Recommendations for how to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world. see more
After all Peace Corps Volunteers were withdrawn from around the world in March 2020, an unprecedented community-driven effort has charted a course for how to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Washington, D.C. (November 13, 2020) — Amid a time of unprecedented crisis for the Peace Corps and our nation as a whole, the Peace Corps community has come together to chart a way forward: with specific, actionable steps that will help reimagine and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world. Those steps are outlined in “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” a report months in the making and made public today.
The report itself was prepared by a special National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) advisory council drawn from the broad Peace Corps community inside and outside the United States. It provides specific and actionable recommendations for multiple stakeholders: policymakers in the Peace Corps agency and the federal Executive Branch’s leadership; the United States Congress; and the Peace Corps community, particularly National Peace Corps Association.
The report comes at an inflection point for the Peace Corps, which was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Its mission of building world peace and friendship has motivated more than 240,000 Americans to volunteer in nearly every corner of the world. Peace Corps sets the gold standard for service, and its brand is a cultural icon with near universal recognition. But this year that service came to a halt.
In the spring of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peace Corps evacuated all of its roughly 7,300 Volunteers from service around the globe. They came home to a country hit by pandemic and economic maelstrom, and soon one convulsed by protests against racial injustice.
“We heard loud and clear from the community that the Peace Corps needs to change and adapt if we want it to endure,” said Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. “That’s from Volunteers who have served across the decades and around the world, and from people who live in communities where the Peace Corps has worked.”
For the first time in the nearly 60-year history of the agency, no Peace Corps Volunteers are serving overseas. This abrupt interruption of Peace Corps service has dramatically altered the lives of the Volunteers, and it has profoundly disrupted the work and relationships in communities where they were serving. The global evacuation of Volunteers also brought to the fore some longstanding challenges for the agency and the broader Peace Corps community. All this called for an unparalleled response.
Harnessing the experience, commitment, and innovative ideas of the Peace Corps community, in July National Peace Corps Association convened a series of national community discussions and a global ideas summit to ask some far-reaching questions about the future of Peace Corps in a changed world. The conversations tackled two key questions. First, whether the Peace Corps as an agency should continue to exist; on that count, the response was a resounding “yes.” And second, when the Peace Corps returns to the field, what should it look like? The responses to this second question yielded the far-reaching report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.”
“We heard loud and clear from the community that the Peace Corps needs to change and adapt if we want it to endure,” said Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. “That’s from Volunteers who have served across the decades and around the world, and from people who live in communities where the Peace Corps has worked. They’ve offered big ideas in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as recruitment and recalibrating programs, including critical health support. They’ve looked hard at the three goals of the Peace Corps agency, as well as policies, funding, and how Peace Corps communicates.”
“Peace Corps should reflect the fullness of America and provide the country’s best and truest face to the world,” the report notes. “It should return to the field better, bolder, more inclusive, and more effective.”
Three Cross-Cutting Themes
Each of the eight chapters of the report can stand alone with its own unique set of recommendations. But during the community conversations, it was made clear that three primary themes cut across the entirety of the issues Peace Corps faces:
The Peace Corps community must be a leader in addressing systemic racism. The Peace Corps agency, like American society as a whole, is grappling with how to evolve so that its work fulfills the promise of our ideals. This means tackling agency hiring and recruitment, and greater support for Volunteers who are people of color, to ensure an equitable Peace Corps experience. It also means ensuring that perceptions of a “white savior complex” and neocolonialism are not reinforced. These are criticisms leveled at much work in international development, where not all actors are bound by the kinds of ideals that are meant to guide the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps agency needs to stand by its community — and leverage it for impact. The agency’s work is only as good as the contributions of the people who make it run. This does not mean only staff but includes, in particular, the broader community of Volunteers and returned Volunteers. In programs around the world, it absolutely includes the colleagues and communities that host Volunteers.
- Now is the moment for the Peace Corps agency to make dramatic change. The opportunity for a reimagined and re-booted Peace Corps now exists and it should be taken. This report shows the way.
This moment of international crisis and domestic change has provided a period of critical reflection to restructure, retool, renew commitment, and get things right. The Peace Corps must meet the challenge of this moment. And once more it can lead the way. “Peace Corps should reflect the fullness of America and provide the country’s best and truest face to the world,” the report notes. “It should return to the field better, bolder, more inclusive, and more effective.”
The Peace Corps agency has reported that partner nations have all asked for the return of Volunteers as soon as conditions permit. A small number of Volunteers are scheduled to return in early 2021. The first will be Cambodia and Saint Lucia, in January 2021, as Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen revealed on November 12 at a program hosted by The Commonwealth Club of California.
The act of Volunteers returning — or their arrival in countries for new programs — will signal that a country can engage internationally in a post-pandemic world.
The report takes as a touchstone some remarks by diplomat Kul Chandra Gautam at NPCA’s global ideas summit. Gautam was born and raised in Nepal, and as a student he was taught by Peace Corps teachers. His career has included serving as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. “Our increasingly interconnected world demands global solidarity, not charity, to solve global problems that transcend national borders like the specter of war, terrorism, racism, climate change, and pandemics like COVID-19,” he said. “I sincerely believe that the Peace Corps can be a great organization dedicated to promote such global solidarity at the people-to-people level.”
And here is a handy URL to share: bit.ly/peace-corps-connect-report
Listen Up: A special podcast diving into “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” with Marieme Foote, Chic Dambach, Joel Rubin, and host Dan Baker.
Story updated November 20, 2020.
Steven Boyd Saum is Director of Strategic Communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. For questions and interviews with Glenn Blumhorst, members of the report advisory council or steering committee, or former Peace Corps directors about this report, please contact email@example.com or (202) 934-1532.
About National Peace Corps Association (NPCA)
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is a mission-driven social impact organization that encourages and celebrates lifelong commitment to Peace Corps ideals. NPCA supports a united and vibrant Peace Corps community, including current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers, current and former staff, host country nationals, family and friends in efforts to create a better world. NPCA exists to fulfill three specific goals:
- Help the Peace Corps be the best it can be
- Empower members and affiliate groups to thrive
- Amplify the Peace Corps community’s global social impact
In 2019 NPCA marked its 40th anniversary with a vibrant community of over 240,000 individuals and more than 180 affiliate groups. The affiliate groups are organized by city and region, country of service, places of employment, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around causes such as environmental action and work with refugees.
Peace Corps Volunteers are Needed at Home Now — and in a new National Service Program: The Week in ReviewA national service program and legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and hurt it. see more
A national service program seems to be an idea whose time has come. Legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and to take back $88 million. Stories of evacuation and service at home. And Twitter shout-outs.
By NPCA Staff
Here are some top stories (and a couple of Tweets) on the Peace Corps community across the United States — and around the world. We include a sampling of opinion pieces and coverage from states and communities that are home to some of the 7,300 evacuated Volunteers — and nearly a quarter million Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Stay up to date throughout the week with our Flipboard stories, subscribe to the National Peace Corps Association newsletter, and follow us on social media.
The Washington Post | Editorial: The U.S. needs an army of workers to reopen. These senators have an idea for getting it.
May 7, 2020
“We need an army of workers to reopen the country,” begins an editorial from the Washington Post last week. “The good news is, a group of senators has an idea for where to find one.” The editorial was republished across the country, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to the Santa Fe New Mexican to the West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette. The gist: “Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), and several colleagues introduced legislation this week to pay for 750,000 national service positions over the next three years… The bill would prioritize Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright and other fellowship recipients, as well as, crucially, the many Americans this crisis has left unemployed…Standing up a ready-to-go cadre of Americans who can be deployed anywhere across the country would be instrumental in serving areas where staffing is relatively scarce and sickness is spreading — not only now but also in the many months ahead.”
The New York Times | Columnist David Brooks: “We Need National Service. Now.”
The formative moment for a new generation
May 7, 2020
The column by David Brooks calls for turning this moment of national crisis into a transformative one. “There’s a good bill winding its way through the Senate to do precisely that, led by Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.” That’s the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, introduced in April, which calls for expanding national service programs to help meet the need for as many as 300,000 new workers for contact tracing, testing, and other COVID-19 relief efforts. Peace Corps Volunteers get priority. "The Coons bill is an excellent start. But it needs to be bigger and bipartisan.” Brooks advocates for service year fellowships and notes: “There’s no reason this shouldn’t happen. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans support voluntary national service … And as we all know, the benefits of the program accrue not only to those being served but also to those doing the serving. What would it mean to the future social cohesion of this country if a large part of the rising generation had a common experience of shared sacrifice? What would it mean to our future politics if young people from Berkeley spent a year working side by side with young people from Boise, Birmingham and Baton Rouge?”
What we’ll note: For the past 59 years, Peace Corps Volunteers have been answering that very question.
Press Release from Senator Chris Van Hollen | Bicameral Legislation to Significantly Expand National Service in Response to Coronavirus Crisis
With momentum building to utilize national service programs during the pandemic, “UNITE Act” calls for increased AmeriCorps recruitment, expansion of a deployable FEMA force.
May 8, 2020
The latest release from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Edward Markey, and Rep. Dean Phillips calls for the swift passage of the UNITE Act — and underscores just how critical a role evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers can play during this domestic crisis.
Sen. Van Hollen: “Our national service organizations provide vital assistance to communities across our country and the globe. With a wide array of skills and experience, the volunteers with Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other service organizations are uniquely equipped to help our country battle the coronavirus. We should be doing everything in our power to enlist these men and women – and others who are eager to volunteer – in these efforts.”
Sen. Blumenthal: “We must expand the ability of mission-driven Americans from service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps to serve our country at this time of unprecedented crisis. From public health expertise to extensive experience working in vulnerable communities, these individuals have the invaluable skills to help our country rise to the immense challenges this pandemic has made us face.”
Rep. Phillips: “The Peace Corps represents the very best in American leadership on a global stage, with volunteers serving alongside communities in their fight against sickness, hunger, and economic insecurity. They are ready now to fight for the health of the American people. The United States must have a whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic that not only employs those who have lost their jobs or who’ve become underemployed, but also delivers relief to understaffed frontline workers.”
