The Peace Corps Third Goal by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia)

The Third Goal
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)

Kathy Coskran in 2017 on her third visit to Ethiopia

I left for Peace Corps training the week I graduated from college, equipped with uninformed idealism and a BA in English. In other words my few skills included the ability to write a decent sentence and the habit of losing myself in the sentences and paragraphs written by others.

Four years earlier I had taken the memorable words of President Kennedy’s inaugural address to heart: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” and used that sentence as the first line of the essay on citizenship assigned by my English teacher. I don’t remember if she told the class that our essays would be entered in a county-wide contest sponsored by local Civitan Clubs.

I do remember my surprise in winning first place in Hall County, getting my picture in the Gainesville Times, and then coming in 2nd in the state-wide competition in Georgia. It was a thrill to win, but somehow felt inevitable because I had begun my essay with the inspiring words of our new president. In that address, Kennedy went on to speak to the rest of the world: “My fellow citizens of the world:  ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” In other words, we are in this together; let us do our best to create a world in which everybody thrives and cares for one another.

I was inspired to look up Kennedy’s speech after seeing John Coyne’s list of 448 Peace Corps writers who have authored at least 2 books and imagining the several thousand books that list represents. I have always felt that the third goal of the Peace Corps was the most important: “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

It is too common for we Americans to think we are the best or the smartest, most innovative, but those of us lucky enough to spend two or more years living and working in Ethiopia or Nepal or Ukraine know we are simply part of the great human adventure on earth, that there is more than one way to live and love and prosper, plan, hope, and suffer. That understanding is surely reflected in the thousands of books Coyne’s list reflects. Telling a story, writing a poem, an essay, a book helps increase knowledge, stimulate thought, and promote understanding and becomes a vital part of the radiating influence of the Peace Corps.

The other goals matter, of course. “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” The operable word for me is “interested.” Peace Corps Volunteers don’t rush in, uninvited, taking what we want, identifying what is broken and claiming we can fix it. That’s colonialism. We are invited in to focus on a specific need. And, as Kennedy said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The second goal: “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” is also important, even though one of the first things I learned more than 50 years ago was that most Ethiopians already knew a lot about the United States. Even then, many years before the omnipresence of the internet, there were transistor radios in every town and village. The United States was big, powerful, and in the news every day. The effect of our presence as volunteers was that local people got to know us, and we them, as human beings, ordinary, fallible, imperfect human beings.

But I always come back to the third goal: “to promote a better understanding of other people….” We volunteers are the people who benefited the most, who gained in understanding.  When we settled into cities, towns and villages around the world, we learned there is more than one way to live a good and generous life. “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” That’s the Peace Corps I joined.

Reading the inclusive words of President Kennedy assassinated nearly 60 years ago gives me hope. Our country and the world are sorely divided now, but thousands of us have been transformed and educated by our Peace Corps experience. Volunteers are now returning to their posts, volunteers who will write more books, essays, poems; volunteers who will affirm directly or indirectly that we are one world, that we need each other. We speak different languages, eat different foods, have different practices and opinions, but we share this beautiful, fragile planet and must continue to learn, to see, and to listen to one another.

Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67) is primarily a fiction writer, but is currently working on a series of essays about the lack of justice in the multiple criminal justice systems in the United States.

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