College Student Studies 'High Risk/High Gain'

Kathleen Kanne, a senior in the American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, is doing a research project on the “deselection” process in the early days of Peace Corps training (primarily through the 1960s and 70s). She is looking to interview RPCVs from this era who had colleagues who were deselected or who were deselected themselves.

I wrote her about her study (one of my hopes is that we can get more and more academic studies done about the Peace Corps at the college and university levels) and Kathy wrote back, “My project is in its early stages, but it is tentatively focused on PCVs as representatives of American culture abroad and specifically the role deselection played in creating that image in the early days of the movement.

“Because it seems to be more prevalent in the 60s and early 70s, that is the time frame I have been focusing on, though I am always interested to hear about later deselection situations.

“I grew up attending my aunt’s Peace Corps reunions at her training site in New Mexico (she was on a medical team in Korea in ’67) and I was always fascinated by the deselection stories. As I got older and started to write them down I discovered how little information on deselection is truly available, so I am also using this project as an opportunity to collect as many accounts of deselection as I can. The questions I have been asking those who witnessed deselection (and feel free to answer them) are as follows:

-What made you decide to join the Peace Corps? How did your selection process work? Where did you train and serve?

-What do you remember about the deselection process? Many PCVs describe being observed by psychologists and report the overall unsettling feeling that everyone was on thin ice. Were you concerned that you would be deselected?

-Do you remember what reasons volunteers were given for their deselection? Why do you think the Peace Corps found it necessary to deselect volunteers during training?

What was the timeline- how much of your training was already completed when they started to deselect volunteers?

– In your opinion, was deselection ever a result of discrimination (gender, sexual orientation, race, history of mental illness, etc)?

-Did most of your fellow volunteers complete their entire 2 years of service?

“If you would be willing to share I would greatly appreciate it!  Feel free to contact me by email (kanne041@umn.edu).

Thank you,

Kathleen Kanne

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12 Comments

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  • Kathleen, go for it, go deep.

    For decades I have been troubled by the stream of official, mandated homophobia in the early Peace Corps. This fact compromised (1) selection for training, (2) selection, and (3), service.

    For example, a few weeks into training (UCLA — Nigeria IV), one morning at breakfast we were a trainee short. Deselected overnight, gone. We either learned or figured the guy was deselected simply because he was gay. Or maybe some trainees were asked by a staff psychologist?

    While those of us remaining were also caught in the ethos of the times, silent, I think we all knew the selection process was sullied, bent. And that was a gift that kept on giving.

    Tom Hebert

  • I wish Kathleen all the best with her efforts. But there is a caveat. Research needs a record that is a comprehensive and complete as possible. That record is not available for Peace Corps. So what can be documented are the recollections of those who were involved with Peace Corps either as trainees, Volunteers, and/or staff. But this evidence is technically defined as anecdotal.

    To be able to historically understand the selection process, it would be absolutely necessary to look at the public documents that established that process. I don’t think that those documents, if they still exist, are easily located or accessible to the public. The latter reason has to do with security issues at the time Peace Corps began.

    So, I will offer an anecdote that is different from that which Tom offered. I will also contribute a “rumor” that emerged years after the selection process was discontinued.

    Here is my anecdote: I trained in New Mexico in the summer of 1963, Colombia XI. There were hundreds of trainees on campus that summer. I remember that we were told by one “Selection Officer” that being a homosexual was NOT a barrier to being “selected.” The assumption was that all homosexuals were male. However,he continues, if someone who was a homosexual made an “unwelcome” advance to another trainee and it was reported, that would be grounds for dismissal.

    I remember this so vividly because I thought it was very fair at the time.Years later, in discussing this with some member of my all female group, we realized that no such conditions had been attached to heterosexual trainees who made unwelcome advances to female trainees.

    Rumor: The CIA was involved in many activities and there was mutual “distrust” between the CIA and the Peace Corps. The CIA was supposedly concerned that naive Volunteers would stumble on to covert CIA operations and blow the cover. The Peace Corps was afraid that the CIA would try and infiltrate the Corps. The FBI field background checks were to investigate possible links between the trainee and the CIA.

    Years later, it was revealed, through a Freedom of Information release, I think, that in 1962, the CIA had funded a contingent
    of National Student Association members so that they could
    attend a Youth Conference in Helsinki. So, the rumor was that any Peace Corps applicant that had held any office, local or national in the National Student Association was ineligible for the Peace Corps and would be “selected out.” It was not necessary for anyone associated with the NSA to know about the CIA funding. So, a trainee so selected out, might not be given this reason so as to protect the CIA’s involvement.