Press Release from Senator Jeff Duncan | Duncan introduces WUHAN Rescissions Act
Our take: Legislation would jeopardize funds that provided for health and safety of more than 7,300 evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers amid global pandemic.
May 4, 2020
File this under news you need to know — to take action to stop it. Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) introduced H.R. 6657, the Working Under Humanity’s Actual Needs (WUHAN) Rescissions Act, which calls for eliminating more than $27 billion from the CARES Act legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress and signed by President Trump in late March. Included in the new legislation is the proposed return of the $88 million appropriated for Peace Corps which covered evacuation and initial support costs for 7,300 volunteers. Read Representative Duncan's press release here. And read more about the co-sponsors — and how you can share your concern over this bill — here.
The Wall Street Journal | Eight Graduates Plan for an Uncertain World
Many of those leaving college this spring have had plans changed by the coronavirus. Members of the Class of 2020 speak about what’s next.
May 9, 2020
In story about young Americans facing uncertainty amid the coronavirus crisis, journalist Kathryn Dill profiles future Peace Corps Volunteer Colton Denton. A first-generation college grad, he hails from Phoenix, is finishing studies at Knox College in Illinois, and has been accepted for a Peace Corps assignment in Ukraine. Training has been postponed from August until September 30 — but may be delayed further. Graduation ceremonies have been postponed, too. “I just hope that it’ll happen before I leave for Peace Corps,” he says, ”assuming that still pulls through.”
The Hill | Opinion: During this historic time, remember to value public service
May 8, 2020
Dr. Joe Heck and Michael M. Crow start with the fact that we’re seeing how critical public service professionals are at a time of crisis. They make the case for a public service corps program across the country. Heck is chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University (ASU). They offer ASU’s Public Service Academy as a model — graduating its first cohort last year, including Turner Hubby, a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Ukraine teaching English as a second language.
Center for Strategic and International Studies | Blog: A Covid-19 Response Corps Can Help Stop the Pandemic
Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers could be readily mobilized.
May 5, 2020
Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) make the case for Peace Corps Volunteers playing a key role in COVID-19 response now. The authors are members of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security. Key takeaway one: "Volunteers have received training in — and many have up to two years’ work experience in — a variety of relevant issue areas, including water and sanitation, hygiene, and maternal and child health. They have experience integrating themselves into local communities, serving as community health workers, peer educators, and teachers. They could be quickly recruited into the CRC and put to work supporting the Covid-19 response across the country."
Key takeaway two: "We know that state and local health authorities are clamoring for such a workforce to combat coronavirus."
KRCR television news | Rep. Huffman and others call for prioritizing national service in future COVID-19 relief
Peace Corps volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects.
Northern California television station KRCR highlights the efforts of Reps. Jared Huffman, John B. Larson, and Dean Phillips to get House leadership to focus on national service priorities to aid in recovery efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. Included: Peace Corps Volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects. From the letter: “The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and its volunteers are on the front lines of the recovery effort, providing disaster assistance, educational opportunities, meal support and much more … Investing in the CNCS and reimagining the service of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are investments in the continued rebuilding of the nation.”
WDEL newsradio | A badly needed workforce
Legislation seeks to expand AmeriCorps to provide contact tracing, testing for pandemic response.
May 5, 2020
Coverage of legislation that Sen. Chris Coons introduced in April: “We know that we have a ready pool of returned Peace Corps volunteers, of current year AmeriCorps members, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, who have applied to be AmeriCorps members, but we haven't had the number of funded slots for them.”
Public Service Twitter Shout-outs | House Foreign Affairs Committee
May 9, 2020
To wrap up Public Service Recognition Week (May 3-9), the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted out thanks to Peace Corps Volunteers in a pair of posts.
“The U.S. is always lucky to have dedicated public servants but especially now, during the #COVID19 pandemic. This #PublicServiceRecognitionWeek we recognize the @StateDept, @USAID, @PeaceCorps and frontline personnel working through this crisis to make the world a better place.”
“And to @PeaceCorps volunteers who have been brought back home during this unprecedented time: thank you for your hard work. Though it was cut short, your commitment to service left an impact on your host community. #PSRW2020”
In the Twitter Zeitgeist | Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
May 4, 2020
Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban kicked off a conversation on Twitter May 3 calling for more national involvement in contact tracing and caring for people during the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Ed Markey joined in to share that he and Sen. Chris Van Hollen had introduced the UNITE Act to “test, trace, and assist the vulnerable.” Cuban’s response: Agree we need to expand @AmeriCorps, @PeaceCorps and other volunteer organizations. But in order for this to work there has to be someone in charge of a coordinated federal Public Health Covid response that can drive a solution driven plan. Patchwork legislation doesn't work.”
Kansas, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Nationwide | Stories of evacuation, community service, and recruiting RPCVs for jobs
The Masks Now Coalition is a grassroots movement of over 11,000 nationwide volunteers in every state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. who are working to help protect frontline workers and healthcare professionals through sewing and donating masks to organizations in need. They’ve teamed up with the group Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Serving at Home — with RPCVs making masks and, in the case of evacuated Volunteer Julie Wang, putting to work her skills as a graphic designer.
Hope and host family: a snapshot from Benin. Photo courtesy Hope Woodard
Two weeks after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Hope Woodard headed for Benin with Peace Corps. She had to evacuate nine months later. “In America, before COVID-19, we had everything at our fingertips,” she says. “I think that this moment, although it has caused a lot of hurt for some people, has allowed people to recalibrate what is important to them.”
“Peace Corps experience shortened due to COVID-19” | Salina Journal, Salina, Kansas
Mohri Exline served as the community and organizational development Volunteer in Albania when she got the fateful call: “I was called on a Thursday night and told to pack because we were being evacuated. The next morning they called and said they would be there at 9 a.m. to get me.”
Takeaway: The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security are actively recruiting returned Peace Corps volunteers. Agencies are hosting virtual jobs fairs and recruitment webinars to find new talent.
Stay up to date with the latest news about Peace Corps and COVID-19 global evacuation each day through our Flipboard stories. Here you’ll find a selection of stories from around the world about evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers, efforts to help them here at home, and how they’re helping the United States tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through community service, work as contact tracers, serving on the front lines in medicine, and more.
A perspective from Guatemala — at the NPCA global ideas summit July 18, 2020 see more
A host country perspective from Guatemala. Remarks from the July 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Luis Argueta
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Luis Argueta — film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
We are at an unprecedented situation worldwide because of this pandemic. It is a perfect time to ask some very basic questions about humanity in general and about the Peace Corps in particular.
From what I have seen here in Guatemala, the pandemic has revealed the vast differences between a small group of people who have a lot and the large majority who have very little. It has also revealed in its stark nakedness the structural deficiencies of states like Guatemala, where the economic disparities are tremendous. But also where the neglect of the large population for many, many years has caused the current critical situation where, for over 50 years, people's basic needs like education — and today, it's obvious health — have been not addressed.
Watch: Luis Argueta’s remarks at Peace Corps Connect to the Future
The response in Guatemala has been to create hospitals and to augment the number of beds that can be occupied by people who are ill with the COVID-19. That looks like a great solution. But in a system where we don't have basic access to minimal healthcare, this is not the solution.
By addressing this particular need, and by the Peace Corps focusing on the basic health needs of rural communities, we can start focusing on the future. Because when you need to go to a hospital to treat a minor illness that could be treated by a local health post — when there’s not even a clinic in the rural areas — I think we would be serving the communities in a very different way.
The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege.
Something that I have been particularly focusing my work on for the past 12-plus years is migration. And these structural deficiencies — these major differences in the country — have provoked what, to me, is one of the most crucial issues of our times: forced displacement, forced migration and asylum seeking.
The current situation is not making those things better. And even if borders today are closed, once they open — and we hope that will be sooner than later — people will be forced again to leave their homes. So, again, what is the Peace Corps to do at a time like this? I think it is to go and work at the very basic community level and helping better these conditions that are making it impossible for people to stay at home and be with their family and prosper and be healthy.
I don't think that this is a time to be shy about our common links and our historical connections. The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege. And it is to the betterment of everybody we self-reflect on our position in these communities.
At the same time that we self-reflect on our role and our privileges, and the privileges of Volunteers, we should look at the historical ties between the host countries and the U.S. It is a time of many contradictions.
Guatemalan immigrants, and immigrants from many other countries, are today in the U.S. working — and are considered, in many instances, essential workers. However, they also are risking being detained and deported. They're also suffering the effects of the pandemic in larger numbers, as are other minorities and more vulnerable populations in the U.S. We must recognize this.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world, because of very unfortunate isolationist policies.
So at the same time that we're reaching out to host countries — and hopefully, we will be receiving many more Peace Corps volunteers in the future — they're not issuing visas for my fellow Guatemalans to travel to the U.S. There is the threat of cutting visas even for exchange students who pay full tuition at U.S. universities, let alone temporary workers who go pick the crops in the fields of the U.S. So we must be conscious of these contradictions. And we must relearn the history between our countries.
One of the privileges that we should look at is the fact that, as the pandemic was declared, Peace Corps Volunteers were sent home. Fortunately, they were able to go home and are now with their families. However, this took them away from a place where they had committed to work — and where people without that privilege, that choice, had to remain in a more vulnerable position.
Definitely to me, this is a time of meditation, of self-reflection, and self-analysis — and, as hard as it might seem, to look forward to the future with hope. I wish everybody the best now and in the days to come.
Luis Argueta of Guatemala is a film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission. He is the 2019 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
Communications Intern 2 posted an articleA perspective from Kenya. July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future. see more
A host country perspective from Kenya. Remarks from the July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said — volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
Hi everybody, I’m happy to be given this chance to share with you some experiences. I’ll talk about three episodes regarding the Peace Corps. Peace Corps came at the correct time when many countries just gained their independence; the young people who came as Volunteers were disciplined and they really interacted with the community.
People in Kenya knew very little about the United States. With the coming of the Peace Corps Volunteers, who worked mainly in rural areas, people came to know more. And that was during during the Cold War. Discussions took place, and people felt at home with the Volunteers — and the Volunteers themselves felt at home. Thus that aim of the Peace Corps was achieved immediately.
