Peace Corps At Day One, # 5

Selection

[PCVs today fill out applications for the Peace Corps, mostly on-line, and have a quick one hour interview, in person or by phone. with a recruiter; they supply a list of 4 references, and take a physical examination and that is how they get into the Peace Corps. Today’s PCVs have no idea of the elaborate selection process that took place in the early days of the agency. Here is a brief summary (over the next few days) of what happened in D.C. (and across the country) to select and train the first generation of Peace Corps Volunteers.]

In March 1961, in developing a way to find the right Volunteers for the right job, there was no margin for error, or so they thought at Peace Corps HQ in the old Maiatico Building.

The Peace Corps, at the time, was a  highly visible, well reported operation of the government. A considerable body of public opinion was already convinced that the Peace Corps would not work. Any individual failure, spread across the front  pages of newspapers throughout the world, would reinforce such doubts.

The agency was fully aware of the “failures” of other Americans abroad in previous years, as outlined in the  novel “The Ugly American.”

How then, could the best candidates be identified among the thousands who had already applied to the Peace Corps?

Development of the Peace Corps selection process began on March 22, 1961, with the appointment of Dr. Nicholas Hobbs as Director of Selection. 

Hobbs, who took leave from his job as Chairman of the Division of Human Development at George Peabody College for Teachers, was well qualified. During WWII, he helped to establish the Air Force selection process. He had been Chairman of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association. And he combined this experience with a quick grasp of what a successful Volunteer would have to do overseas. Most important, he believed in the idea of the Peace Corps and was willing to commit his professional reputation to its fulfillment.

Hobbs turned to his fellow scientists and went looking for help.

On March 28, 1961, a conference of advisers with experience in problems of selection was convened. Representatives from the International Cooperation Administration, several voluntary agencies, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, National Institutes of Health, the United States Information Agency, and several professional associations attended.

In all, 22 top professionals were invited; 21 attended with less than a week’s notice.

This initial conference, which helped establish the general guidelines for the development of a selection program, was followed in quick succession by several others directed towards specific projects.

By April 25, leading psychologists had arrived at the specifications for the Peace Corps Entrance Test.

The project was presented to the non-profit Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey.  Within a matter of weeks, they produced a model of the Peace Corps Entrance Test taken by all early PCVs.

Special tests, however, were suddenly needed because of the urgent demand for secondary school teachers in Ghana, a requirement that had not been anticipated at the time of the initial planning. Again ETS responded to the tight deadlines demanded by the situation.

The American Institute for Research developed a biographical data blank and a person inventory to asses personality variables not touched upon by the other tests.

The US Civil Service commission and its examiners undertook administration of the tests at 500 centers. The tests were given in Post Offices across the country. Special arrangements were also made to examine U.S. candidates all over the world through the cooperation of embassies following a plan developed by the Civil Service Commission.

Every person who had volunteered to become a Peace Corps Volunteer as of midnight, Thursday, May 25, was notified to appear at a specificed examination on the following Saturday morning, May 27, the date of the first test. A second test for teachers followed on June 5, 1961. A total of 5,210 tests were given on those two day.

In 1961, 11,269 tests were given on four separate dates; through June 1962, an additional 9,163 were given.

p.s. I took my test at the main post office in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Next to me was the very pretty daughter of the Dean of Liberal Arts at Western Michigan University where I was in the graduate school. At one point, filling out the Q &As, she whispered, “I hate spiders! What do I check?” I whispered back, “You love spiders.” I am not sure what she checked but she was selected for the first group of PCVs to Nigeria and proved to be a wonderful and successful  PCV secondary school teacher.)

4 Comments

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  • I began training for Ecuador I in February 1962. I still have my application but did not have to take any special tests before attending a four-month training program in Puerto Rico. Several people left the program during training. VP Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers attended our graduation exercises in Barranquitas. I heard somewhere that the project I was assigned to (an urban project in Guayaquil) was made possible in part by an anonymous contribution from Congressman Richard Ottinger. I never did know if there was any truth to that story.

  • During the summer of 1963 two men in suits went from door to door in my neighborhood on Long Island asking our neighbors about me and our family. They apparently identified themselves as FBI and said they were questioning them in regard to my possible service in the Peace Corps. Maybe I was an exception because of my parents’ political activities. I’d be curious if others had this experience. Marnie
    (Ecuador 1963-1965)

  • Marnie, I was in training during the summer of 1963. My recollection is that we all had FBI background checks conducted in the field. The neighbors across the street had visits from the F.B.I. My father was recently retired military and had had a top security clearance. (His last assignment was a top secret one which no one, the family included, knew about until it was published in the newspapers in the early 70s.). He went on to ba teacher in the local high school. The F.B.I. agent from Colorado Springs would often visit the school doing background checks on military
    personnel who had been his students. That was routine, as I understood it. The agent would always ask my Dad how I was doing. This drove my Dad nuts.

  • Urban Legend? Or perhaps there should be a special category for Peace Corps Legends?
    Has anyone heard of this one about selection and background checks? Years ago, I heard or read that the CIA had sponsored, covertly, a delegation from the National Student Association to the Youth Conference in Helsinki in the early sixties. In order to protect the CIA involvement and yet still be in compliance with the Executive Order that prohibited anyone associated with the CIA from being involved with the Peace Corps, PC trainees who had held an office in the NSA and who could possibly have had contact with the CIA, however unknowingly, were de-selected. Not only were they de-selected, but they were given bogus reasons for that action, such as “too abstract for community development.” What I remember from training is that we thought that the NSA was a barrier to selection because it was thought to be too liberal. I also remember that the selection staff told us that trainees who were de-selected might give a bizarre reason for their de-selection, because they did not want to tell the group the real reason.

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