    How could this rumor be investigated? Well, you certainly could not go to the “Peace Corps Archives” and talk with its Research Librarian. Those options don’t exist. A researcher could go to JFK Library and listen to the oral histories of some of the founding PC staff, particularly that of the lawyer William Joseph.
    Then, the research could travel to College Park Maryland and look at the few Peace Corps administrative records and see if there is any memo about the selection process. It would also be necessary, I think, to see if any FBI or State Department/CIA records would be publicly accessible. The actual personnel record might have accurate information, but all those records are protected by privacy laws.

    All of this research would only give an accurate historical record of the selection process, if indeed, any of it is even available. With that kind of context, then the research that Kathleen is doing would be an invaluable contribution to the whole historical process, by showing the two perspective of “coin”…that of the administration and that of the citizen trainee.

  • Well said, Joanne.

    I also agree than an FOA request to the FBI would be useful, And should be forthcoming, given that names would be redacted.

    I do know that in my FBI “full field investigation,” interviewing a friend of mine an FBI agent asked him if I was gay (because, I think, I had been with him in a graduate theater program).

    So these investigations, which were common in the early days, were not simply concerned with security issues and possible CIA connection, they were comprehensive. The FBI interviewed friends and neighbors everywhere I had lived, including college, Seattle, Dallas, Waco, New York. There were so many FBI interviews that along with another trainee, a journalist, I was a few weeks late for training.

    TLH

  • I personally knew two candidates deselected. One was a man in our training group (Ethiopia I) who was deselected, he said, for “political activities.” The other was a college sweetheart who was deselected because the Peace Corps did not believe she would do well in a foreign environment. She subsequently taught school in Western Australia for several years.

  • Tom,
    You are absolutely right that the FBI background check investigated a variety of factors, not just security factors. I know that being gay was of major concern with candidates for the FBI and many positions of top security clearance with the government and military, because of the possibility of blackmail. I don’t know what was the official policy of the Peace Corps. I just remember what we were told by that one Selection Officer.

    In regard to the selection process, Selection Boards were held about six or eight weeks in and that at the end of training. At the midpoint, many trainees were called in for interviews. During those interviews, some trainees were told they were being “deselected” and others were told of problems that needed to be addressed or they could be ‘deselected” at the end of training.
    All of us were told to disregard the reasons that a “deselected
    trainee” might give for the separation. We were told that such a
    trainee might not want his/her friends to know the real reasons.

  • I think that the selection process was conducted differently at different times and places.

    Our final selection determination was truly barbaric. The night before we were to go home, there was a barbecue. All of us knew that we were leaving friends that we might not see again.
    It was a tension filled times. Then, one of the staff came forward and said that he would handing out folded papers to each trainee. Each paper would have either a “x” or a “0” on it. One meant you had been “selected in” and the other meant that you were “selected out.” Everyone sought out a private place to look at the paper. If you were like me, you couldn’t remember what each mark meant and you were afraid to ask. If this were a scene in a movie, nobody would believe it.

  • Oh, Joanne, the memories flood.

    Now, in truth, UCLA training was terrific! Indeed, one of the best times of our lives. That is, if we were selected.

    We didn’t receive coded selection messages in person. We were told that on a given morning slips of paper would be left in our mail boxes. But they may have been color coded. I wanna see the movie!

    TLH

  • I was investigated prior to being accepted, but I couldn’t find anybody else in my group (Micronesia 11; 71-73) who had. We had a pre-invitational staging where former Micro PCVs would tell us horror stories (and some good stories) about what happened to them. The idea was to get the prospective PCVs to think about the conditions they would face and whether or not they could take it. If not, the idea was, they would deselect themselves.

    There were 45 of us who started training. Forty made it to Truk (Chuuk). I know that two of the five who didn’t make it had done very poorly in the education training. I think the other three quit for personal reasons.

    In our first three months in country several terminated and went home. Then it seemed to become stable. When summer came, with us all being educators with summer off, several more terminated. Then one or two terminated during the second year. I think 20, half of the number that arrived in country, managed to finish the full two year commitment.

    I always thought the Peace Corps did a good job of getting ride of training components that didn’t work. But they seemed to have a tendency of getting rid of ones that worked, too. Always throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If I can think of an example, I’ll post later.

