Puerto Rican Training–Blame It On The Brits

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When the Peace Corps started  on March 1, 1961 there were few guidelines on how to train Peace Corps Volunteers for work in the developing world. Ordinary Americans had rarely been trained systematically for service overseas. As a result most Americans living abroad, whether privately or as officials, did not have a real understanding of the society in which they found themselves. There was no such thing as Cross Culture Training in 1961. The Peace Corps, setting up shop, planned to avoid this.

So, of course,  the agency called a meeting! The Associate Director Lawrence Dennis actually sponsored a series of  what was called Peace Corps Institutes that brought together people from government agencies, universities, foundations, business, labor and professional and academic societies. Conferences were next convened to discuss how to train for particular nations around the world. Next conference were held to get advice on how to train Volunteers for foreign language, area studies, health orientation, etc.

Meanwhile, other staffers in the Training Division  went in search of American universities looking for colleges where, for example, Volunteers going to Thailand might be trained.

While that was going on, Shriver got involved. In February and March of ’61, Shriver started studying the work of the British Voluntary Service Overseas Program. He saw that some of the most successful members of this program had undergone training at what the British called Outward Bound Schools. (The VSO was founded by Alec and Mora Dickson in 1958, three years before the Peace Corps.)

These Outward Bound Schools exposed students to unexpected challenges and the students were judged by how well they reacted to new situations. This kind of training was meant to generate self confidence and erase unreasonable fears of the unknown. The method was developed during WWII and was later adopted by British industry as a technique for training potential leaders.

The Peace Corps contracted the Outward Bound Trust, and then with help from an American private foundation, brought two of its members to the U.S. to assist the agency to incorporate their experiences into its training programs. Interestingly, the two members were: Sir Spencer Summers, chairman of the Trust and a member of Parliament, and Captain Frederick Fuller, Headmaster of the oldest Outward Bound School at Aberdovey, Wales.

In Puerto Rico these two met with Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Munoz Marin, who was also interested (I’m told) in the Outward Bound philosophy, and they conducted an aerial search of the island looking for a site for the camp.

(What is interesting to note is the influence that the Peace Corps had at the times. Shriver, being the president’s brother-in-law, helped to get the attention of a members of the British Parliament, and Captain Fuller, who spent six months on site to assist in setting up the camp. Also, we had the Governor of Puerto Rico jumping into finding a site. Ah, those were the days!)

The new Trainees for the Puerto Rico camp were  to have their first exposure to another culture, the topical life of the Caribbean. They lived briefly with host families, studied a language, and were involved with an extensive physical fitness program: mountain climbing, swimming (including rescue work and ‘drown-proofing’), a four-day survival trek, and the mastering an obstacle course. This  program–which was adjusted to age and abilities–was aimed as much at the mind as the body. It was intended as a means of strengthening self confidence through challenges. Also it allowed the Peace Corps Staff to observe the Trainees going through the various stress situations at the camp. It gave them (the Staff) time to do “total evaluation and selection of the individual Volunteer.” Talk about High Risk/High Gain!

After the first camp was built, the Peace Corps moved ahead and established a second one. Within the year, the two camps were named after two early PCVs who lost these lives in a plane crash in Colombia. The victims were Lawrence Radley and David Crozier. The first camp, near Rio Abajo, was named Camp Crozier; the second was called Camp Radley. Radley and Crozier were killed April 22 when a DC-3 airliner crashed into a Colombian mountain, killing all 30 persons aboard.”

These “outward bound’ training sites lasted until the last Sixties and then were dissolved, as were most U.S. training programs eliminated as the shift was made to In-Country Training.

Next: The the Peace Corps and Universities!

End of Part Three

6 Comments

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  • For my training the Peace Corps had adopted a plan of throwing all kinds of negative things at the trainees in terms of what they would have to deal with as volunteers. Could you really last for two years on an outer island miles from anything resembling modern civilization? The idea was to chase away those who really couldn’t make it, getting them to realize that and terminate themselves.