The majority of the Volunteers were teachers, and I'm happy to say that most of the people who went through those schools — special high schools — and because of the Peace Corps, they did well in school and they have really served the community. That's the main aim of the Peace Corps: to empower the people.
Watch: Remarks by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said from July 18
As the years went on, especially in other fields, what Peace Corps Volunteers did was marvelous. In technical terms, whether in agriculture or in otherwise empowering people, they did a good job. The policy of the American government was seen on the ground; to see and talk to people and exchange ideas is when you learn more about the country. And it came as a cultural exchange: We learned technical fields, and we learned more about American culture and American people.
After the Cold War came another era — the era of terrorism, which really affected the work done by Volunteers in several countries. In some countries, the Volunteers couldn't go too deep in some areas. And as things change, especially in Kenya, they had to be pulled out; that was very sad. That also interfered with the work of the Peace Corps Volunteers.
And now there is a reckoning because of this pandemic. I think this a big a big blow to the Peace Corps itself — especially in Kenya, because we were just planning to bring in new Peace Corps Volunteers. We were ready to receive them, after they were pulled out about seven years ago. They were coming back. And unfortunately, all of a sudden this pandemic came.
Now is a very difficult time, especially for the work of the Peace Corps — because the Peace Corps Volunteers work with communities and interact with communities. With this pandemic, we don't know how long it will take. So unfortunately, that interaction is no longer there. Because when people are living together and working together, they learn from each other — and they learn each other's culture, even how to prepare traditional dishes. We shall miss all that.
How can the Peace Corps change and work from outside the country they're supposed to be in? How can the Volunteers work? It's a big challenge. And I think this we have to look at very critically. I don't see Volunteers coming back to the countries in the near future. So I think the best thing is to plan and see how we can interact. What we are doing now through Zoom most these days — people have learned to communicate. People are working from home; is it possible to give some technical advice from home? That's one thing we should look at.
I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
How can we revive or continue with the work that Peace Corps Volunteers were doing? They have left, and I'm sure that local people that are trying to contact them to do some work; it's a continuous train which goes on.
How can we survive during this pandemic? We need to look at ourselves and bring our heads together and see how the work can be done. We have seen it at the national conference taking place. And is it possible, at least to some extent, to carry on with the work we are doing in the stations we were through Zoom?
The other issue is the American situation. Just recently people were really shocked when the [government] said that international students who are there had to come back. I'm very happy that decision was revised. Such decisions sometimes, unfortunately, affect ordinary people who have children there and who are starting their own family; they hope that they will get the education they need in America and then come back. So if all of a sudden they said that "No, because of this pandemic, you have to go back," it becomes difficult.
But also, if I can mention what has happened recently in the States — especially the brutality which is going on: That really affected so many people all over the world. I'm glad that things are being worked out, and I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
People are very sensitive, especially in terms of human rights; people are saying that especially that America, this democracy, is usually the first to talk about and harass other countries when there is abuse of human rights. And here people are looking at especially the security guys and themselves doing such things. As human beings, we should all learn to live with each other and respect each other — and work together.
Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya is a volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels. He is the 2013 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
In a time of global crisis, Lex Rieffel explores new ways forward for Peace Corps. see more
COVID-19 upended systems. Now we’re focused on structural racism like never before. So how can Peace Corps help this nation live up to its ideals?
By Lex Rieffel
Illustration by Sandra Dionsi / Theispot
The COVID-19 pandemic that erupted at the beginning of this year massively disrupted behavior that has for a long time been taken for granted — between people and between nations. Then in May the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman sparked unprecedented demonstrations around the world to end systemic racial discrimination and improve social justice.
Years will pass before new patterns of home life and work life become normal and before international relations achieve new forms of openness and interaction. Policies, programs, projects, and institutions will have to be adapted to meet this new reality. It will not be easy. It will require political will not seen since World War II, and a reckoning with racism that precedes the founding of the United States.
As it prepares to celebrate in 2021 its 60th year of working to make the world a better place, the Peace Corps, too, will have to change. Even the three goals announced at its founding will need to be reconsidered:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Perhaps the focus should be less on training and more on meeting global challenges like climate change and conflict.
MY PEACE CORPS GROUP, India XVI, served in the mid-1960s. This was the heyday of the Peace Corps. It had blossomed to become a vibrant agency in less than ten years, with almost 16,000 Volunteers serving in scores of countries. Then the Vietnam War and President Nixon crippled both the supply of volunteers and the demand from host countries, reducing the number of serving Volunteers to under 5,000 in the early 1980s.
A passionate campaign in that decade produced enough bipartisan support in the Congress to stop the decline in the number of Volunteers and begin a slow buildup. However, three successive presidents — Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama — failed to achieve their election campaign pledges to double the number of serving Volunteers from the levels they had inherited; Clinton inherited some 5,400, Obama just over 7,000 — about the number now. There was insufficient support in the Congress for a bigger Peace Corps budget to overcome the opposition of a vocal minority. Voters seemed convinced that U.S. national security depended more on putting boots on the ground overseas than sneakers on the ground.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress has strengthened during the Trump Presidency. A bill was introduced in the House last year to defund the Peace Corps and attracted more than 100 votes. It’s easy to imagine the Peace Corps being defunded in a second Trump Administration. But it’s also possible to imagine a stronger Peace Corps emerging under a new president.
Revolutionary and Inclusive
Wearing my economist hat, here is my best guess about the supply and demand for Peace Corps Volunteers, regardless of who is elected in November.
It seems likely that more American men and women will be interested in joining the Peace Corps in the coming years because higher education and the job market in the USA have been so greatly disrupted. Even before the pandemic arrived, the job market was being reshaped by artificial intelligence, robotics, and other factors. The “normal” pattern of getting a full-time job with benefits was no longer the default option for many graduates. The gig economy was expanding visibly.
The pandemic has delivered a body blow to higher education that will almost certainly lead to dramatic changes. Already we see far more high school graduates exploring gap year options. More fundamentally, financial constraints are likely to reduce residential enrollment substantially for several years. College dropouts and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, regardless of their age, may find the Peace Corps and other forms of public service to be appealing options.
The biggest unknown on the supply side is how the current debate on national service will play out. Too few Americans are aware of the existence of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Mandated by the Congress in the authorizing legislation for FY2017, the Commission issued its final report in March 2020, and held its public rollout on June 25. Its recommendations represent “a revolutionary and inclusive approach to service for Americans.”
The National Commission found compelling reasons “to cultivate a widespread culture of service” in the United States. Its report states that bold action is required, not incremental change. Its recommendations begin with “comprehensive civic education and service learning starting in kindergarten” and extend to making service-year opportunities so ubiquitous that “service becomes a rite of passage for millions of young adults.” If acted upon, the result will enhance national security and strengthen our democratic system.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031. Among these, it calls for one million to be supported by federal funding, ten times the number currently supported. The Peace Corps is explicitly included in this vision, though the Commission does not recommend a specific number of Peace Corps Volunteers. It does explicitly call for an expansion of Peace Corps Response, making the program more accessible to older Americans and people with disabilities, with increased opportunities for “virtual” volunteering.
The pandemic could actually accelerate the idea of creating a voluntary national service norm, for women as well as men. Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to scale up AmeriCorps and other domestic service programs. Experts and activists have called for establishing new programs for rapid employment of contact tracers and health workers to stop the pandemic in the USA. The ongoing demonstrations against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have brought forth proposals for new community-based service initiatives. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created in the Great Depression of the 1930s has been cited as a model for a form of service program that could emerge to reduce the highest unemployment rate the country has seen in the past 75 years: 14.7 percent at the end of April and 13.3 percent at the end of May.
The Peace Corps budget is a tiny part of the federal budget. For example, its appropriation of $410.5 million for FY2020 was less than two-tenths of one percent of the Defense Department’s budget request for weapons procurement. It shouldn’t take much political will in the Congress to double or triple the Peace Corps’ budget if there is growing voter support for national service. The crucial question will then become how many of the men and women seeking a service opportunity will be attracted to living in a foreign country. A big part of the answer will depend on evolving perceptions of the health and security risks of working outside the USA. Quite possibly, fewer Americans will want to spend two years in some remote village in a country they couldn’t find on a map, even with a promise of reliable internet access. On the other hand, some of the recently repatriated Peace Corps volunteers are continuing their service online, and forms of virtual service internationally may become more feasible and attractive.
In short, the supply could conceivably be sufficient to produce a Peace Corps with as many as 100,000 volunteers serving abroad by 2031, but that must be considered a best-case outcome.
The demand from host countries, by contrast, may be insufficient to even maintain the pre-pandemic level of 7,000 volunteers in the field. There will be an early test of this demand: how many of the 60-odd countries hosting volunteers before the pandemic erupted will welcome them back. The process of renegotiating programs with these countries will undoubtedly be challenging.
Who needs the Peace Corps?
In the 1960s, the whole world — even countries in the Communist Bloc — looked up to the USA with envy because of its high standard of living, its rich culture (movies, theaters, museums, etc.), its outstanding universities, its technological advances (putting men on the moon), its fight for civil rights, its enduring democratic political system, its international leadership. Few countries still look up to the USA in this comprehensive way. Over the past two decades or more, we have squandered our position of preeminence.
It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration.
That’s just the beginning of the problem. The process of globalization led by the United States started slowing down with the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001 and halted with the Global Financial Crisis emanating from the USA in 2007–08. By 2015, globalization was unwinding. That was the year the refugee exodus from the Middle East quickly led most European countries to restrict immigration severely. Another big setback came with the Brexit vote in June 2016, followed a few months later by the election of President Trump on an anti-globalization platform. It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration. Climate change is likely to produce more border closing than border opening.
In short, in a world where most governments are preoccupied with addressing internal problems and in which internet access is penetrating into the far corners of the globe, few countries are likely to need Peace Corps volunteers or want them.
At the same time, the rise of China and other countries forces us to reconsider our national security in a world where the U.S. population of 330 million represents barely 4 percent of Earth’s total population of 7.7 billion. Military power cannot possibly be enough to maintain the respect of the rest of the world. To some extent, this power seems to have made the rest fear the USA more than admire it. In this case, America’s national security may depend greatly on how well the rest of the world understands the positive features of our country. Promoting that understanding just happens to be the second goal of the Peace Corps.
