The Best and the Brightest–Part Two

High Risk/High Gain criteria was only the first phase of the early Peace Corps selection process. In theory (and those of us who were around in those days remember being victims of a lot of ‘theory’) selection began with a person filling out the questionnaire and returning it to the Peace Corps. This process of volunteering represented a kind of ‘self-selection” and according to the early staffers, “it in no small part was responsible for the generally high caliber of Peace Corps applicants.”training-too-imagescah32uyg

Further “self-selection” took place with the applicant was sent an invitation to train for a specific project and was free to accept or decline the invitation.

At the time, potential PCVs had listed various references on his or her questionnaire and they were contacted.  The attention that these people gave their replied surprised the Peace Corps Selection Staff and therefore was a tool for final decision making. Interestingly, in a study done years later by the Peace Corps, and which Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961-63) was involved, the study showed that mothers were the most accurate in assessing how well their son or daughter would do overseas. So, the Peace Corps could have saved a lot of money and time if they had just listened to Mom!

Meanwhile, selection continued. The Peace Corps decided that the process would continue throughout the Training Program. This would “enable the Peace Corps to form a first-hand opinion of the candidate’s qualification to serve overseas.”

While this was going on, the Civil Service Commission was doing a full background check on each Trainee!

The first 750 background checks were conducted for the Peace Corps by the FBI. These investigations were given top priority by the agency and this let the Peace Corps get the first PCVs (remember Ghana was anxious to have their teachers) overseas ASAP!

By June 15, 1962, a total of 1,247 people entered Training and, of these, 1,051  were selected as Volunteers. On average 15% of the Trainees didn’t make it through training in those early years, mostly because of medical and psychological reasons, or because they just didn’t see the Peace Corps in their future, in other words, they ‘self-selected’ themselves out of the agency.

What was guiding the selection were two factors: The potential PCV must have the personalty characteristic to make a successful adjustment to the life in the Peace Corps, and also have the technical skill that matched the technical requirements of the job to be done.

But what were those “important personality characteristics”? Well, the doctors (and here they were almost always the college medical team at the Peace Corps Training site) had a list: emotional maturity, effectiveness in inter-personal relations, character, motivation, and the absence of ethnocentric attitudes.

The doctors based their decisions on High Risk/High Gain evaluations of the Trainees education, work experience, participation in volunteer activities in one’s home town, language facility or aptitude, outdoor activities, knowledge of U.S. history and institution and, where possible, experience overseas.

Additionally there were the medical selection standards. In all cases, medical judgments were binding.

Finally, all of this information and observation ‘on site’ at Training was combined. Coded information concerning the qualifications of each candidate was recorded on a computer tape. (Yes, Virginia, we did have computer way back then!) A similar tape listed all of the specific requirements for all Peace Corps positions. The two tapes were electronically matched, providing a continual comparison of every candidate for every job. This enabled each candidate to be considered for all jobs.

This ‘blending’ of ‘machine and ‘hand’ classification was developed for the Peace Corps by Dr. E. Lowell Kelly, who became Director of Selection after Dr. Hobbs came and left the agency. Kelly  himself was on leave from Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Okay, you have been Selected! Now what about Training to be a PCV?

End of Part Two

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  • John,
    I remember the selection process somewhat differently. After my volunteer service (1963-5) I sat on a number of selection boards as a desk officer and country director. As I remember it, we ranked those trainees who were selected to go overseas into six categories: top quartile (those most likely to excel), second quartile, third quartile, fourth quartile (least likely to excel, but would do an adequate job and were still worth sending overseas), special placement (i.e. could go overseas, but could only serve in certain locations or assignments because of extenuating circumstances such as health) and, finally, “high risk/high gain.” This last category was a special wildcard-type category for volunteers who were considered risky, but who might nevertheless make major contributions and were therefore worth taking a chance on. I don’t remember our using other terms like “high risk/low gain.” At the end of two years of service, country directors were expected to evaluate volunteers into the same four quartiles and the selection officials in Peace Corps/Washington would then compare the results in order to fine-tune the process. Both from my own experience as a country director and from what I remember hearing from Washington, there was relatively little correlation, which no doubt contributed to the decision to drop the system around 1970 and move towards a greater emphasis on self selection.

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