On March 1, 1961, just weeks after President John F. Kennedy famously urged, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” in his inaugural address, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Thousands of Americans — most of them college-age — rose to the challenge, signing on to spend two years serving those in need around the world. Also stepping forward was UCLA, which played a pivotal role in preparing these young idealists and advising Peace Corps leadership during its formative years.
President John F. Kennedy greeted Peace Corps volunteers at the White House in June, 1962. More than 2,000 received their initial training at UCLA, among them, UCLA alumnus Haskell Sears Ward (front left). He'll be returning to campus to take part in anniversary festivities.
Starting that first summer with 48 trainees bound for Nigeria, more than 2,000 future Peace Corps volunteers came first to Westwood for three months of rigorous training in their host countries’ language, politics and culture, led by UCLA’s internationally recognized scholars in African and Latin American studies. From 1961 until 1969, when training shifted overseas, more than one out of 10 Peace Corps volunteers was trained at UCLA, probably more than at any other college campus. UCLA is also alma mater to more than 1,800 Peace Corps volunteers, including 92 Bruins currently serving in 46 countries. UCLA now ranks eighth among more than 3,000 U.S. universities for the number of alumni who have signed up for the Peace Corps since its inception.
To commemorate this shared commitment to cultivating global, service-minded individuals, UCLA will celebrate the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary with a series of campus events, an exhibit and a film screening March 2-5. Leading off the week will be “Peace Corps: The Next 50 Years,” a panel discussion at Royce Hall featuring Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams; Frank Mankiewicz, former Latin American regional director; Peace Corps veterans Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, and Haskell Sears Ward, SEACOM senior vice president; and Francoise Castro, a recent volunteer and 2001 UCLA graduate.
Paying it forward
Haskell Sears Ward
Panelist and Peace Corps veteran Ward received his initial training at UCLA in 1962. Currently, he is leading a project at communications technology company SEACOM to bring high-speed Internet access to Ethiopia — the country he came to know as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Ward’s Peace Corps experience instilled in him a deep respect for African cultures, and UCLA provided a scholarly grounding for that respect, Ward said.
“My training at UCLA set me to thinking in a very serious way about focusing academically and intellectually on Africa,” he said.
After the Peace Corps, Ward returned to graduate school at UCLA, earning a master's degree in African studies.
Ward with a rhinoceros during a 1964 Peace Corps visit to Uganda.
“I have always been deeply appreciative of the role UCLA has played in my intellectual development,” said Ward, who forged a wide-ranging international and public service career that has included working on economic development issues for the Ford Foundation and serving on President Jimmy Carter’s transition team.
A life-altering experience
The Peace Corps changed the lives of many, among them faculty and staff like Bob Ericksen, director of the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars. It became the motivating force in his choice of a career in international education, he said. After graduating from Augustana College in 1973, Ericksen recalled, “I was torn between becoming a graduate student and exploring the world.” He opted for the world, by way of the Peace Corps. He was dispatched to the small town of Borujerd in northern Iran, where he taught middle- and high school students English.
“That’s when I grew up,” Ericksen recalled. “I was very young and naïve. The Peace Corps was my maturation experience, where I learned to see the world from a very different perspective.”
Despite the hardships of living without indoor plumbing, heating or a washing machine, Ericksen found himself awed by Iran — from its ancient, poetic literature to his kind neighbors who fed him, invited him to tea, nursed him when he was sick and treated him as an honored guest every single day.
Upon returning home, “I knew I had to have some international component in my life,” Ericksen said. After earning a master's degree in international administration at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT., he found his calling in advising foreign students.
Young Peace Corps volunteer Ericksen with one of the Iranian families who treated him as one of their own.
“Hopefully, I’ve taken all the things that are best about this country and the best about Iran and brought them together,” he said. “In Iran, there is nothing more sacred than a guest. In many ways, our international students and scholars are our guests … and I always challenge my staff and colleagues to reach out and to support them as well as I was supported in Iran.”
A two-way street
UCLA lecturer and alumnus Lawrence Grobel, a journalist well-known for his no-holds-barred interviews with Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Al Pacino and dozens of other celebrities for national magazines, also traces the thread of his career back to the Peace Corps. In 1967, he recalled, “very much enamored of John F. Kennedy” and adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War, Grobel joined the Peace Corps to “do service my way” rather than in the military. With a UCLA bachelor’s degree in English and writing credits with the Daily Bruin staff and a campus humor magazine, he became an instructor at the Ghana Institute of Journalism in Accra.
“Teaching was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” he recalled of his hours in the classroom teaching English, literature and current events to a colorful assortment of students that included a police chief, a village chief and a man who boasted of having 10 wives. Grobel also found time to travel, often taking his students along on visits to Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and other parts of Africa.
“It was an amazing experience,” Grobel recalled. “It’s often said about the Peace Corps that it’s a two-way street: As much as you give, you also gain a great deal. It opens your eyes in many new ways.”
Grobel’s eye-opening experiences gave him the confidence, he recalled, to later walk into the offices of New York’s Newsday and persuade the editors to hire him as a writer. “The Peace Corps gave me my voice. I saw this country so much differently … after the Peace Corps.”
In their own words
Grobel encourages his UCLA students to think about taking the same path. A self-appointed Peace Corps recruiter, he hands out brochures, shares his stories and invites in fellow Peace Corps veterans to share reminscences of their own. This quarter, students in his class, “The Art of the Interview,” will do videotaped interviews with Peace Corps alumni as a final project. These interviews will become part of a UCLA Library exhibit, “No Greater Service,” which will tell the story of the Peace Corps through the eyes of UCLA faculty, staff, alumni and former trainees. The exhibit will open March 2 with a reception immediately following the Royce Hall panel discussion.
A scene from "A Small Act," screening on March 3.
Additional anniversary events on campus March 2-5 will include the Peace Corps International Festival in Bruin Plaza, a screening of the award-winning documentary, “A Small Act” and a service project at the West Los Angeles Veterans Home for UCLA students and former Peace Corps volunteers. Visit UCLA’s Peace Corps 50th anniversary website. You can watch video interviews of Ericksen, Grobel and other Bruins, read the personal stories of Peace Corps volunteers and — if you served in the Peace Corps — contribute a story of your own.