FROM A DEEPER DIVE into the risk of border-related conflict in the coming decades emerges an argument that a “whole world peace corps” is needed more than lots of separate national Peace Corps-like programs. Thus, the most ambitious approach to reinventing the Peace Corps might be to transform the existing UN Volunteer program into a World Peace Corps, with every country establishing an affiliate. The U.S. Peace Corps, for example, would be rebranded as “World Peace Corps - USA.”
By contrast, the least ambitious vision for the post-pandemic Peace Corps would be to re-establish its recent level of 7,000 serving volunteers, making the adjustments necessary to restore programs with previous host countries and find some new ones. This should be doable — though it’s important not to underestimate the complexities that will arise.
So, what is the most impactful and politically feasible approach that the large “Peace Corps family” should pursue? A time of crisis like today’s provides an ideal opportunity to assess and debate alternatives. For this reason, the National Peace Corps Association is convening a summit on July 18 to explore the future of Peace Corps — and the broader Peace Corps community.
Among options worth considering: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them.
There are a number of options worth considering between a World Peace Corps and reverting to the barely visible program of the past 40 years. Most important among them may be two-way service programs: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them. This was part of Sargent Shriver’s vision back in the 1960s, but it was a nonstarter with the U.S. Congress. Now we have to ask ourselves why any country negotiating with the Peace Corps would fail to insist on a two-way program.
The resistance, sadly, will be within the USA, despite the fact that there is an abundance of service work that men and women from foreign countries could usefully do here. Disaster relief is just one obvious area. Few Americans know that thousands of individuals in Ireland raised more than $3 million for the Navajo nation to help fight the pandemic. Firefighters have come from as far away as Australia to battle wildfires in California and other states.
Teaching is probably the most interesting area for two-way service. Think of the benefits of having at least one foreign teacher in every middle school and high school in the USA. They could teach foreign languages, geography, music, sports, and more. Their counterparts, Americans serving as volunteer teachers abroad, would do the same.
This could be the easiest way to build on the Third Goal of the Peace Corps in the post-pandemic world: helping Americans to better understand people in the rest of the world. It would also represent a strong step to counter allegations that the Peace Corps is a manifestation of “white saviorism.”
Such a two-way teaching program could be established within the State Department (like the Fulbright and the Humphrey programs) or under the Corporation for National and Community Service. But there is one glaring problem here.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress won’t go away in a post-Trump administration. A bigger, better, bolder Peace Corps in its current form as a federal agency may well be a political nonstarter even under a Democratic administration. If so, converting the Peace Corps from a U.S. government agency to an independent, private sector NGO might represent the best chance to build an international service program that continues to be “the best face of America overseas.”
With a nonpartisan board of trustees composed of eminent personalities, this NGO could be generously funded by individual donors, foundations, and corporations, as well as receiving core grants from the federal budget. Largely freed from government fetters, it could iterate toward an array of programs of international service that contribute materially to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Operating within this organization, the Peace Corps could remain the gold standard of international service.
Yet now we have a fresh challenge — which is also coming to terms with a very old problem. To remain the gold standard, the Peace Corps will have to become more diverse, more inclusive. The report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service has noted that our existing federal service programs have primarily benefited people from better educated and higher income families. This is true about the Peace Corps as much as other programs.
I hope readers will not simply “stay tuned” for a report from the National Peace Corps Association following the July 18 summit. I hope they will weigh in with constructive comments. For sure, there will be no consensus on how the Peace Corps should evolve, but I believe that the members of the Peace Corps family — more than 200,000 strong — are in the best position to understand the challenges and find a sensible way forward.
Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67) is a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center. He served two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy before joining the Peace Corps. He has been an economist with the Treasury Department and USAID, a senior advisor for the Institute of International Finance, and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Unprecedented Times. Powerful stuff. Stories that brought tears. see more
I’m writing to congratulate and thank you for the current issue of WorldView. It’s the most powerful thing in print I’ve seen from Peace Corps since I received my acceptance letter in 1969. Congrats to everyone involved on a mammoth job so very well done.
Most remarkable WorldView ever, both the quality of the product and the effort it took to gather and edit the stories. What we may have is the substance for a book, proceeds from which would fund NPCA services and support to returning Volunteers. Two quotes (both from the stories from China): “A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational” and, “To assume that the Chinese government and people are the same is a fallacy.”
I wept my way through reading WorldView. The evacuation stories both broke my heart and raised my spirit. I could not help but imagine myself being torn away from my community, friends, counterparts, programs, and much more, had I had to leave Paraguay (where I served) within 24 hours. Unbearable thought for me and yet excruciatingly real for 6,892 Volunteers. Their stories were beautiful and so painful. I was buoyed up with an affirmation that Peace Corps is still making its unique contributions worldwide. Not just in the countries where Volunteers serve, but also in the Volunteers themselves. Peace Corps must survive this global pandemic. We need it now more than ever.
Congratulations on the rapid launching of your Global Reentry program. NPCA has risen to the challenges of today in so many fabulous ways. Thank you for your leadership.
Engaging, thoughtful, and truly remarkable — I’ve read it in print cover to cover, and will read it again online. This one’s a keeper.
Peter de Groot
PCV Benin 1980–82
Peace Corps Trainer, Africa, 1983–92
Amazing with the stories from the country directors closing their sites. These stories bring a world of hurt thinking about what each had to go through to plan their departures, and the Volunteers having to say “goodbye.”
On behalf of our RPCV Gulf Coast Florida group: We were touched to read the heartrending stories of so many evacuated PCVs, and especially Missi Smith’s eloquent lament, “I’m Tired.”
For our signature project, we have dedicated ourselves to fundraising for and assisting the African American community in the heart of Sarasota called Newtown, through its grassroots organization, Newtown Alive. African American residents played a major role in the development of Sarasota. Black labor cleared snake-infested land for real estate developers, laid railroad ties, harvested celery, helped plant golf courses, and labored in the homes of Sarasota’s power brokers — cooking, cleaning, and rearing children. The men and women fought for equal rights, triumphed over Jim Crow segregation, KKK intimidation, and vigilante violence. Today, a diverse group of historians, community scholars, and others have united to present the dramatic history of strivers who refused to give up. More: rpcvgcf.peacecorpsconnect.org
Leita Kaldi Davis
Lillian Carter Award Recipient 2017
We need to find ways to make the Peace Corps in its current form “bigger, better, bolder” and give the Third Goal more explicit attention.
Terrific — packed with timely, important news that helps put unprecedented issues impacting the Peace Corps into perspective. I hope all past and future Volunteers and staff will go through the magazine cover-to-cover. I especially like“Our Unprecedented Times,” tracing momentous events and decisions which have changed not only Peace Corps but also our nation and the entire world. And Lex Rieffel’s “The Peace Corps in the Post-Pandemic World,” while controversial, is worth pondering. I disagree with proposals to convert the Peace Corps into something other than an independent federal agency, but I agree we need to find ways to make the Peace Corps in its current form “bigger, better, bolder” and give the Third Goal more explicit attention. We must have more conversations about the ideals, relevance, and mission of the Peace Corps in a rapidly-changing world and make sure the Peace Corps truly reflects America’s diversity and has the resources it needs to get Volunteers back into the field as soon as it is safe to do so.
Michael H. Anderson
Board Member, Friends of Malaysia
Well written and edited — a pleasure to read, though my eyes fill with tears as I learn Volunteers’ stories of their emergency evacuations. That many returned Volunteers can continue to communicate with their colleagues and friends living in remote places is one benefit not afforded earlier Volunteers. Nevertheless, the bonds are immutable; after 40 years, I and a fellow RPCV returned to the sites where we trained and supervised healthcare providers and located many of them because of their long, successful careers. We only had to ask a few strangers who recognized faces in old photos. (See WorldView Spring 2018.)
I hope evacuated Volunteers are able to return to their work, if they so choose.
You managed to convey the urgency of the moment and the vast disappointment of so many.
As a longtime journalist, allow me to say that you’ve done a great job. The coverage of the withdrawal of Peace Corps from its posts was absolutely terrific. The text cover, a brilliant graphic touch, was only the beginning of a fascinating issue. You managed to convey the urgency of the moment and the vast disappointment of so many. These are terribly difficult times for us all, particularly painful for Peace Corps and the many new, reluctantly-made, RPCVs.
Fabulous edition! I’m sending my copy off to my granddaughter, who was considering joining. Here’s hoping she has the chance!!
Greetings from the Solomons. I am missing my WorldView mags due to no mail from the States for months. Glad to know there is an online edition. COVID19 has held up the reopening of the Peace Corps office for the Solomons this year and the bringing in of new PCVs in 2021.
Solomon Islands 1974–78
Reading stories of the evacuated Volunteers brought back memories of my service 50 years ago in the Philippines. The agricultural school where I was assigned is now a full-fledged university. Some current students are likely to be the grandchildren of students I taught while there. Best wishes for continuing Peace Corps ideals in the future.
Philippines Group 36
Some time ago, my daughter was notified that she is on a list for training for Guinea. She is diligently working on French. I hope this pandemic can be brought under control before many more months pass; she doesn’t want to miss this opportunity.
The issue of WorldView that tells the stores of the PCVs being recalled was absolutely fabulous.
Costa Rica 1964–66
What a work by dedicated individuals! I served in the first group to go to Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1963. Thank you to those who shared, captured the info, and created this issue.
Truly wonderful issue. Thanks for your hard work in writing and putting it together.
Fantastic! Thought provoking and meaningful, from the global evacuation to the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and the very future of the Peace Corps.
Powerful and well-written, this article by Missi Smith challenges us to take action, giving us a clear list of things we can actually do to move our society toward racial equality.
Ecuador 1970–74, Nicaragua 1974–75
It is fabulous, and I would like to share among family and friends, to encourage some to join the Peace Corps and others to take action. Missi Smith’s essay, “I’m Tired,” is powerful. The statements from the PCVs who were evacuated testify to the incredible importance of the Peace Corps around the world, especially as global ambassadors. I have just now made contribution to the NPCA and will add it to my annual giving list. Keep up the good work! The return of Peace Corps to the wider world is in my prayers.
It is fabulous, and I would like to share among family and friends, to encourage some to join the Peace Corps and others to take action.
