Alan Guskin (Thailand 1961–64) was one of the central figures in the group of students at the University of Michigan who embraced and promoted the concept of the Peace Corps that John Kennedy suggested at the university 50 years ago, and he was a central figure, again, at the UM celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, October 13–16. He has generously shared with us materials from the celebration including: an article he wrote for the student paper, a copy of the speech he delivered, a link to photos of the celebration events and link to an article that he and his former wife, Judy Guskin, wrote for the UM alumni magazine.

It’s not like having been there, but thanks to Alan we will be able to share the thrill of it all.

The article written by Alan and published on the Opinion Page of the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, on October 13, 2010:

Viewpoint: A way of being in the world
Reflections on the Peace Corps, 50 years later

THE PEACE CORPS BEGAN in the midst of a light drizzle at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, near the end of a tumultuous presidential campaign. John F. Kennedy won the election a few weeks later, the hopes of a new generation began to unfold and the Peace Corps became a reality on Mar. 1, 1961.

The idea that would lead to the creation of the Peace Corps came from an impromptu speech that challenged 10,000 University students to aid developing countries. The birth of the Peace Corps owes much to the context of the times: the spirit of social justice embodied in the Civil Rights Movement, students’ stirrings for change on campuses throughout the nation, the emergence of young leaders in newly independent nations of Asia and Africa and the incredible optimism of a new decade sparked by the presidential campaign of John Kennedy.

I was present on that rainy night 50 years ago. Along with a few others, I helped to form a group that showed that students would respond to Kennedy’s challenge, which asked if we were prepared to serve in developing nations. It’s said by Peace Corps chroniclers that Kennedy was moved by the University student response. A short time after his speech on the steps of the Michigan Union, on Nov. 2 — just six days before the election  — he gave a major campaign address committing himself to the creation of the Peace Corps and mentioned the reaction of the students at the University of Michigan. He met privately with a small group of University students — including me — on the following day.

Robert Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, wrote in his memoirs:

It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty . . .. Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.

Eleven months after the meeting with Kennedy, I entered the Peace Corps, spent three months in training at the University and then served two and a half years in the first group to Thailand.

The Peace Corps reflected the spirit of Kennedy. In fact, in many countries, volunteers were called Kennedy’s children. Kennedy was not radical, nor revolutionary. Neither was, or is, the Peace Corps. Kennedy represented a new spirit and style domestically and internationally; so did the Peace Corps.

The experience of the Peace Corps volunteer
The real success of the Peace Corps, I believe, was and is the people-to-people, non-political nature of its programs and its specific assignments. For the volunteers, the Peace Corps was a noble and humble undertaking. Returned volunteers will tell everyone who will listen that we gained much more than we gave. Peace Corps volunteers didn’t create broad-scale changes; they impacted individual people’s lives.

The Peace Corps today is doing what it always did well — creating programs in which host country individuals and organizations are served well and Peace Corps volunteers are deeply affected by their service. The results reflect the best of what early leaders like Sargent Shriver, Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford — and some of us who were younger, but just as idealistic — hoped would happen to the volunteers and those they served.

I have had the good fortune of knowing many volunteers over the last five decades, some of whom weren’t born when I served as a volunteer from 1961 to 1964. But somehow, the experience in one of the last five decades in vastly different countries created a bond that unites those of us who served and differentiates us from those who haven’t. It’s as if the experience overseas seared itself deeply into the volunteers’ consciousness and became a formative part of their identity.

For most of us who have served, the Peace Corps represents the single most significant risk of our lives. At a young age, we left the comforts of school and society to enter a world of uncertainty in which our coping and survival skills were brought into question, underwent change and then re-stabilized. The cues that enable us to understand other people and how we should act had to be altered. Concerns for physical safety and illness became significant for people of an age group that often considers itself invulnerable. These are profound adjustments, and the more successful the volunteer was overseas, the more likely it was that these psychological changes were significant.

