The University of Miami recently hosted a Peace Corps panel discussion and return volunteer reunion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ efforts of “promoting peace and friendship around the world.”
Honoring Our Past, Inspiring Future Generations panelists at the UM BankUnited Center’s Fieldhouse included Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, UM President Dr. Donna Shalala, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen and Educate Tomorrow founder Virginia Emmons McNaught.
Moderated by WPBT2’s Helen Aguirre-Ferré, the panelists told captivating stories about their own unique experiences while serving with the Peace Corps abroad. Some of the most interesting were stories of their parents reactions upon learning that their child was leaving for a remote village halfway around the world after college graduation. Williams revealed that the greatest story about joining the Peace Corps was Dr. Shalala’s letter.
Shalala said, “My parents were appalled about me joining. But, my Lebanese grandmother told them not to worry because I was going back to the old country, although Lebanon and Southern Iran where I served aren’t exactly neighbors.”
Shalala’s grandmother gave her a letter written in classical Arabic to present to the Mullah, or village leader, by way of introduction. The letter said that Shalala was the daughter of a great sheik from Cleveland, Ohio and to please put her under his protection.
Williams’ mother supported his decision to join the Peace Corps right out of college. “Thank God she championed for me because hers was a weighted vote,” said Williams. “Everybody else in my family thought I was nuts. ‘Why would I leave the safety of the south side of Chicago to go train in dangerous San Diego,’ they wondered.”
“Within three days of training, I was an integral part of the group,” continued Williams. “My fellow Peace Corps recruits and I became a real team. Everyone had marvelous ideas, great values and respect for one another. Joining the Peace Corps was one of the best decisions I made in my life, for myself and my family. To this day, many of those I originally trained with have become lifelong friends.”
There was very little enthusiasm in the Ibarguen household when Wesleyan college graduate Albert told his family about his decision to join the Corps in 1966. “My father was a Cuban immigrant who had to drop out of college during the great depression to work and raise his family in New Jersey,” said Ibarguen. “When he found out I was going to take a job in the remote Amazon of Venezuela paying $156 a month, he was appalled.”
“My mother was nervous but my father was beside himself,” Ibarguen added. “I knew I eventually wanted to go to law school but I wasn’t quite ready yet. Back then it was a clear kind of choice between the Army or the Peace Corps. Because I was not totally flat-footed or semi-blind, I went into the Peace Corps and began one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime.”
McNaught is a recent return volunteer who worked in Niger, West Africa from 2000 to 2002. “I was there when 9/11 happened,” she said. “The kids in the village were getting free Osama Bin Laden T-shirts and we had to ask ourselves hard questions about what that meant for us as Americans. We went to the marketplace and explained what happened in New York City. All they knew is they were getting free stuff, but when put into context the villagers apologized and all the propaganda was thrown away. Communication and understanding like this helps to build relationships and work toward peace.”
After the panel conversation, the standing room only audience, many of whom were return Peace Corps volunteers spanning five decades, asked the panelists questions ranging from “How do I learn more about the experience before signing up?” to “Why doesn’t the Peace Corps deal with problems in the United States?”
Peace Corps Director Williams explained that many universities like UM offer academic programs tied into the Peace Corps experience and Facebook and other sites provide community networks that can connect prospective volunteers to alumni or those currently serving.
Williams also shared his favorite John F. Kennedy quote with the audience: “The genius of the Peace Corps is that one day we will bring it home to America.”