The Ying and Yang of the Peace Corps has always been whether a PCV is an expert technical advisor (written small), or an American just off on a Third World Walk About. The three goals of the Peace Corps give a mixed metaphor to the real reason of being a PCV. Many HCNs see us as CIA agents, and back home in Americans we’re thought of as missionaries without a religion.
PCVs for the most part just want a job, want to feel wanted, and need to believe they are getting the job done. So, on the macro side there is this grand design of the whole agency encouraging peace by sending Volunteers into the world and on the micro side there are just men and women-mostly young and inexperienced–hoping that at the end of the tour they will have been somewhat successful.
These competing goals are not necessarily bad.
From the first days of designing the Peace Corps in two rooms of the Mayflower Hotel the development types had a limited view of what PCVs could do in the Third World. Shriver, and others, who were also in the rooms, had a larger vision.
For example, by the mid-60s Harris Wofford became to use the term “university in dispersion” to describe what the Peace Corps was. The development types didn’t like this. In their minds, the Peace Corps wasn’t a two-year advance degree program. They were not interested in what benefit a Peace Corps tour might be for an American kid.
I go back to what JFK said to Wofford about having PCVs coming home to vote more intelligently on foreign affair issues. That’s a value Kennedy realized from the first days of the agency. In 1961 few Americans had any real idea of what a Third World country was like.
There is something else that is important, and that is always overlooked, and that is the way PCVs live overseas. Volunteers live in villages, and by placing an American in a village changes the dynamics of the community. Changes the Volunteer.
The RPCV comes home to America and tells stories of life in the Peace Corps. The villagers left behind tell stories of this Volunteer, and their children, on both sides of the ocean, growing up with another perspective of the world, a dream of what might be possible for them, fostered by the tales their parents tell. It’s an old story. Cast a stone upon the waters and watch the ripples. Who know how much influence a single American in a small Third World village will have to the children of that village, to the leaders of the community, to the kids in school, to their host country friends? That’s the rub. That’s the genius of the Peace Corps.