I got my edition and immediately called my brother, the father of an evacuated 25-year-old volunteer from Botswana. I told him I would keep this edition as a keepsake for my nephew, saying it was historical and powerful and moving! If one can order second copies please let us know. We continue to support and pray for these Volunteers and communities!
Indeed, we’re happy to send more! Support from NPCA members and donors makes it possible for us to tell stories that matter.
A few questions: What kind of a journal has no place for readers’ responses — and simply takes current headlines and applies them to something entirely different? Do you really think there is systematic racism in this country and the Peace Corps is part of it?
James Eric Lane
Find all the stories mentioned here in the Summer 2020 edition of WorldView magazine. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.
Dr. Anthony Fauci Sends Words of Encouragement as NPCA Launches Emergency Response Network with Contact Tracers Helping During the PandemicIntroducing the NPCA Emergency Response Network see more
Welcomed by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Kilmarx from the National Institutes of Health, the first cohort of NPCA contact tracers is training to begin work in King County, Washington.
By Dan Baker
Renowned infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci offered words of encouragement and inspiration as the first cohort of the National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network began training as contact tracers on October 28. These inaugural members of the NPCA Emergency Response Network will work as contact tracers with the Department of Health of Seattle and King County, Washington.
“I am a longstanding admirer of your passion and dedication to a purpose greater than yourselves,” Dr. Fauci told the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. “I am profoundly grateful for your resilience and your adaptability that has enabled you to transfer your skills and commitment to this urgent need in our country to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control.”
“I am profoundly grateful for your resilience and your adaptability that has enabled you to transfer your skills and commitment to this urgent need in our country to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control.”
— Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH
Dr. Fauci serves has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with the National Institutes of Health since 1984. As he noted in his remarks, a number of returned Volunteers in this inaugural cohort of the Emergency Response Network were evacuated from the countries where they were serving in March as COVID-19 swept across the globe.
Watch Dr. Fauci’s full remarks here:
The idea of putting evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers to work as contact tracers to help during the pandemic is an idea NPCA has worked toward since March. One of the advocates for that has been Dr. Peter Kilmarx, who joined the event by Zoom. He serves as deputy director of the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. With decades of experience working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Kilmarx served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1980s in Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire.
“Today is an exciting milestone in the National Peace Corps Association’s efforts to engage RPCVs in the COVID-19 response,” Dr. Kilmarx told the returned Volunteers, “and an exciting day for those of you joining the historic global effort to control this pandemic … Done right, contact tracing is very effective. In New Zealand, contact tracers brought the average time from onset of illness to isolation from 7·2 days in March, to negative 2.7 days in April. That means that on average, cases were isolated 2.7 days before they fell ill, and local transmission in New Zealand dropped to zero.”
“If you ask me, ‘What makes a great contact tracer?’ I would say, ‘A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer,’ or anyone with that kind of resilience, cultural competence, and a spirit of service to the community.”
— Dr. Peter Kilmarx, NIH
Dr. Kilmarx also traced the efforts going back months to involve more returned Volunteers in contact tracing. ”If you ask me, ‘What makes a great contact tracer?’ I would say, ‘A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer,’ or anyone with that kind of resilience, cultural competence, and a spirit of service to the community.”
Watch Dr. Kilmarx’s full remarks here:
The NPCA Emergency Response Network's initial efforts in Seattle are being coordinated by John Berry, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger 1986–89 and has extensive experience in international development program design and management. Forum One, a full-service digital agency with RPCVs on staff, provided NPCA with digital strategy and design for this new program.
King County was the setting of the first significant COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, and the Department of Health has been a leader in the fight against the pandemic, so it is fitting that the Seattle area will be the first focus for NPCA’s response efforts. We continue to discuss similar partnerships with other health departments around the country, and we’re confident that others will see the value of working with RPCVs through this network.
Read more about the NPCA Emergency Response Network and opportunities for partnership here.
Dan Baker is the director of NPCA’s Global Reentry Program. Reach him at (202) 934-1534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor Steven Saum speaks on issues of the current times and how NPCA can move forward. see more
Peace Corps teaches us a new way to think about time. Pandemic does, too. So what do we do with this?
By Steven Boyd Saum
ACROSS THE DECADES and countries and communities where tens of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers have served, there are a few things we share. One: a new grasp of time. Be it seasons or how we count the days, a revised sense of punctuality or the value of hours in terms of money or daylight, be it devoted to sleep or preparing a meal or hiking to the well, be it in the presence of friends or alone with this self you are becoming — one of the gifts: to be invited into a new way of measuring a life. Step outside of the this, then this, then this. Also a gift: the dawning of the truth that empathy and understanding are not transactional stuff, giver and receiver both richer, stronger, wiser, more human.
Now here we are: old strictures of time dissolved, pandemic time warping the distance between today and last Monday until that day is shockingly distant. When time itself has taken on new meaning—or lack thereof. But how?
It’s been nearly nine months since most Volunteers around the world got the news — via phone call or email or WhatsApp: Because of COVID-19, they were being evacuated. The pandemic was burning its way across the globe. In this country and others, it still exacts a terrible toll. As we put the fall edition of WorldView magazine to bed, globally there have been 43 million cases and 1.16 million people have died, more than 226,000 lives lost in the United States alone.
We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon.
We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, which I call home, this was the year of the Blade Runner sky: Dry lightning sparked hundreds of fires up and down the Golden State, including the largest blaze in recorded history — more than 1 million acres. As summer faded, fires were burning up and down the West Coast of the United States and Canada, fulfillment of Cassandra climate change warnings that would visit themselves upon us within a quarter century if we didn’t do something now. Then here they were.
To Louisiana came four named storms: Marco, Laura, Beta, Delta — the second of that lot blowing the fiercest winds of any tropical cyclone in modern history to make landfall on the Bayou State.
The arc of a storm, the arc of history, the path of the fire or the pandemic of COVID or hateful racism: Where will we find ourselves in the time that matters? Digging the perimeter to halt the flames, preparing meals for the first responders, helping someone breathe?
WorldView Fall 2020: What’s the role of Peace Corps now? Cover illustration by David Plunkert.
THIS UNPRECEDENTED MOMENT, 2020 continued. Let us speak of world peace and friendship. We’ve just begun commemorating six decades since this whole audacious Peace Corps endeavor caught the 1960 election-year zeitgeist. Origin story: 2 a.m. at the University of Michigan on a drizzly and chilly October 14, cut to San Francisco’s Cow Palace on November 2, and not even six weeks after inauguration day 1961 there’s the executive order on 3/1/61 — JFK signs the Peace Corps into being. Youthful idealism that set in motion something that could and should be the best of what this nation aspires to be.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when I was teaching contemporary American literature as a Volunteer in western Ukraine — the independent country then all of three years old — the poem that most fired my students’ imaginations was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting.” It is a litany of an American promise unfulfilled, ideals unmet, but that does not mean giving up:
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
Because as we studied this Beat poet (now 101!) I asked these future teachers and bankers, singers and city council members, mothers and fathers and citizens — notebooks, please: What are you waiting for?
WE ARE HOPING for Volunteers to return to communities around the world, knowing what’s ahead is uncharted for all. Yet ambassadors and colleagues, students and families have all asked: When? Because solidarity, not charity, calls. Yet we know that the safety and security of communities and Volunteers must circumscribe what is possible. And these cannot be empty words.
Because we carry with sorrow and compassion a tragic truth underscored in recent weeks. In January 2018, Bernice Heiderman, from Inverness, Illinois, was serving as a Volunteer in Comoros. As a New York Times article detailed this fall, she contracted and died from undiagnosed malaria. Had it been treated, she might have made a full recovery. She was 24 years old.
To her loved ones, the Peace Corps community sends the deepest condolences. And a pledge to ensure that the agency does better. As NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst wrote in an open letter, “The current challenge of suspended Peace Corps programming provides a tremendous opportunity—and clear responsibility—for the agency to engage global health experts, Congress, and the broad Peace Corps community in a transparent dialogue on where improvements in volunteer health care are needed and what is needed to implement those improvements ... And we must commit to the care and well-being of these Volunteers in a changed world.”
We can do nothing less.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He was as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Fall 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.
A phone call and a lesson from Niger in the time of COVID see more
A phone call and a lesson from Niger in the time of COVID
By William F.S. Miles
Photo: Faralu, a friend in Niger who reached out to the author to make sure his family was OK.
Early in our new COVID-19 era last spring, a phone call and forwarded WhatsApp message from near my old Peace Corps site poignantly reminded me of the transnational compassion and solidarity that Peace Corps engenders.
Twenty years ago I had received a similar urgent message of concern. Then it was about my 10-year-old son, Samuel, with whom I had just visited my friends in the hinterlands of West Africa to settle an inheritance dispute over my Sahelian horse. My friends were greatly afraid for Sam’s safety, for they had heard on the radio chilling news about America: on March 5, 2001, a 15-year-old high school student in California shot 13 schoolmates, killing two. It was the tenth school shooting since the Columbine massacre, two years before. From what my African friends were hearing in the local language, thanks to Voice of America and the BBC, our children go to school in the morning and are regularly shot to death by other children.
Now Faralu — my former horse groom, he who had defended my property rights in Niger even after a decade since my previous visit there — is asking: Are my children, wife, and mother safe from this new sickness that is raging everywhere in the world? Everywhere except — at least for now, thanks to Allah — his own nation, Niger.
Amirou Albade is the President of the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger, one of the most respected positions in a country where the weight of socio-cultural norms is strongly felt. Photo by Juan Haro / UNICEF Niger
Life in Niger has long been one of daily struggle — anxiety from inadequate rains, little money, children dying from simple infections. Few Nigériens have running water or electricity. Beggars and blind folk still abound; flies afflict, diarrheal infants die. The average per capita income is less than two dollars a day. But the spirit of solidarity reigns supreme and resilience is second nature. So is the acceptance of mortality that comes with faith. Even if COVID-19 does infiltrate, it will not threaten the social fabric as it is already starting to do in more patently “developed” societies.
I am always humbled by such expressions of concern from my materially impoverished friends, be they about illness from an acute new virus or the chronic one that periodically prompts the young among my people to kill their schoolmates. They do not turn their back on their friends when disaster strikes; we should not, either.
