Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Bill Preston (Thailand 1977-80)
By Kevin F. F. Quigley (Thailand 1976-79)
Inside Higher Ed
March 16, 2021
As the Biden-Harris administration gets underway in the midst of the global health, environmental and political crises that have given new urgency to needed social change, can a deeper partnership between higher education institutions and the Peace Corps play a role in building a more just and caring world?
When they launched it at an earlier inflection point in American history, the Peace Corps’ founders tapped the energy and idealism of the young to achieve three enduring goals: 1) to help other countries help themselves, 2) to promote cross-cultural understanding and 3) to broaden our understanding of the world beyond our borders by having volunteers share their experiences with other Americans. Although the Peace Corps began as a bold innovation with great vision and ambition, much of that was never realized, especially related to a significant partnership between the Peace Corps and higher education.
Strengthening its relationship with higher education now could make the work of Peace Corps more inclusive and impactful. By working more effectively together, these two partners could help each other address the perfect storm of global challenges in a post-pandemic world, contribute to more positive international engagement and provide many more Americans with common values-shaping experiences essential to “healing the soul of the nation.” Here are a few rejuvenating steps to consider.
Expand and innovate the higher education-Peace Corps partnership. In a memo to his brother-in-law John Kennedy recommending the Peace Corps’ establishment, Sargent Shriver suggested that the corps should be big and bold and could substantially enhance its impact by working with other partners, especially educational institutions. Shriver also highlighted the natural links between higher education and the Peace Corps in remarks he gave at New York University’s 1964 commencement, noting that to address our country’s problems, “we need the manpower and the brainpower of our colleges and universities.” For example, he called for the establishment of “an all-university project to end the cycle of poverty in New York.”
Given the urgency of today’s social challenges, we should heed Shriver’s clarion call and ask the Peace Corps to strengthen and expand its existing partnerships with more than 200 colleges and universities. The current major partnership programs are: 1) the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program for postservice graduate study, providing financial aid, structured internships in underserved communities and academic credit, and 2) the Peace Corps Prep program, a certificate program that prepares undergraduates to be volunteers and gives them an edge in the increasingly competitive application process by developing competencies in language and culture that are vital to success. Over the past six decades, higher education institutions have become much more adept at developing effective international programming and are well positioned for a more extensive partnership with the Peace Corps. That could include encouraging greater participation in those existing programs or some new initiatives, as described below.
Deploy more virtual volunteers. After evacuating all 7,300 volunteers at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the Peace Corps began a small online program with about 80 volunteers who agreed to stay connected to their project sites and work virtually 10 hours per week. Based on this trial program, higher education institutions that have become much more adept at online programming during the pandemic could work together with the Peace Corps to develop a short training program to prepare volunteers for a weekly 10-hour internet-facilitated service program designed to strengthen community projects in Peace Corps countries. As it did in its early years, the Peace Corps could outsource this training to university partners, who would offer courses in working across cultures and foreign languages that would prepare participants for success in this virtual volunteer program. Higher education partners have the demonstrated capacity with intellectual, technological and personnel resources to scale such programs in a way that the Peace Corps is unlikely to do on its own. This virtual program could quickly expand to be larger than the on-the-ground program.
By broadening its programming this way, the Peace Corps could overcome challenging barriers to service and encourage many more Americans from many different backgrounds to sign up. Among others, those barriers include the time commitment (27 months) and the expense of volunteering. Annual congressional appropriations provide the close to $60,000 needed to train and support each volunteer, thereby severely constraining the numbers who can serve. A virtual volunteer program would have far lower costs (probably less than $10,000 per volunteer), especially if conducted jointly by the Peace Corps and higher education institutions.
Promote the overseas volunteer sector. In these times of historic global challenges, the Peace Corps should shift its focus to working more with host country partners to strengthen their own volunteer sectors. Throughout its 60-year history, the agency’s focus has been on directly tackling specific issues, such as agriculture, health, education, youth development and HIV/AIDS. Now, more Peace Corps volunteers should be assigned to support small-scale, high-impact projects that local people identify. Those projects could include community-initiated public health education efforts, water projects and local gardening activities along the lines of programs developed by Corps Africa, Atlas Corps and Indicorps, all of which aim to support the development of the overseas volunteer sector.
Peace Corps volunteers, assisted by colleges and universities with demonstrated expertise in the voluntary sector, could help catalyze emerging Indigenous volunteer sectors in ways that would make their efforts more sustainable. Numerous higher education institutions — including New York University, Indiana University and George Mason University — have world-leading programs in the voluntary sector. The Peace Corp should tap those institutions to assist in developing and implementing effective and scalable programs that help expand the volunteer sector in other countries, as well to provide the project management skills needed for such programs to succeed. Higher education would benefit from having returning volunteers matriculate in their voluntary sector and other graduate programs.
Perform joint assessment. Assessment is another area where higher education has much to offer the Peace Corps. Working with accrediting organizations over the last decade, higher education has become much more adept at identifying and reporting on learning objectives and measuring outcomes. The Peace Corps has made some progress on that front but has fallen short in its historic third goal of developing meaningful volunteer experiences with other Americans that “bring the world back home.” Some of Peace Corps’ assessments and success stories are perceived by legislators and its critics as self-serving. Thus, a broader partnership around assessment would enable higher education institutions to apply their skills and expertise to assist the Peace Corps in assessing its impact and credibly sharing the assessment results with interested publics.
Deepen the dialogue around diversity. Higher education has been working hard to be more diverse and inclusive, but it still has a long way to go. It has also been falling short in educating students about these issues and providing the deep learning experiences required to cultivate the knowledge, understanding and skill sets they need to work effectively with communities, wherever they find them.
Due to their immersive experiences in other cultures, the Peace Corps and its volunteers have something to share with colleges and universities about how to develop engaged and empathetic citizens committed to effecting positive social change. During his NYU commencement address, Shriver observed that Peace Corps volunteers develop empathy, humility and a rare recognition of mutual interests with communities of difference. In speaking of volunteers, he said, “They have learned how much people everywhere have in common, across the barriers of color and languages, but more important, they have learned to hear the voice of the human heart, in any language.” As higher education and the Peace Corps grapple with our storm of challenges, we can all benefit in becoming more fluent in listening and hearing the language of the human heart.
Small Steps, Big Impact If taken together, these steps would help the Peace Corps become more diverse and inclusive, as well as have a more positive and less paternalistic engagement with other countries. They could also advance higher education’s mission and relevancy and significantly expand the opportunities for Americans of many different backgrounds to serve in ways that contribute to communities and countries around the world. And they would better align with the founders’ vision that partnerships with education were essential to the success of the Peace Corps.
The Biden administration should appoint Peace Corps leaders who embrace Shriver’s bold vision and understand that the Peace Corps’ promise can best be realized through partnerships with higher education and other organizations. In addition, the Peace Corps will need the personnel and financial resources to reinvigorate these partnerships. College and university leaders with best-of-class programs in the volunteer sector, online volunteering programs and cross-cultural programs should reach out to the Peace Corps to discuss how best to jointly reinvigorate this partnership by building on the existing programs and working with organizations that have deep experience in volunteering and international education, such as the Building Bridges Coalition and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
The arrival of a new administration with a deep appreciation for higher education and the Peace Corps’ potential to contribute to positive international engagement provides the perfect opportunity for a strategic re-envisioning of the Peace Corps’ collaboration with higher education. Now is the time to think and act boldly.
Kevin F. F. Quigley (Thailand 1976-79) is a former president of Marlboro College and the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). He served as a Peace Corps volunteer and country director in Thailand, where he also was a Fulbright Scholar.