Reviewed by P. David Searles (CD Philippines 1971–74; Regional Director NANEAP and Deputy Director Peace Corps HQ 1974–76).
HERE IS A BOOK THAT TELLS THE PEACE CORPS STORY in the most meaningful way one can imagine: using the voices of Volunteers who have served in many countries at different times to collectively present a picture of the Peace Corps experience that has the ring of truth to it. What one reads in the book are the heartfelt reminiscences of dozens of former Volunteers as they discuss their personal experiences relative to eleven topics selected by the authors, beginning with “Why We Went” (the title of Chapter 1), then on through “training,” “settling in,” “jobs,” and all of the other aspects of Peace Corps life that Volunteers have shared throughout the past fifty years.
The authors — Angene and Jack Wilson — were both Volunteers in the early 1960s, and Jack was a Peace Corps desk officer in Washington and then Country Director in Fiji. As shown in a postscript, their personal experiences as Volunteers, on staff, and later as key players in RPCV activities in Kentucky and across the country make them the perfect people to have led the immense effort needed to bring this endeavor to its excellent conclusion. (In fact, I found it helpful to read that postscript first in order to appreciate fully the bona fides they bring to the project.)
Voices from the Peace Corps began life as an oral history project at the University of Kentucky initiated by the Wilsons and supported by various elements within the university. As the mass of transcribed material grew, the authors — first hesitantly and then enthusiastically — decided to put it into book form. The University Press of Kentucky accepted the manuscript and is the book’s publisher.
One must admire the Wilsons’ decision to devote such an important segment of their retirement years to the task of compiling, organizing, and making sense of such a vast amount of raw material. The result is a very readable and important book. For that, the Peace Corps family should be grateful.
Now, what generalizations can we draw from these reminiscences? What do they tell us about the Peace Corps Volunteer experience? Other readers will have their own answers to the question, but here are mine:
The experience was profoundly life-changing.
- The most important part of the experience was the friendships made with local people.
- Former Volunteers are perhaps overly modest in assessing the value of the jobs they did.
- Cultural challenges were more daunting than the physical ones.
- Women often had a difficult time because of sexism and unwanted romantic attention.
- Returning Volunteers were uniformly dismayed by American materialism.
- RPCVs usually end up on the liberal side of the political spectrum and often enter service professions.
- Formal religion does not appear to be an important part of post-Peace Corps life.
- RPCVs are far more sensitive to, and aware of, international issues than is the population as a whole.
- The earlier altruism that motivated Volunteers has morphed into a combination of altruism and adventurism.
- America is a better place because of the presence of former Volunteers.
The voices included in the book all have a present connection to Kentucky — book’s subtitle is Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers — but I feel certain that what they say can be read as a proxy for the entire RPCV universe. Nor does the reader need to have a Kentucky connection to enjoy the book and get much from it. That is not to say there would be no value in other states sponsoring a similar state-focused oral history project like this one. Can you imagine the impact of fifty such books?
Happily there is little in the book about the politics of the Peace Corps; its organizational and administration history; the comings and goings of neither programmatic emphases, nor who was in charge, where, and doing what. That type of information is available in other places; here the Volunteers speak out.
There is one problem, however, a problem common in the world of university presses: their books tend to be very pricey. University presses specialize in books with limited potential audiences (although Voices should not be one of them), they have a shortage of marketing resources, and they are ill-financed by their sponsoring institutions. As a result, they try to make do by charging a lot.
The list price for Voices from the Peace Corps is set at $35 (hardcover, there is no paperback), and many otherwise interested people will be put off by the price. (Amazon indicates that it will price the book at $30.73.) I’m here to say buy the book anyway. You will be rewarded when you read it, and you will have in your personal library a book unlike any other written on the subject of the Peace Corps, and one destined to be a cited source for all coming Peace Corps books. (I say this because it is true, not because I am the unidentified Country Director who comes off looking pretty good on page 60.)
P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback (1974–76). His career has included work in international business, government service and education. In 1993 David earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997) both published by The University Press of Kentucky.
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