  • I trained at Columbia University in 1965 leading up to my service in Cameroon. I have a ton of anecdotes. One of my favorites is reconstructed in my novel, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman, published in 1987, the first work of long fiction to come out of the Peace Corps. The plot covers 25 years, and two of those years center on my protagonist’s time as a volunteer in Cameroon. There is a scene where she meets with the psychologist during training for her first interview of three (once a month during her three-month training program). This protagonist wasn’t the feminist I was so the fictional conversation went a little differently, but here’s what actually happened:

    I was jabbering away with the shrink in his office, and suddenly he says, “Here’s the problem. My feeling is that all the female trainees should be deselected because you’re all abnormal. It is men who sow their wild oats, not girls. Normal behavior for a girl your age, just out of college, is to find the man you want to marry.” In response, I took the opposite tack that I wanted to take, grit my teeth and said, “How about we go down to the West End bar and talk about this over a beer.” He agreed! So we spent an hour together, and he was really tying one on, and then he said, “Damn it! I want to do what you’re doing but I’m too chicken. You’re a little, 90 pound, cute girl and you’re going to Africa! How can you make such a decision and I can’t?” He was wearing a wedding ring. I asked him, “When did you get married?” He said, “When I was in grad school.” I told him that was abnormal behavior. That he was looking for the right woman to marry when he was supposed to be out sowing his wild oats the way men did at that age. Then I put money on the table to cover our tab, and walked out. He sent me a note thanking me for raising his consciousness. I wasn’t deselected.

    Of the 38 people in my group, 4 were deselected and one was put on hold since her father was a member of the Communist Party 30 years earlier. The trainees eventually came to agree that two of the 4 should have been deselected, one maybe not, and one shouldn’t have been. I would love to know the official criteria for determining who was to be deselected.

    Good luck to you.

  • I was in the first group of trainees to be in the combination training and outward bound program at Camp Radley, Puerto Rico. I loved the place. I was a USAF veteran, E-4, and a sophomore in college with a Govt major and a desire to live outside the US to learn about other cultures.
    At the end on the first month of training, I was called in by a professor who he introduced himself as a Department head, from Johns Hopkins Univ. and advised that I had been deselected. I was immediately separated from the other trainees and gone in a very few hours.
    I I commented to the Prof that I had really enjoyed my training and appreciated the evaluations I had gone through. I then asked him if he could tell me why I had been deselected because I thought I had successfully completed all training and tasks. I further advised that information would help me in planning my future.
    The prof looked down, shuffled around and then advised me, “you are blunt, straightforward, too unemotional, have too much aggressive ambition, and do not know when to quit.” I advised him that was the way my friends and I were raised in West Texas and asked him if he had any recommendations as to what I could do in order to best utilize those qualities. After some more looking down and shuffling, the prof stated, I think you would have an outstanding career as a Marine Corps Officer.” Unfortunately that required I have a degree and be under the age of 25. I had no assistance on going to school other than the GI Bill and had to work. Because I was already a 4-year military veteran I also could not complete my degree prior to attaining the age or 25.
    Among the specifics I was given, my group completed the 3+ day survival trek from Camp Radley, to Ponce, Puerto Rico an time and in accordance with the instructions and guidelines we were given. Two other trainees had approached me and asked if they could join with me on the trek. A 3rd trainee could not find a group that wanted him and he was assigned to our group. To the best of my knowledge, were the only group that actually did the trek according to the rules with everyone else catching a public or other ride into San Juan and having a good time until the had to catch transportation to their pickup point. The assigned member of our group wrote me up big time because i had eventually told him in terms he could understand to either catch any ride he could get and go back to camp or to shut up. The other 2 members of the group also wrote me up but gave me credit for having kept everything together and completing the trek by the rules. Both of them stated in their report they would have not been successful in completing the trek without me.
    I was also written up because on the overnight camping task, I was approached by a female trainee whom I counseled and sent back to her campsite.
    I understood I was going to the Dominican Republic to teach folks how to operate earth moving machinery. The pro advised me if I was sent to the Dominican Republic, it would not take me but a few days to start a revolution because I would be working the workers too hard.
    It is my understanding that both the constant complainer and the female I turned down were not deselected.
    I returned to the US, completed both my BA & JD degrees, and am a retired ALJ, married to my wife for over 51 years

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