The impact of re-entering the United States on the volunteers was enormous and unexpected. The assumption throughout the Peace Corps was that a successful volunteer was defined by the strength of personality and character. The reality was that while these were important traits, the defining characteristic of success was much more determined by the volunteers’ ability to integrate themselves into the customs, norms and lifestyles of the individuals with whom they worked in host countries. Returning to the United States required an abrupt return from this cultural integration. Ironically, success overseas often bred difficulty in reintegration into U.S. society.

It’s hard for many who haven’t served as a volunteer to fully appreciate the depth of the experiences of the volunteers and the feelings generated by those experiences. The overwhelming majority of the early groups of volunteers were recent college graduates for whom the Peace Corps was their first meaningful job. And it was no ordinary job. We were very special people given responsibilities far beyond our peers.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer meant heeding a call to make a real difference in the world. You’re pioneers, the early volunteers were told, in a bold venture the goal of which was to change the world, even if we knew that goal seemed much too ambitious.

We were doing things rarely done before by Americans. Not only did we speak the language and live like host country peers, we actively wanted to become part of our new culture. We came to work and live with the people. The more we integrated ourselves into the culture, the more special we were to our neighbors and new friends. It seemed as if our presence in a classroom or village enhanced the sense of pride of those whom we served.

The people in the U.S. loved the volunteers. The press was uniformly positive. The president met with many of the groups. In 1986, on the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the late Ted Kennedy summed up the words we heard over and over again in the early 1960s: “You have reminded us anew — as you did with your example 25 years ago — of what is best in ourselves, and what is best in our country.”

Volunteers were living our ideals. We were serving others and asking for nothing tangible in return. To have acted in a concrete way on one’s beliefs was a heady experience. To have done so in concert with hundreds and thousands of others and to be told by important people that this was a model for others had an important psychological impact, even if we were embarrassed by the adulation. Our sense of being important, while being sincerely humble about our work, was a profound transcending experience that doesn’t often occur in a lifetime.

The development of cultural humility
Whatever the problems that the Peace Corps experienced as successive presidents supported, rejected or neglected it, the experience of the individual volunteers in the field continued to be powerful and, in many cases, life transforming. Individuals served others in people-to-people programs in developing nations. And individuals continued to put themselves at physical risk in small villages and large cities. They continued to act on their idealism.

While many more volunteers in recent years have been much older than in the early 1960’s, and in some cases more skilled, the overwhelming majority of volunteers of all ages still acquire the most potent and basic lesson to be learned during the Peace Corps experience: the development of a sense of cultural humility.

Volunteers develop this sense of cultural humility as a result of the psychological changes that occur as they integrate themselves into another culture. Volunteers identify with friends and colleagues who don’t share American ways of expressing personal emotions, norms regarding appropriate behavior, or meaning of individual and group pride. Volunteers learn and internalize the fact that people from other societies view their own culture as valid as we do ours and must be respected for doing so. And volunteers realize that effective human interaction requires people to appreciate and respect the similarities and differences in cultural perspectives.

Developing a sense of cultural humility may well be one of the necessary requirements for peace between people and among nations. It is, I believe, the lasting contribution of the Peace Corps to American society, as embodied in the growing number of influential volunteers.

The legacy of the Peace Corps
In the 1986 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Bill Moyers — its first deputy director and now one of America’s foremost social commentators — summed up the Peace Corps experience in this way:

We are struggling today with the imperative of a new understanding of patriotism and citizenship. The Peace Corps has been showing us the way . . .. To be a patriot in this sense means to live out of a recognition that one is a member of a particular culture and society, but so are all other human beings, and their kinship and bonds — their sacred places — are as important to them as ours are to us. Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes, but we carry two passports — one stamped American, the other human being . . .

We knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program or mission. Now we know — from those who lived and died for it — that it is a way of being in the world. It is a very conservative notion, because it holds dear the ground of one’s own being — the culture and customs that give meaning to life — but it is revolutionary for respecting the ground revered by others. This is the new politics and the new patriotism that may yet save this fragmented and dispirited age, and it is the gift (the volunteers) gave us.

