People are still asking that question as we approach the half century of the agency. Back in May of 1966, Joseph Colman, who was then the Acting Associate Director of the Peace Corps for Planning, Evaluation, and Research published a paper in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences and Marian Beil recently asked if I knew about it. I tracked down a copy of Colman’s paper that reports on several studies of motivation for joining the agency, based on a 1962 study of 2,612 applications’ replies to a motivational question on the application form; a 1963 interview study of why people who apply later decline a specific invitation to enter training; and a 1964 interview study of college series’ interest in the Peace Corps. Colmen’s paper concludes that Volunteers can be successful in the Peace Corps with a variety of motivations for joining.

Well, no kidding.

In 1960, before the Peace Corps was started, the late Maurice Albertson at Colorado State University investigated motivation for Peace Corps-type service came up with a desire to broaden personal background and experience ranked; it ranked first. Concern for people in developing countries was a close second, and value to career and adventure ranked last.

Colman found in his review of these early motivation studies that this picture changed in respect to the predominantly heavy weight given to the service nature of the Peace Corps, the “giving” dimension. He sums up his paper by writing: “Some reasons [for joining the Peace Corps] probably dip into the unconscious; others are only reluctantly discussed or admitted; still others are too multidimensional to sort out.”
He gives, however, six psychological factors which he says may behind the desire to apply. In short form, they are:

  1. Self-testing
  2. Independence from parents
  3. Search for one’s own values
  4. Worth-while service goal
  5. Desire to be need and recognized
  6. Chance for a ‘political’ experience

In the min-nineties when I was managing the New York Recruitment Office I would ask everyone why they joined the Peace Corps. Joining came down to two basic reasons. Older Volunteers, i.e., anyone over 30 said something like this, “I always wanted to join the Peace Corps since Kennedy announced it and now I’m going to do it!”

With I asked recent college graduates why they were joining, they would invariable say, “I had this teacher in mid-school and one day he/she brought into class slides of being in the Peace Corps, and I thought: I’m going to do that when I grow up!

The Jesuits are famous for saying, give us a boy by the age of six and he is ours for lives. Well, Peace Corps Recruiters, get into those mid-schools across America and start showing your slides!

“Give us a boy until he is eight years old, and we will have him for life.”