Peace Corps At Day One, # 6

SELECTION II

The test battery was only one phase of the selection process.

Selection began when an applicant filled out the questionnaire and returned it to the Peace Corps. This process of volunteering represented a kind of “self-selection” and it was in no small part responsible, or so Peace Corps/Washington thought, “for the generally high calibre of Peace Corps applicants in those early days.” Further “self-selection” occurred when and applicant was offered an invitation to train for a specific project and was free to accept or decline the invitation.

Potential Volunteers listed various references on the questionnaire and they were contacted. What was learned (and this surprised the Peace Corps selection staff) was that the attention paid to the recommendations by referents provided a “valuable tool for selection.” [In later years, when doing studies on how ‘successful’ PCVs were overseas, the Peace Corps found that the evaluations by PCV’s mothers proved to be the most accurate of all on how their sons and daughters would do overseas.] 

However, no matter how scientific the pre-selection process, it was still a second-hand view of the candidate. The Peace Corps therefore decided to continue selection throughout the training program. This enabled the Peace Corps to form a first-hand opinion of the candidate’s qualification to serve overseas.  Selection was also aided by the full background check of each Volunteer conducted by the Civil Service Commission.

The first 750 background checks were conducted for the Peace Corps by the FBI. These were given top priority by the Bureau and enabled the Peace Corps to move ahead quickly. Without the cooperation by the F.B.I. the Peace Corps start up would have been considerably delayed, and endangered.

As a result of the continuing assessment throughout training, an average of 15 percent of all Trainees were de-selected, as the process became known. Some of the reasons were medical, some psychological, some academic, and some personal.

By June 15, 1962, a total of 1,247 candidates entered Training and, of these, 1,051 were selected as Volunteers.

Two underlying factors guided the entire selection process. The Trainee’s personality characteristics must be such that he (or she) can make a successful adjustment to the Third World, and  his technical skill much be matched with the technical requirements of the job to be performed overseas. [Talk about dreaming!]

Selection decisions also took into account a series of “important personality characteristics,” which were: emotional maturity, effectiveness in inter-personal relations, character, motivation, and the absence of ethnocentric attitudes. Also important were: education, work experience, participation in volunteer activities in one’s community, language facility or aptitude, outdoor activities, knowledge of U.S.  history and institutions and, where possible, experience abroad.

I am not sure if I possessed any of those qualifications when I went to Training in the summer of 1962 at Georgetown University for the first group to Ethiopia. I do remember having one interview with a shrink (of some sort) and often in the late afternoon on the quadrangle we would spot a handful of ‘suits’ clustered together in conversation. Not sure if they were watching us lounging on the lawn or not.

However, these were the days of those terms, “High Risk/Low Gain; and Low Risk/High Gain, and everything in between. More about that later. But next, we’ll look at Training in the Peace Corps at Day One!

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  • There was heavy involvement by Psychologists in the selection taking place during training which continued through the 60’s. Much of the process and decision-making was questioned during the latter 60’s and the heavy reliance on psychology as a selection tool was replaced by the end of the decade.

  • PC was still using psychologists in the “deselection”process in 1966 when we trained. We thought of our guy as pompous, heavy handed and incompetent.

    PC was also still using the FBI for back ground checks.Years later I filed for and received my FBI file under a Freedom of Information Act request. I recommend everyone do that. It is enlightening to learn what the FBI thinks is important, how superficial the background checks are and how much material they consider confidential and block out when they give you copies of your file.

    In any event, they asked various classmates and professors, whether I was a loyal American, whether I would likely to support the US Government while abroad, whether I had ever indicated I supported the violent overthrow of the USG and other such questions.One of my law school professors ducked all of the questions by responding that he didn’t remember me at all but if the FBI said I was in his class, then it must be true. Even though his name was blacked out, I knew which one of my Professors it was. He had a wicked sense of humor. Another classmate responded to the question of whether I would be a loyal American abroad by stating that of course I would be because I was Jewish and everyone knew Jews were super patriots.He was pulling the FBI Agent’s leg, who didn’t get it at all and duly noted it down in my file.

    When did PC realize that this kind of nonsense had no bearing on a person’s ability to be an effective PCV? What a waste of time and effort.

  • One of the most important and maybe deliberate or maybe inadvertent outcomes from the bizarre and horrific training process was the group bonding/cohension it generated. In country and for years later, the stories of those days kept us laughing and sane.

    There were hundreds of us at the University of New Mexico during the summer of 1963. There was a coordinator whose only job was to periodically show up waving papers and blowing a whistle. We called him “squirrel.” He would pass out class schedules, changes in class schedules, appointment list with various officials, and a endless series of what was totally irrelevant materials.

    My group was all female. Most of us entered training with hair dryers and nail polish; but by mid summer, we were hardened veterans of repeliing, drown-proofing; survival hikes and sunburn. One afternoon, “squirrel” showed up as we waited to do the rope jungle exercise, waving yet another set of test results. I remember he told us that no body knew what it meant, but on the Minnesota Manpower Inventory our group had the same profiles as the GIs of 1942. My great friend, site partner to be, and the funniest person I have ever know, Claudine immediately started dubbed us Sadie and Flo, after Ernie Pyles’ Willie and Joe.

    It was years later before I realized that we all were the daughters of the GIs of 1942.

  • John Coyne can confirm this, but my understanding is that our training program is considered to have been the worse one ever conducted. There we were, over 300 star struck “do-gooders” being “forged” into volunteer “wunderkind.” And no one had a clue how to do it. I do recall the pscyhologists being thought of as the “death panel.” We were convinced they would make or break our assignment. I recall my interview with two of them. They asked me, “Mr Cecchini, you are going to a difficult place, if there were one thing you could have to make it more comfortable, what would that be?” I replied, “A flush toilet.” The two began writing furiously while I tried to explain that I found out houses to be miserable places filled with bees and foul smells. But I was certain they were going to have me dismissed from the program as being an egregious case of “anal retention.”

  • Leo–I think every group in those early years chaimed their Training Program was the worse ever! Not sure if we rank that high on the list. Hey, we got to go to the White House and meet Kennedy, that was something. John

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