Fifty years ago this month presidential candidate John F. Kennedy proposed a volunteer peace corps during a campaign speech at the University of Michigan.
The idea of young Americans volunteering to go to developing countries to help meet basic needs wasn’t new, but in October 1960 it captured the imagination of college students, including me, and many others. In 1961 the President assigned a brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the difficult task of turning the idea into a reality.
Since then some 200,000 Americans have served.
This feedsack kid was one of them. I’d never been farther away from the cows than Chicago, but when I finished my master’s degree in journalism, nothing looked more exciting or more rewarding than serving two years in Africa, South America, or Asia. At that time few Americans were wealthy enough to travel abroad, and most who did went to Europe. How could I pass up this opportunity?
For two life-changing years I taught eleventh grade English in Dessie, Ethiopia, the capital of a mountainous province with 1 million people and one high school. A beautiful country with a long, fascinating history, Ethiopia invited the Peace Corps to come help educate a population that spoke (and speaks) many languages. Many farmers and villagers lived as they had for hundreds of years, but they and their children saw education as the way to a better life. Numerous students walked for days to reach the school and lived in group houses little more than huts for the entire school year. Their sacrifices and determination to learn inspired us.
My group of 275 volunteers, Ethiopia I, made up half of the high school faculty in Ethiopia. We all came home saying we learned more than we taught.