Dr. Alan Guskin was a University graduate student in social psychology from 1958 to 1961 and from 1966 to 1968. He was Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1961 to 1964. He was an administrator in the creation of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. Guskin served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 1975 to 1985 and president and chancellor of Antioch University from 1985 to 1997. He is presently distinguished university professor in Antioch’s Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change.

from www.michigandaily.com

On October 14, 2010 at 2:00am on the steps of the University of Michigan Union, Alan delivered the following:

Oct 14, 1960

Alan Guskin - speaking 50 years later at the same time and place where JFK presented the concept of the Peace Corps

Alan Guskin - speaking 50 years later at the same time and place where JFK presented the concept of the Peace Corps

IT WAS 2:00AM 50 YEARS AGO when then Senator Kennedy spoke to the 10,000 students who had waited hours to hear him speak. His staff had told the media people that nothing important would happen that night and they went to sleep. No speech was prepared. The election was three and a half weeks away.

Kennedy had come to the Michigan Union to get a few hours of sleep and start a one-day whistle stop train tour of the state of Michigan the next day. He had flown from New York where he had finished the third of four nationally televised debates.

There was a slight drizzle as Kennedy faced the crowd, extended his arm, pointed and challenged us with the words:

How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve made in the past.

It was a short speech but it electrified the students. Kennedy himself is reported to have said that the 3 minute speech “hit a winning number.”

Four days later on October 18 Chester Bowles, Kennedy’s foreign policy advisor, spoke to an overflow crowd in the Union ballroom. Bowles gave the impression that he did not know what Kennedy had said four days earlier. At the end of his talk in a question and answer period, a student asked him what he thought about Kennedy’s challenge about young people serving overseas and helping people in developing nations. Bowles then told us about his son and daughter-in-law who were working in such an assignment in Africa.

Making Kennedy’s challenge such a concrete reality triggered something deep inside me and my former wife Judy and we turned to one of my students (I was a teaching fellow the previous year) and asked what she thought — she was as excited as we were.

Judy and I went out to eat dinner and wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily on a napkin challenging our fellow students to commit to meeting Kennedy’s challenge.  We typed it up and I remember handing the letter to the Daily’s editor Tom Hayden who promised he would publish it.

We were told the letter would appear in the Daily on Oct 21.

The night before the letter came out we invited a number of friends and former students to discuss the formation of a group to respond to Kennedy’s challenge.

We formed a group that organized events on campus at which 100s of students and some faculty and staff attended. We developed materials on what such service would mean in developing nations and, probably most importantly, we collected signatures on a petition for those who were committing themselves to serve. The campus seemed to be energized almost overnight. The Daily assigned a reporter to cover all of our activities some of which were then republished in one form or another in university student newspapers throughout the state of Michigan.

Kennedy’s campaign manager in Michigan, Millie Jeffrey (who was a UAW official), heard about what we were doing and asked for our materials to send them to Kennedy’s aides and speech writers; one rejected it as not political enough, but Millie Jeffrey persisted and convinced Ted Sorenson that the students were serious and Kennedy should support the Peace Corps and even meet with the students.

On the night of Nov 2nd 1960 — 6 days before the election — Kennedy gave a major foreign policy address in San Francisco in which he committed himself to the creation of the Peace Corps.  In that speech he stated:

For this nation is full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way . . . I have met them on campaigns across the country.  When I suggested at the University of Michigan, lately, that we needed young men and women willing to give up a few years to serve their country in this fashion, the students proposed a new organization to promote such an effort.

Earlier in the day, on November 2, Millie Jeffrey called Judy and me at our apartment on Geddes Street and said the Senator would like to meet you early tomorrow morning at the Toledo airport where he will be arriving for a campaign speech.

On November 3rd, myself, Judy, and the other members of the leadership of our group traveled in three cars to Toledo and met and talked with Kennedy. The only press present was the Michigan Daily. Kennedy, it seems, just wanted to meet us.

Many observers agreed with what the founding director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, wrote in his memoirs:

It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty . . . Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature.  That probably would have ended it then and there.  Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.

