night in Swaziland during the summer of 1969 when a fellow volunteer took a group of villagers to the top of a hill — “to show them the stars,” Matthews thought. “But he wanted to show them something bigger, and pointed to a spaceship crossing the sky” — American astronauts on their first trip to the moon.
“The Peace Corps was the most amazing, life-changing thing in my life,” said Matthews, who said that he lost “a big chunk of the racism” that he was raised with. He also came face-to-face with himself every night when the sun went down and he was totally alone — an experience echoed by Williams.
“Being from a fairly large family, I had never been alone before,” said the Peace Corps director. It was tough, he said, to return to his little house in the Dominican Republic village at the end of the day and have only himself to consult about his day’s work. “What did I do wrong, and how could I do better? You really had to look deep down into yourself… and find out what you’re really made of,” a process that, he believes made him a stronger individual.
Yet, Williams added, “you also had to be open to other people helping you, because, as it turns out, as a Peace Corps volunteer in these communities, you’re really not alone. You might feel that way, but in reality, they put a cloak of love around you.”
Everyone on the panel spoke about the Peace Corps’ impact in the countries where American volunteers have served. Ward said he and fellow volunteers comprised nearly 60 percent of Ethiopia’s secondary school teachers at the time, making a huge impact on education in that country. Orth created schools in Columbia that provided an “island of peace” even that country’s recent political turmoil.
The panelists also made a point about the powerful, positive impact the Peace Corps has had in volunteers’ lives. Castro, raised in a middle-class family in Orange County, mastered the Portuguese language, learned to sleep with cockroaches and has made lifelong friends — some of whom are villagers who first learned to use a computer from her at village Internet cafes.
“You had to learn to walk in other people’s shoes,” said Williams, the Peace Corps director. “You worked with the priorities of the community, helped them solve their problems. You learn to be a very, very good listener, hear the rhythm of that society … and these skills make a big difference in the rest of your life and career.”
Mankiewicz, who is vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, emphasized that one of the Peace Corps’ most significant impacts has been here at home. “Today, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. know what it is really like in a developing country — to live in a country where people face extreme poverty at birth and all the way to death,” Mankiewicz said.
Williams told the audience there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the Peace Corps, and continued demand for its services around the world. “There’s a long list of countries that want us,” Williams said. “A week doesn’t pass when I don’t get a visit from another ambassador saying they want us. The Peace Corps continues to be the Gold Standard for world service.”
The evening’s discussion concluded with a viewing of a UCLA-Peace Corps exhibit in Powell Library. Additional events to commemorate the 50th anniversary include an international festival in Bruin Plaza, a screening of the documentary “A Small Act,” and a service project with UCLA students and returned Peace Corps volunteers. See this website for details
Williams will return to campus this June to deliver UCLA’s main commencement address.