"And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country</em>." —John F. Kennedy
This is one of the most famous lines ever delivered in a presidential inaugural address. With this speech, JFK promised to create a program for American volunteers to go abroad and share their expertise, supporting development and education projects in developing countries.
He first aired his idea for sending young graduates to the Middle East, "bringing technical advice and assistance," in 1951 when he was a member of the house of representatives. As president, he gave a speech outlining the program in more detail at the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. And on March 1, 1961 the Peace Corps was born when JFK signed Executive Order 10924.
The Peace Corps was designed to share what is best about the United States with other countries in order to aid projects in those countries and foster friendship and goodwill between citizens. It is with this spirit that Peace Corps has formed its policies. They collaborate with host countries to create their country programs, searching for volunteers that can serve in the areas host countries most desire.
Volunteers are ensconced in local communities, learning the language and living at the local level. Living like a local is close to the heart of the Peace Corps philosophy. This allows volunteers to truly understand local circumstances and needs and create deep bonds with their communities.
Today, the Peace Corps has 6,818 volunteers and trainees working in 64 countries around the world. They work in both urban and rural settings and do many different kinds of jobs. Although you must be at least 18 to volunteer, there is no upper age limit. The average age of volunteers is 28 and 7% are over 50. There is a long application process to become a volunteer, yet thousands of Americans apply each year.
Programs begin with intensive language and cultural training in the country in which they will be living. They get to know their host country and bond with other Peace Corps volunteers, while learning the skills they will need in the field. After a few months, they move to their communities, meet their new neighbors and begin work.
Volunteers work in several different fields including education, agriculture, community development, health and environmental conservation. Each position is based on requests from the host country, then the Peace Corps recruits from among the qualified applicants. The largest number of volunteers are involved in education with many of them teaching English in local schools. The second largest group is health professionals. They often undertake special projects or responsibilities in their communities beyond the original job description. Volunteers typically work at their posts for two years and are paid a stipend that allows them to live at a reasonable local level. In cities they may have an apartment, but in rural areas they are often attached to a local family whose land they live on.
To read more about volunteer experiences check out these Peace Corps blogs.
- Bob Vila, Host of Television show "This Old House" (Panama 1971-73)
- Paul Theroux, author of Mosquito Coast and Great Railway Bazaar (Malawi 1963-65)
- Lillian Carter, nurse, mother of President Jimmy Carter (India 1966-68)
- Carol Bellamy, former Peace Corps Director, former head of UNESCO, president of World Learning (Guatemala 1963-1965)
- Chris Matthews, host of NBC's Hardball (Swaziland 1968-70)
- Paul Tsongas, Former US Senator, candidate for President in 1992 (Ethiopia 1962-64)
- Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilms Ltd. (Malawi 1968-70)
- Richard "Kinky" Friedman, author of Blast From the Past (Malaysia 1967-69)
- Christopher Dodd, Former U.S. Senator, Connecticut (Dominican Republic 1966-68)