Amirou Albade makes a door-to-door visit to a family in Niamey, capital of Niger, to inform and encourage them with the facts that can help protect them from Covid-19. Photo by Juan Haro / UNICEF Niger
Even as our bandwidth, print space, and airwaves have been colonized by coronavirus news, we should not forget our global responsibilities. Through no virtue of our own, most Americans happen to have been born into a prosperous nation. Not all of our co-citizens are prosperous, of course — an inequitable fact that is being made more and more obvious as coronavirus rages. Yet we still won the global lottery by the luck of birthplace. Even if the current pandemic is challenging casual cheerleaders of globalization — and I admit to having been one of them — we should not succumb to the temptation of restricting our compassion by citizenship. If the pandemic is a global crisis, the solution must be no less global — and personal, too.
Niger’s population of 24 million is close to that of Florida’s. As I write this, the Sunshine State has registered 726,000 cases of COVID-19 and 15,000 deaths; Niger, with 3 million more inhabitants, has had 1,200 cases and 69 deaths. The U.S. as whole, with almost 14 times the population of Niger, has well over 3,000 times more fatalities from the coronavirus.
End of shift: Early morning, a nurse with CURE Niger heads home. Photo by Ana Psiaki / CURE Niger
Not that Niger is a healthcare paragon. And there the government-mandated closing of mosques has not been without controversy — in a few pockets even violent protest. But there has been no crowing that “their” God is a better protector than ours, no groundswell of protest against the mandate to wear masks in the capital city.
Whether through the U.S. Armed Forces or the Peace Corps, hundreds of thousands of Americans have forged close relationships with “host country nationals” in the developing nations where they have served. Even in this moment of national health crisis, we should remember our friends from abroad. I am sure they are all — like Faralu, who called again during the fast of Ramadan to convey his concern — remembering us. And I am also quite certain that they have the equivalent of this proverb in Faralu’s native language: “From the friend who weeps in hearing of your sorrow, hide not your own.”
William F.S. Miles served as a Volunteer in Magaria, Niger, 1977–79. His daughter Arielle Miles also served as a Volunteer in Kenya 2009–11. Bill teaches political science at Northeastern University in Boston. His Peace Corps-inspired memoir, My African Horse Problem, is published by the University of Massachusetts Press. An earlier version of this article was published at The Wisdom Daily under the title “Interfaith Pandemic Solidarity.”
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A Volunteer on his first experience organizing meetings with Congress to advocate for Peace Corps see more
A Volunteer evacuated from Mongolia on work to help members of Congress understand the value of Peace Corps service — and what they can do to help
By Daniel Lang
The summer of 2019 I was training to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia. More politically involved peers raised concerns that we should not take for granted that legislators would continue to fund the Peace Corps; more than 100 members of the House voted to defund it. That fall I swore in as a Volunteer and a close friend, Austin Frenes, began service in China. We both received assignments as university English instructors.
In January 2020, Austin learned his cohort would be China’s last; the program would, in Peace Corps terms, graduate. Mongolia began to restrict travel amid a preemptive quarantine. Peace Corps China consolidated in Thailand — then ended. In February, Peace Corps Mongolia evacuated; we were put on administrative hold. A week later, home in Nevada, I got word that our service was closing. I’m waiting to hear when we might reinstate.
I wasn’t looking for a leadership role in organizing meetings with members of Congress. I had no experience as a citizen lobbyist. But in August I saw a call to action email from National Peace Corps Association asking me to do exactly that, as part of a “virtual district office initiative.” I attended a webinar and learned NPCA had no documented meetings of returned Volunteers with Nevada’s congresspeople. I knew our legislators could do more to support Peace Corps.
The possibility of making important contributions like this are why, we said, it was important for Peace Corps to both become better and to redeploy.
NPCA’s Advocacy Director Jonathan Pearson helped me to decide which lawmakers to meet with. He put me in touch with other Nevada RPCVs whose service spanned continents and decades. They were strangers to me personally, but we had that common bond as Volunteers. They also echoed advice I had heard in training: We might not know the greatest impact of our service for years to come.
Earlier in the summer I had shared a story of my Peace Corps service with a high school classmate. Through her, we were able to arrange a Zoom call with the staff of my congressman, Steven Horsford (D-NV) in September. On the call were fellow Volunteers Alexis Zickafoose (Georgia, 2018-20), Alan Klawitter (Liberia, 1975-77), Taj Ainlay (Malaysia, 1973-75) and Kathleen DeVleming (Ethiopia, 1972-74). Alexis was just finishing her second year of service when she was evacuated. Alan and Taj shared stories of their service and the impacts of Peace Corps over the years — reasons why we were asking our representative to support H.R. 3456, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act introduced by RPCV Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), and H.R. 6833, the Utilizing and Supporting Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers Act introduced by Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN).
RPCVs in the Show Me State: A district meeting with staff from U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) included Kirsty Morgan (Kazakhstan 1998–2000), Erin Robinson (South Africa 2005–07), Don Spiers (Venezuela 1973–75), Joseph O’Sullivan (Brazil 1973–75), Amy Morros (Mali 1996–98), and Mia Richardson (North Macedonia 2018–20), founder of RPCVs Serving at Home. Photo by Amy Morros
Kathleen raised points about the skill sets of many Volunteers, and the importance of legislation aimed at putting RPCVs to work to help combat the pandemic here at home. She spoke about the work that her husband, John DeVleming, had done to eradicate smallpox in Ethiopia while serving as a Volunteer and working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The possibility of making important contributions like this are why, we said, it was important for Peace Corps to both become better and to redeploy.
I realized a few things from this experience. This work is all in our Third Goal — helping Americans, including our representatives and senators in Congress, better understand the world. It’s also part of showing openness, adaptability, and flexibility. And serving as a citizen lobbyist at home is much like engaging in citizen diplomacy abroad.
Ultimately, all U.S. citizens can contact our leaders — or, should I say, our public servants. I know we’re all called to act in different hours. I felt this as my hour. I hope you consider this, too. Let’s help make sure that Peace Corps endures as something even better than it has been.
As of press time, RPCV advocates have organized 30 virtual district office meetings across 16 states, with dozens of additional meetings being sought. Make plans to participate in our next round of district meetings, coming in March 2021 during our annual National Days of Action.
The Eastern Caribbean will be the first to welcome back Volunteers. see more
The Eastern Caribbean will be the first to welcome back Volunteers.
By WorldView Staff
The big news out of Peace Corps HQ on October 14: Volunteers will begin returning to service in January 2021. The Eastern Caribbean will be the first to welcome back Volunteers. “Our decision to return to the field follows months of extensive preparations and review, and I am extremely grateful to the many staff and host country partners who contributed to this effort,” said Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen. “I also salute the evacuated volunteers who are joining us as we take these first steps to resume operations and begin the celebration of our 60th anniversary.”
“Our decision to return to the field follows months of extensive preparations and review, and I am extremely grateful to the many staff and host country partners who contributed to this effort.”
—Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen
This news comes after more than eight months of uncertainty, with Americans who have been invited to serve as new Volunteers still on hold. What about other programs and regions?
One answer, on the Peace Corps website as of mid-October: “Due to the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallouts in every post, we cannot address timing yet.” Though more news may be coming throughout the fall. Right now, plans for return include COVID testing and 14 days of quarantine when Volunteers arrive in the country where they are serving — with a caveat that quarantine periods may vary from country to country.
Peace Corps has posted general estimates for when Volunteers might return to service globally: either mid-2021 or late 2021, depending on region and sector. A crowdsourced list on a Facebook group for evacuated Volunteers (featured in our summer edition) has listed returns to service country by country, specifying which month — from January to November.
Other ways Peace Corps expects service to change: Initial cohorts will be small, sites near a medical unit, travel restricted. (See Jody Olsen’s remarks from the Peace Corps Connect to the Future Global Ideas Summit for more.) Another factor in the answer: Many of the 61 countries in which Volunteers were serving have not experienced the severity of pandemic that has hit the United States. Some Pacific island nations where Peace Corps Volunteers were serving have reported zero cases of COVID-19.
Universities in the United States offer some lessons in the complexity of opening up programs again. Some have managed to keep the virus in check; others have not, and have had to shut down in-person teaching.
Images of the coronavirus have come from the laboratory of RPCV Elizabeth Fischer see more
Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps demystify the challenges we face with the COVID-19 pandemic
By Markian Hawryluk
From her laboratory in the far western reaches of Montana, Elizabeth Fischer is trying to help people see what they’re up against in COVID-19.
Over the past three decades, Fischer, 58, and her team at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have captured and created some of the more dramatic images of the world’s most dangerous pathogens.
“I like to get images out there to try to convey that this is an entity, to try to demystify it, so this is something more tangible for people,” said Fischer, one of the country’s leading electron microscopists.
Now, as her renderings of the coronavirus flash across screens worldwide, she said: “You often hear people call it the invisible enemy. It’s trying to put that face out there.”
Working in one of the nation’s 13 “Biosafety Level 4” labs — those equipped to safely handle the most dangerous pathogens — Fischer and her team visualize the world’s deadliest plagues from Ebola to HIV, salmonella to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Viral particles being released from a dying cell infected with coronavirus. The dozens of small, blue spheres emerging from the surface of a kidney cell are the virus particles themselves. The images produced by the electron microscopes are actually black-and-white; a visual artist colorizes them. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Fischer
The breathtaking images allow people to see a virus as elaborate biological structures with weaknesses that can be exploited, yielding clues for researchers about how to develop treatments and vaccines.
“If there is a disease, we have seen it,” she said.
“Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps to demystify the challenges that all of us now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” NIH Director Francis Collins wrote on his blog in noting the value of Fischer’s images. “The hope is it will encourage each and every one of us to do our part to fight it, whether that means digging into the research, working on the front lines, or staying at home to prevent transmission and flatten the curve.” Image courtesy Elizabeth Fischer
Originally from Evergreen, Colorado, Fischer completed a degree in biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and contemplated going to medical school, before deciding instead to join the Peace Corps. She taught math and science for two years in Liberia, and then took time to travel through East Africa and Asia, including a trek into the Himalayas.
