“When idea and fate meet in a creative hour…”: Reflections from the 50th Peace Corps Anniversary

Last week, I had the remarkable opportunity to join a group at the University of Michigan commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

From among colorful the eloquent speeches and heart-felt reminiscences, there was one presentation that moved me to my core.

When Alejandro Toledo took the podium at lunchtime, I was immediately struck by his elegance and humility.  But what I couldn’t tell at first glance is that President Toledo was born into poverty in a small village in Peru.  He had 16 siblings, 7 of whom died before their first birthday, and parents who had no formal education.

In 1965, Toledo’s life changed completely when two Peace Corps volunteers moved in with his family. Nancy and Joel taught him English, and gave him the confidence to finish high school and apply to college in the US.  He eventually earned multiple degrees from Stanford and Harvard, and led a distinguished career as an academic and economist before becoming the President of Peru.  In Toledo’s words, it was the Peace Corps volunteers’ belief in his potential that literally transformed the course of his life.

President Toledo’s story gave me chills. I wanted so much for each of our Fellows to hear his message, particularly in the moments when they find themselves doubting whether they can actually create “real impact” at such a young age.

Many of our Global Citizen Year Fellows have never traveled and don’t speak the local language when they arrive.  Because of this,  it’s critically important that they spend more time listening than talking, and more time watching than doing  – so that they can eventually find an appropriate voice and role in their new communities.

But even though our Fellows may not have many technical skills or academic credentials, Toledo’s story reminds us of the magnitude of the impact a single person can have in awakening anothers’ sense of possibility – simply through their presence, patience and courage. Toledo concluded his talk reminding us of the power of this sort of human connection: “High tech can never replace high touch. Hearts of millions around the world are waiting for this form of human contact. This is what the world needs most.”

50 years ago this week, John F. Kennedy gave a speech on the steps of the Michigan Union which planted the seeds for what became the Peace Corps.   Shortly after launching the first class of volunteers, Kennedy shared his vision that the Peace Corps would be a “serious force” when it reached 100,000 volunteers annually.  Standing on the steps where Kennedy spoke 50 years before, I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think, were he still alive, to know that in it’s first 50 years, the number of volunteers has never exceeded 15,000 in any given year.

Today, the impact of the 200,000 Peace Corps Alumni on communities around the world and at home has been profound.  But imagine this: had Kennedy’s original goal been met, our country would now have 5 million returned volunteers and very likely, a more collaborative – and humble – presence on the world stage.

During my days in Michigan, the honorable Harris Wofford, a former US Senator and architect of the original Peace Corps, graciously took me under his wing.   As someone whose own life was transformed by early experiences overseas, Senator Wofford has become a close advisor and vocal ally for Global Citizen Year. He joined our Fellows in September at their send-off, and issued a bold call for the critical importance of the work we’re beginning.

“When the veterans of World War II went back to college, our teachers declared us the best generation of students they had ever had.  “Bridge years” of military service are still available, but far better for American and the world will be the maturity, curiosity, and commitment that comes from a Global Citizen Year of apprenticeship and service. The time has come for this bold new idea which will prepare the next generation of Americans for leadership in a complex world.”

Senator Wofford was with JFK when he launched the Peace Corps, and during the commemorative celebration in Michigan, he urged us all to revive Kennedy’s original goal. The Service World Coalition is a new, a collaborative effort modeled on the Service Nation campaign (which led to the enactment of the Serve America Act in 2009).  Service World has grown to include hundreds of cross-sector organizations which are mobilizing support for Kennedy’s target of 100,000 Americans serving overseas each year.

In his closing remarks at the Peace Corps commemoration, Senator Wofford reminded us of that the most powerful force in the world is born “when idea and fate meet in a creative hour…”  The time has never been riper to recommit ourselves to Kennedy’s original vision, and it’s now in our hands to design and scale innovative solutions to make sure it’s fulfilled.

Imagine how many young Toledo’s around the world might never have the chance to reach their full potential.

We cannot afford to let another 50 years pass – we must seize the opportunity this historic moment has presented.