Monday, November 21
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers left for their overseas assignments, I was a senior in high school. I was so excited about this new program, created by President John F. Kennedy, and remember hoping that this opportunity to live with people of another culture would still be available when I finished college. I am so thankful that it was.
It was at a time of growing concern with military involvements, mass demonstrations, the escalation of the cold war, and the negative impact of the ugly American image. The Peace Corps program presented a different image. Working side by side with men and women and children from another country gave Peace Corps Volunteers the chance to know them not as demographic data or vague stereotypes, but rather as human beings no so different from ourselves in many ways. They became our friends. I found that we all have so much in common: the same basic joys, fears, loves, desires, dreams for ourselves, our families, and our communities. I also learned to appreciate cultural differences and I saw how sharing differences can enrich a community.
It was December 1966 when I arrived in Malaysia – a beautiful country and a land of contrasts. I felt estranged at first – a minority amidst unfamiliar and diverse ethnic groups, religions, and customs. I soon learned to feel comfortable with my new friends and neighbors. I learned to adjust to new situations, to work with limited resources, and to be patient! I learned to identify what the needs were in my school and in my new community and to become involved in remedying the problems.
My Malaysian friends brought me their condolences in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was killed. It seemed that the Kennedys (the former President and his family) were very popular in Malaysia and talked about often.
I’m grateful that I had a chance to see the United States from the outside with a broader perspective for a few years. Having lived in Malaysia during a time of that country’s political turmoil and unrest, I have learned to be more appreciative of our freedoms and the opportunities available to us in this country.
Since I returned to the United States, I have kept in touch with a number of my Malaysian friends and have had the wonderful opportunity to visit with two of my former Malaysian students when they were here furthering their studies. In 1987 my family and I showed my student Anwar bin Abdul Rahman, now an economist, around the Washington, D.C. area. Seeing the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave was a memorable and emotional occasion for me and for Anwar, a long-time Kennedy admirer. I’m grateful for President Kennedy, for his vision of the Peace Corps, and for the chance I had to be part of it.