    A few years later the overall theme of training had changed. Show the volunteers only the good stuff. Get them committed to the positives of the experience so they won’t terminate.

    I think both groups had about the same attrition. Another RPCV talking about this made the comment that the Peace Corps tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater when revamping training. He felt they needed to do a better job of realizing what works and what doesn’t, keep the one and get rid of the other instead of getting rid of everything and starting over.

  • The first Peace Corps training camp in Puerto Rico was in Rio Abajo up in the rain forest just beyond Arecibo. The camp’s original director was William Sloane Coffin, the charismatic and activist Chaplain at Yale. If I’m not mistaken, the first Peace Corps Volunteers to train there was Tanganyika I. They had just completed eight weeks training at Texas Western University in El Paso. Shortly after I returned from taking the first Ghana I Volunteers to Africa Bill Coffin had to return to his duties t Yale. That left the Camp without a Peace Corps person in charge. So Shriver asked me to temporarily take Coffin’s place until a new Director was appointed.
    Ellen and I went to Rio Abajo and stayed for three weeks until the Pakistan I Volunteers completed their training in Puerto Rico. Nominally, I was in charge of the Camp during those weeks. But the real leadership clearly came from the Outward Bound trainers you mentioned in your email, “Blame it on the Brits”. One person you did not include was Freddy Lanue (sp). The swimming coach on loan from a leading university in either Georgia or Alabama, he ran the camp’s notorious “drown proofing” program.
    I can’t say I was ever enthusiastic about the camp’s philosophy. But one thing was great. In those days passengers arriving at the San Juan airport were greeted with trays of frozen daiquiris – possibly a tourism promotion or a promotion for Puerto Rican rum. In any case, the training staff (including me,I must admit) eagerly accepted any request to meet a visiting staff member from Washington.

  • I was part of a training group (Panama 8) at Camp Radley from September to November of 1965. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico so I had a big advantage over the other trainees, but we all had to endure the very demanding physical aspects of the training,. Many of us coped and thrived but many others did not. Out of 76 originally selected for training only 50 of us made it to Panama.

    The training forced those of us who were successful to dig deep into ourselves and find skills and abilities we weren’t aware of, and sometimes we also found a determination we didn’t know we had. So we just kept pushing forward, although many aspects of training ( such as rock climbing ) did not make sense at the time. But the lessons that I learned during training as I coped with all those challenges, did help me when I was placed within a government agency in Panama (Department of Agriculture) and had to rely on those skills and abilities to accomplish the goals of the task I were assigned to do, Coordinate a Visual Aids program that involved all the provinces of Panama through the Agriculture Department and provide the tools for a myriad of community development projects.
    Being able to use the skills and abilities I had found within myself and applying them to situations I was confronted with as I operated within the confines of a governmental agency in a foreign country, was all possible due to those challenges I faced during our training.

  • I was in the first group to be scheduled for all training at Camp Radley, Puerto Rico +/- June 1966.

    I have misplaced all of my records and do not recall the exact dates or group, I just know it was a really, really great experience.

    I accessed this site attempting to find anything about the training, to hopefully include pictures, especially the rock climbing training and location.

    One of my biggest regrets is that at that time I did not have a camera and I have no photos of my fellow trainees or Puerto Rico.

    The gentleman who advised me I had been deselected also advised me that based on my evaluations, I would have an outstanding career as a Marine Corps Officer. Quite a compliment of which I am very proud. Unfortunately it required a degree that I could not acquire before I was too old to enter the program.

    If anyone knows where historical information or photos are accessible, please advise or post somewhere I might find it.

  • R.G. Rusty Russell,

    I hope you can find the photos you are looking for. I have some suggestions, but it won’t be easy. Peace Corps does not have a Library or a Research Librarian. Collections of Peace Corps photos and papers are scattered all over the country, in both private and public archives. What country were you training for?

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