Returning to Colorado, she immersed herself in the outdoor world she loved. She worked as a rafting guide on the Arkansas River for several summers, and as a children’s ski instructor at the Monarch Mountain ski resort during the winters.
Macro and micro: Fischer’s work with microscopes reveals a hidden world. She has also worked as a rafting guide. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Fischer
She later enrolled in graduate school, thinking she might teach biology. But when she took courses in electron microscopy, she was hooked.
It appealed to her sense of exotic adventure. “You’re looking at a world that most people don’t get to see,” she said. She switched gears and completed a master’s degree in biology.
Upon graduation, she sent her résumé to a national microscopy job placement office and soon received a call from Rocky Mountain Laboratories. In 1994, she moved with her family to Hamilton, a city of fewer than 5,000 people about 50 miles south of Missoula, then worked her way up to become chief of the lab’s microscopy unit.
Some of the more stunning images of the coronavirus — about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — have come from Fischer’s microscope.
Some of the more stunning images of the coronavirus — about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — have come from Fischer’s microscope. One is Fischer’s photograph of viral particles being released from a dying cell infected with the virus.
As NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins highlighted in his blog earlier this year, the photo shows the orange-brown folds and protrusion on the surface of a primate’s kidney cell infected with SARS-CoV-2. The dozens of small, blue spheres emerging from the surface are the virus particles themselves. (The images produced by the electron microscopes are black-and-white, so Fischer hands them over to visual artists who colorize the image to help identify different parts of the cell and to distinguish the virus from its host.)
“This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery,” Collins wrote. “Just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.”
Scientists like Fischer have used electron microscopes to uncover the unseen world of viruses and bacteria dating to the 1930s. In the past two decades, however, new technologies have unleashed a resolution revolution, allowing researchers to see down to the near-atomic level. Microscopists have come up with better ways to prepare samples for viewing and have written sophisticated software programs to sharpen images.
In early February the lab received material from one of the first U.S. patients to be infected with the novel coronavirus. Image courtesy Elizabeth Fischer
Through her lab, Fischer receives samples from all over the world, and was sent viral material in early February from one of the first U.S. patients to be infected with the novel coronavirus. Often, her samples come from vials that have been stored in a freezer for decades, or from cultures routinely grown in a lab. “It’s very sobering when you know it came from a human patient.”
Significance of a sample: “It’s very sobering when you know it came from a human patient.” Image courtesy Elizabeth Fischer
For example, in 2014, a sister lab in Mali sent over an Ebola sample from a 2-year-old girl who had lived in Guinea when her mother died of the disease. Her grandmother traveled from Mali to attend the funeral, which involved touching and bathing the body, and to take the girl home with her. Both got infected and brought the virus back with them as they returned to Mali by public transportation. They both died.
In 2014, Elizabeth Fischer received a sample of Ebola from a 2-year-old girl in Mali. The cell border and nucleus shape resemble the shape of the continent of Africa. Image courtesy Elizabeth Fischer
“This one particular cell, it looked like the continent of Africa,” Fischer recalled. “It was a very powerful moment. You see that virus growing in there, it takes you back around to not only the lab work we do, but that there’s an impact on human health.”
Despite the deadly nature of the viruses, she still appreciates the “beautiful symmetry in many of them,” she said, adding: “They’re very elegant, and they’re not malicious in and of themselves. They’re just doing what they do.”
Lessons learned from the pandemic and global evacuation. see more
Lessons learned from the pandemic and global evacuation. And answers from a country director who found himself asking: Why is Peace Corps really necessary?
By Mark S. Hannafin
Photo: Volunteers hosting a summer camp in North Macedonia
I wanted to be a Peace Corps Country Director for some obvious reasons. I had a fond memory of my own volunteer experience and a desire to see a wider part of the world and experience it with my family. I wanted to work with Americans of all backgrounds and support them in their service, and to be around committed local staff and partners who see the benefit of having a volunteer in their community and cultivating strong relationships. We wanted to serve overseas for a few years and then come back home and continue to serve in other ways. I didn’t want to wait for “retirement” to be a country director. I wouldn’t be able to relate, I thought. And I might be too late.
And that’s the other reason I became a country director: I wasn’t sure Peace Corps was going to be around much longer. The world has become globalized, many people are being lifted out of poverty, rapid communications technologies have shrunk the time and space of relationships, and the United States’ standing in the world is arguably in question. Maybe Peace Corps had run its course. Maybe the goals and vision were not relevant anymore.
Maybe Peace Corps had run its course. Maybe the goals and vision were not relevant anymore.
In March, we evacuated 103 Volunteers from North Macedonia as part of the global evacuation that sent home almost 7,500 Volunteers from all 61 Peace Corps countries. They flew out on the last commercial flight to leave Skopje. After tearful goodbyes, the staff and I returned to our Skopje homes and our new telework reality, forced curfews, masks, and social distancing. The stark existential questioning began for real. How could we support Volunteers coming back in this scenario? Would anyone want them back? Were my thoughts of Peace Corps’ demise prophetic for reasons I never would have thought — but clearly are related to a changing world?
In September, I left Peace Corps as I had planned back in January. We are now home and going through our own readjustment. With some daylight between the evacuation and now, I have reflected on the fact that the global pandemic has shed light on reasons why Peace Corps is more relevant than ever, and in fact, may give it a new breath of life. Here are some thoughts of what Peace Corps brings to us and to the world.
Ability to Overcome Uncertainty
A lot has been said about Volunteers’ ability to bounce back and be resilient. Whether this is taught in trainings or reinforced during service or is just a part of a person’s DNA is still up for debate. Regardless of how it manifests itself, resilience is closely related to being able to deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty stems from taking something for granted and then one day realizing its gone or changed or fragile. Some people experience more uncertainty in their lives than others and learn how to move past it.
But what of the countries and communities in which the Volunteers serve? Many of the countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve have gone through epic periods of uncertainty and upheaval, maybe through natural disasters, conflict and political instability, or wholesale changes in systems and the way society is organized. While they may not like uncertainty, these communities live it everyday.
The United States is built on a narrative of predictability in our everyday life. Speaking in general terms, we expect services to run, the trash to be picked up, the trains to run on time, due process to afford justice and equitable treatment under the law. Schools to open on time. Minimum healthcare to be provided.
The Volunteers have learned in part from their communities abroad how to handle uncertainty. They come home and begin new lives, seeking jobs, volunteering in their communities and looking at grad school opportunities. The first time the bus doesn’t arrive on time or your doctor isn’t available for a call may not be as devastating to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer as others. This is what every generation of returned Volunteers go through. This is not just resilience; this is a learned ability to be comfortable with uncertainty. One that comes with living it every day in service and drawing on the experience of their host country.
Empathy and Self-Awareness
Peace Corps is a learning organization arranged around continual training for Volunteers in technical, cultural, and language capabilities. North Macedonia, like many posts, has embarked on a 27-month continuum for learning predating arrival in country. The intercultural, diversity, equity and inclusion (ICDEI) portion of the training has expanded tremendously in the last few years. I’ve reflected on what would be a metric of success for these ICDEI trainings. What if Volunteers emerged from service more self-aware and empathetic? Would they be better listeners? These are critical traits in the success of leadership. How would this impact their lives and the lives of others they would come into contact with in the future?
Humility and the End of U.S. Exceptionalism
Peace Corps is predicated on three goals, the first one being of extending help overseas in technical areas to countries that request it. As the pandemic has shown, United States leadership in response to the global crisis is less than what the world expected. Peace Corps, and development by extension, is founded on a notion of exceptionalism.
As the pandemic has shown, United States leadership in response to the global crisis is less than what the world expected.
Many of our Volunteers reported their Macedonian counterparts expressed deep concern for their return home and how the U.S. was facing COVID-19. There is a humility check and balance system inherent in the second and third Peace Corps goals, which creates the longstanding people to people bonds that make the agency so unique. It establishes parity between the community and the Volunteer.
COVID has laid bare how the first goal can be reciprocal, learning from cultures which are historically rich and diverse. As the world grows closer and is linked by pandemics and other negative and beneficial effects of globalization, the time for reciprocity in development is ripe. Humility is the way to achieve that. Humility allows you to learn from others and be open to new ideas.
Relationships and National Security
I believe Peace Corps, at its core, is about national security, for our country and for the world. Not everyone agrees with this premise, including those who founded the agency almost 60 years ago. Volunteers showcase sincere values which represent the core of American life. The evacuated Volunteers from North Macedonia anecdotally spent thousands of hours speaking, chatting, zooming with their friends, families, students, and counterparts in the past seven months. I still chat with my students from 25 years ago in the Kyrgyz Republic. A large portion of the 800 Volunteers who served in North Macedonia periodically return to visit and stay in touch — and effectively become bi-cultural.
Some 230,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers may have similar long-lasting relationships. Peace Corps plays the long game. How can this be measured in terms of bringing our countries together? How do these relationships help in times of uncertainty and upheaval?
Volunteers evacuated from North Macedonia set out to help communities in the U.S. amid the pandemic, founding Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Serving at Home
I've also seen how the reaction to the pandemic era is leading Peace Corps to re-orient itself into a university model based on the very people to people model it has perfected in the field. Recruitment needs to be direct and intentional, directed at specific groups, colleges, associations, and targeting the diversity of America. Posts should be allowed to recruit into pockets of America directly where they think people will want to come to their country.
Peace Corps can follow up personally with someone who visits their website or social media posting and forge relationships. Peace Corps training doesn’t need to start with entry into the country; once someone applies and commits you are part of the new class already honing skills in self-awareness, empathy, humility, and coping with uncertainty. For those who enter service, they are supported through a two-year curriculum in language, culture, and technical skills. Afterwards, they are naturally connected to their peers and friends in country – but also with a Peace Corps alumni system that offers Coverdell Fellowships for life, response corps opportunities, and that encourages RPCVs to continually remain in contact with their host country. From the U.S., which arguably still maintains the finest higher education system in the world, the Peace Corps university ecosystem builds a post-graduate entry into a life of service leadership in whatever career a returned Volunteer pursues.
Imagine a cohort of future leaders versed in self-awareness, humility, and empathy. Imagine those leaders being comfortable with uncertainty and willing to take on intelligent risks.