On Nov 8, 1960 Kennedy was elected President by 120,000 votes, one of the slimmest margins in US history:  25 days after his Michigan speech.

Some observers state that Kennedy’s commitment to the Peace Corps may have been important in his election.

It still amazes me today — 50 years later — that it took about 3 weeks for the students at the University of Michigan to influence a future President to commit himself to the creation of such a wonderful program.

Judy and I became Peace Corps Volunteers in October 1961 and served until 1964 with the first group to go to Thailand which received it’s training at the University of Michigan.

But the question remains: Why did the students respond the way we did?  Why did Tom Hayden, who was the Editor-in-Chief of the Michigan Daily, respond so quickly to support this new student group led by graduate students he had never heard from before. Why did Millie Jeffrey respond the way she did?  Why did students on other campuses in Michigan react so enthusiastically to what was happening on the University of Michigan campus? And how could all of this have happened so quickly?

Like everything in life context is critical.

the-crowdLet me take you back to 1960.

The students of the 1950s were said to be uninterested in any active political or organizational action. We were said to be the quiet generation.

But on February 1, 1960, in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, four freshman students from North Carolina A and T College — an historically black college — decided they would sit-in at the lunch counter in the downtown Woolworth store and would not leave until they were served. Influenced by earlier events and speeches, especially by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the actions of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Alabama Bus boycott, as well as the idea of non-violence action advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, they had enough of not being able to sit and be served in restaurants. They and their fellow students continued the sit in for months.

But this was not to be a local sit-in. From Greensboro the student sit-in movement spread like wildfire throughout the south led by students at scores of black colleges throughout the South and captured the imagination of young people and adults throughout the country. In Ann Arbor in the Spring of 1960 students demonstrated down State Street in support of the sit-ins and picketed the local Kresge store which had the same national policies as the Woolworth lunch counters.

At the same time Tom Hayden was writing major editorials in the Daily about the need for students to be more active, reminding students of the Greensboro sit-in and the actions of students on other campuses. Phil Powers, also an editor at the Daily, was pushing for students to be more involved in University governance. And Sharon Jeffrey — the daughter of Millie Jeffrey, Kennedy’s Michigan campaign manager — was a student activist on the Michigan campus — she was also instrumental in keeping her mother informed of how students were responding to Kennedy.

It should also be noted that most faculty and administrators at the University were very supportive of our efforts.

Along with the Ann Arbor and national movements there was the growing role that young African leaders were playing in independence movements against European colonial control of their countries.

Indeed the torch was being passed to a new generation and in the US this was particularly emphasized in the presidential campaign of a young president and the civil rights movement.

The role of the students at the University of Michigan in the creation of the Peace Corps is a wonderful and important story but it would not have happened, I believe, without those four courageous students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who decided that they were going to change the society in which they lived.

I am indeed proud of what the students at the University of Michigan did in October 1960 in stimulating the creation of the Peace Corps.  We did choose to make a difference. We did feel we part of the Passing of the Torch to a new generation and we did choose to serve.

But who would have thought that four freshman students at North Carolina A and T College would have been a major force in the civil rights movement. And, who would have thought that a few students at the University of Michigan could in three weeks influence a president to create a Peace Corps. But the reality is that many significant changes begin this way — people who want to make a difference and have the courage to act.

To quote one of my favorite social scientists, Anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Now, it is up to a new generation to make a difference. Today’s students are much more active than we were in 1960 in social and environmental programs to change the course of this nation. The students and young people of this country organized, with many in older generations, to an elect another young and inspiring President, this time the first African American President.

But elections are one thing, keeping the faith over time is another.  I never doubt that a small group can change the world.  But the key to success is not giving up; the key is perseverance in the face of opposition.

Kennedy challenged the students in 1960 and the students responded and persevered.  This is why there is a Peace Corps.

Link to photos of the 50th Anniversary Celebration at the University of Michigan on Flickr.

PDF version of “ A-Challenge-to-Serve” an article by Sharon Marioka published in the Michigan Alumnus [Early Fall, 2010] about Alan and Judy Guskin and the response to JFK’s speech.