Shays Says “Do it in a heartbeat”
By Jonathan Pearson on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011
As the Smithsonian Folklife Festival drew to a close, former Connecticut Congressman Chris Shays (Fiji 68-70) said, “Anyone thinking about doing the Peace Corps should examine it.” And, if they remain interested, they should “do it in a heartbeat…do it.”
Shays served in Fiji with his wife Betsi, who added that Peace Corps service “is not a summer camp. There needs to be a deep, deep commitment.” For those who possess the commitment, Betsi said Peace Corps can truly be a transformative experience.
While many aspects of Peace Corps service have not changed in fifty years, other aspects are very different. Much of the conversation with Chris and Betsi on the “Peace Porch” considered some of those issues.
One change is that families are now encouraged to visit volunteers during their service. ”It’s a good change. There’s no reason not to,” said Chris. Reflecting on his service, he noted that the change fits in with Fijian culture. ”Fijians think it’s unnatural to be away from your family. Normalcy is a good thing.”
Changes come not just to the volunteers, but also the countries where they serve. The Shays’ experienced this during a two-week trip thirty years after they served. Seeing so many people with cell phones and internet access was strange. They also saw young people facing AIDS and drug abuse, and struggling to understand their identity as outside cultures pressed in. Betsi recalled seeing a billboard promoting home security systems, something that was unthinkable thirty years earlier.
When asked to assess the pros and cons of progress and the role Peace Corps plays, Chris noted that volunteers wrestle with that question. He offered this thought in light of a world of growing populations. ”You are not there to westernize. You are not there to Americanize. But you are there to urbanize them, for that part is inevitable. You’re there to teach life skills for a life that is going to descend upon them.” Betsi added that volunteers can “help preserve all that is good about a host country and its culture.”
Meanwhile, some things never change. As the discussion – and the festival – reached its final hour, Betsi offered a closing remark that applies to all 139 countries where Peace Corps Volunteers have served. ”What hadn’t changed was the graciousness and goodness of people.”