COVID’s black swan moment has opened up ways to change and push forward the idea that is Peace Corps, not fold it up. Imagine a cohort of future leaders versed in self-awareness, humility, and empathy. Imagine those leaders being comfortable with uncertainty and willing to take on intelligent risks. Imagine people in all walks of life poised to address inequities who are open to listening and learning from experiences unlike their own.
It should not be a question of whether the end goal of Peace Corps is still worthwhile. It was a “towering” task to begin with. It’s a matter of being honest with ourselves and seeing plainly how we and the world all benefit by maintaining Peace Corps as an educational, lived experience — and as a learning institution, changing to meet the moment. I’m more confident today that Peace Corps will endure and evolve than I was seven months ago — or even five years ago when I applied to be a Country Director. All the signals are in place to make this work, to reflect on what we have done, and learn from our shared experiences.
Mark Hannafin served as Peace Corps Country Director in North Macedonia from February 2016 to September 2020. He was part of the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Kyrgyzstan, 1993–95. The opinions in this piece are his own and do not reflect Peace Corps policy.
READ MORE: How Volunteers evacuated from North Macedonia in March 2020 because of the pandemic came home to start Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Serving at Home — to help their communities in the United States in time of crisis.
Global evacuation — and friends and communities left behind see more
Photos from Nepal, Timor Lesté, Guinea, and Jamaica
Along with the dozens of stories we’ve shared from Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world, here are snapshots from more Volunteers. They capture the friendships and communities left behind. And they capture the heartbreak of leaving.
Nepal | Eddie De La Fuente
When Peace Corps announced the global evacuation, we were actually en route to visit our permanent sites a month early. I, and many of the other agriculture volunteers, never made it to our sites given the distance; I had just finished two all-day bus trips and was still another day-and-a-half away when we got the order to get back to Kathmandu ASAP.
We gathered at the Nepal Peace Corps headquarters and effectively had a close of service conference after only two months in the country, and only about four to five days away from being able to swear in as full Volunteers.
The Nepal Peace Corps staff was very compassionate though all of this; our Country Director and her partner even brought their brand new puppy and American candy to help comfort us.
We are, in my opinion, an extraordinarily cohesive and supportive group of people and I believe that these sentiments — as well as our continued, steady communication and mutual support — is truly exemplified in these photos.
Nepal welcomed us so readily and so fully that we were all absolutely heartbroken when we were told we were going home. I even had the good fortune to sit next to a gentleman on the final flight from Qatar to Nepal that served as an language instructor for Peace Corps back in the ‘70s!
This photo of the gentleman greeting was actually from our first night in Nepal. He was far from the only person that was unabashedly eager to meet us and get to know us — and for us to know them.
Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead.
Timor Lesté | Andre De Mello
Andre De Mello arrived in Timor-Lesté in late 2019 in the country’s tenth group of Peace Corps volunteers. After training, he settled in with a host family and started teaching. But his two-year commitment was not to be. Read more about his story here.
“This picture was taken after Sunday mass in the Grotto located by the church in Railaco. The person to my left, wearing the white-dotted blue shirt, is my host brother Adi Carvalho. The person to my right is the son of the Chefe de Suco (sort of like a community leader).”
Guinea | Colt Bradley
Home: Mooresville, North Carolina
He served as a Volunteer in Kankan, Guinea, where he taught math and chemistry and served as the head of the Peace Corps Guinea Media Team.
Walk on: Colt Bradley heading home during the dry season in Guinea, West Africa.
Transport for Volunteer Colt Bradley and other visitors to the islands from Conakry.
Jamaica | Kate Rapp
Students at Spring Garden Infant and Primary School, where Volunteer Kate Rapp worked with counterpart Lorraine Clarke.
We were evacuated from North Macedonia. So we set out to do work that reflects Peace Corps values at home.Founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles work as a Volunteer — in North Macedonia and the U.S. see more
The founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles her work as a Volunteer — and launching a network to support communities across the United States.
By Mia Richardson — as told to Cynthia Arata
I had wanted to serve in the Peace Corps since high school. I was really interested in the Cold War, and while learning about that time in history, I learned about the creation of the Peace Corps during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Peace Corps fascinated me.
Originally I thought about going straight to graduate school after graduating from college, but I decided to put that on pause to pursue my dream of serving in the Peace Corps. I wanted to experience working in another country because of my career path — foreign service. Although being a Peace Corps Volunteer is different than being a diplomat, I knew I could learn and represent my country.
I was serving in North Macedonia in the Education sector. I was teaching English for students in second to ninth grade. I worked closely with another teacher focusing on improving English language instruction and student engagement.
I was located in the northwest region of North Macedonia, a country in the Balkan Peninsula, which had previously been Macedonia. The renaming of the country happened early on during my service. Around the time I arrived, the naming dispute was a popular topic of discussion having to do with the history between Macedonia and Greece. It was interesting to listen to different perspectives on such a complicated issue and learn about the history of the region where I was to serve. In January 2019 Macedonia became North Macedonia.
I lived quite close to the city of Tetovo in the small village of Zherovjan, which is home to less than 900 people. Albanians are the largest minority group in North Macedonia, and Zherovjan is an Albanian, mostly Muslim community. Because of where I was living, I was on a dual language track, learning Macedonian and Albanian.
March 2020: The Evacuation
On Tuesday, March 10, I finished teaching in the morning. That same day, in the afternoon, it was announced that schools were going to be closed for two weeks. So things were in limbo on Wednesday. By Thursday Peace Corps determined that we were raised a security level, and staff told us to pack our bags. However, Volunteers were questioning it, not knowing exactly what was going on, not thinking we really needed to pack. But on Friday we were told to prepare to leave the country. Then Saturday, we were instructed to get to the capital. We only had a few hours to grab our things, explain what was going on to our communities, and get to Skopje, where all of us volunteers were consolidated.
There was very little time to explain to my host family what was happening. I mainly didn’t want to scare them. At the time, volunteers thought the most likely scenario was that we would be put on an administrative hold. We assumed we would be able to return in a month or two.
“Peace Corps says I have to leave because they don’t want me to be a burden here,” was how I framed it to my host family. But at that point, North Macedonia had not started shutting down, so my host family was totally confused. It was so hard. I had to ask them to take me to the capital immediately.
As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.
As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.
I am trying to figure out of there is something I can do to get in contact with my students. I have thought about recording a video of myself explaining and saying goodbye. But since school shut down the students have been distance learning rather than having class, so I don’t know yet how to send something that they will all see.
I barely had the chance to communicate with my counterpart before leaving. She has two young children, and her husband works in another country, so she was preoccupied with trying to figure out what to do to keep her family safe — whether she and the kids would go or stay put. We only had a moment to just basically wish each other luck.
North Macedonia: Unfinished Business
Early on in my service, my counterpart and I applied for a Small Project Assistance grant to establish an English language resource closet at the school. The goal was to empower teachers to use more communicative activities in the classroom that make education more student-centered. We secured the grant, purchased resources for the school, and planned a training session for educators. The training, however, was scheduled to take place the week of the shutdown and the evacuation. I tried to see if there was a way to do the training online, but I didn’t have enough time to organize before I was pulled from my post. I feel good about getting new materials for the school so that some fun and creativity can be brought into the classroom, but there was no training for teachers on how to implement those materials. I really hope the work will go on. I hope my school will apply for another Volunteer, and students will advocate for continuing some of the work we started.
At the beginning of the school year I started a spelling bee club for fifth- and sixth-grade students. The club met once per week for the entire school year. We hosted a qualifier spelling bee at our school to determine who would go to the regional spelling bee in Tetovo. The students worked so hard every week. And two students qualified! I was planning on going with them to the city at the end of March for the regional tournament. But that didn’t happen. It’s one of the things I am most sad about because I know how hard my students worked all year long.
I had requested a shipment of new books for the school’s English language section in the library. Darien Book Aid, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that distributes books all over the world, emailed me right when I landed back in the U.S. asking me to confirm that I received the book shipment I requested. Thankfully the director of the school where I was teaching was able to pick them up from the post office.
My secondary project was helping to coordinate a local Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) club. GLOW provides great development and leadership experiences for youth. Recruitment for GLOW was going to start in March, and a number of PCVs were working as mentors for clubs all over the country. So much hard work went into planning events for the GLOW clubs, but when all of us PCVs were sent home, we left the girls hanging.
I felt that personally I was getting into the swing of things — I was finding my way. The timing of everything was difficult to accept.
Back Home: Continuing Service
When I got back to the U.S. I felt a little bit lost. I committed myself to the full 27 months of service, and I just didn’t feel like I completed that. So as soon as I got back I started looking for things I could do to continue serving. While I was quarantined, I started volunteering with a coalition called Masks NOW to donate masks to essential businesses.
I started an initiative called RPCVs Serving at Home with some other evacuated volunteers from North Macedonia. We rolled out the program to the rest of the RPCV community in April. The concept is three-fold: to connect the RPCV community, share volunteer opportunities in order to continue service, and reflect values of Peace Corps. We are determined to highlight the strength and impact of Peace Corps to our communities here in the U.S.
Since we began collecting data in early April, by the end of June 63 volunteers representing 24 states and 22 Peace Corps posts had logged over 2,000 hours of volunteer service. Participating RPCVs have donated nearly 700 fabric face masks, served over 400 hours at local food banks, and at least 16 volunteers donated blood or organized a local blood drive. Our goal is to log 10,000 hours of service by September, so we are working hard to spread the word and get as many RPCVs involved as possible. We believe this shows how much we as the Peace Corps community can do, and although we have dedicated ourselves to work abroad, right now our country needs us here at home.
Since being evacuated I have taken on an AmeriCorps VISTA position doing community outreach for the Youth Volunteer Corps in Kansas City. What I am doing is similar to my youth empowerment work with the GLOW club in North Macedonia. My mission is to create service and learning opportunities, so that through civic engagement and skill development, youth not only understand issues in their communities but also feel empowered to address those issues.
Continuing to serve youth in my home community, helping to provide programs that I would have benefited from when I was growing up, has given me a sense of closure to my Peace Corps service.
Cynthia Arata was serving as a Volunteer in Fiji when she was evacuated in March 2020. She lives in Napa, California.