Colleges President Mark D. Gearan was recently quoted in an article in Georgetown University newspaper The Hoya about the university’s ties to the Peace Corps in light of the organization’s 50th Anniversary. Gearan, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1991, was appointed Director of the Peace Corps by President Bill Clinton, serving as head of the organization from 1995-1999.
The article notes the significance of Gearan’s tenure, citing his expansion of the Peace Corps’ programs to include Bangladesh, Haiti, Jordan, Mozambique and South Africa, as well as his role in creating the Crisis Corps. Now called the Peace Corp Response, this highly important division is responsible for quickly and efficiently sending volunteers to emergency zones.
The Hoya also quoted Gearan, “Working for the Peace Corps was the privilege of a lifetime for which I am extraordinarily grateful,” Gearan said. “It’s powerful knowing that so many people had such positive experiences with the organization and would encourage their own children or grandchildren to serve as well.”
The full article follows.
Peace Corps’ 50th Highlights GU Ties
Chad Carson • September 27, 2011
As her peers tossed their caps into the air, then-senior Meg MacWhirter (SFS ’05) was contemplating just how different her time after graduation would be.
Earlier that day, she had received a letter from the Peace Corps informing her that she would be leaving in just a few months to serve for two years in Grenada, a small island in the Caribbean.
“It was a very crazy time of the year … and to find out that I’d have the opportunity to go somewhere new was thrilling,” MacWhirter said.
With Thursday marking 50 years since Congress signed the Peace Corps Act into law, MacWhirter is just one of nearly 900 Georgetown alumni who have served in the Corps since 1961.
A GEORGETOWN PRESENCE
According to the Peace Corps’ list of top volunteer producing schools, 37 Georgetown alumni are actively serving in the Corps, placing the university among the top 10 medium-sized feeder schools for volunteers nationwide. George Washington ranked first with 72 alumni volunteers, and American University came in fourth with 55 graduates serving abroad.
“As a school committed to preparing global leaders, full of students that are positioned to be women and men for others, service with the Peace Corps falls right within our identity as a university,” MacWhirter said.
In addition to the 900 alumni who have served abroad with the organization, one alum — Mark Gearan (LAW ’90) — was appointed director of the Peace Corps in 1995 after serving as deputy chief of staff and assistant to the president in the administration of President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68). He held the position until 1999, when he left to become the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
“Working for the Peace Corps was the privilege of a lifetime for which I am extraordinarily grateful,” Gearan said.
Although Gearan never served the 27 months abroad, he expanded the Peace Corps to include programs in South Africa, Jordan, Mozambique, Bangladesh and Haiti. He also was responsible for instituting the Crisis Corps — now called the Peace Corp Response — a division of the Peace Corps that sends volunteers to emergency zones for a short period of time.
“The Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love,” he said.
FROM BRAINCHILD TO REALITY
The idea of a volunteer program dedicated to world development was the innovation of then-senator John F. Kennedy and several other congressmen.
Later, the proposal developed into a major component of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and on Oct. 14, 1960, in an impromptu campaign speech before a crowd of 10,000 University of Michigan students, he challenged students to back the program.
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” he asked the crowd. “On your willingness to do that … will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”
The program exploded in the decade after its inception, expanding from two programs in Tanganyika — now Tanzania — and Colombia to 55 countries by its fifth year. Those early years represented the height of the program, with more than 15,000 trainees and volunteers working in the field in 1966, more than have ever actively served since.
The program went through a decline in the 1970s, as the organization confronted controversy surrounding the murder of volunteer Deborah Gardner and the overall disillusionment with government that was common at the time.
The program has experienced a resurgence in recent years, now with a budget of $400 million and more than 200,000 alumni and current volunteers.
In a Feb. 28 proclamation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the program, President Barack Obama lauded the work of Peace Corps volunteers of the past half century.
“The United States Peace Corps remains an enduring symbol of our nation’s commitment to encouraging progress, creating opportunity and fostering mutual respect and understanding throughout the world,” he said. “[The Peace Corps is] our nation’s finest tradition of service.”
ON THE GROUND
Though much has changed in the decades since Kennedy’s University of Michigan speech, his challenge still resonates with Georgetown alumni who have been a part of the program.
“It’s not easy … you are not only there for cultural exchange, you are there to serve and provide skills and abilities,” said Karen Rupprecht (GRD ’16), who volunteered in Morocco from 2006 to 2008. “The sense of isolation [was the hardest], because no matter how integrated you are, you are always different.”
But Rupprecht said that the friendships she formed made the experience more than worthwhile.
“[The host communities] welcome you as family. They are very dear friendships to me,” she said.
The work of a Peace Corps volunteer varies from location to location and from day to day. Rupprecht was assigned to teach health education in the local schools, though her work often depended on the seasons and the needs of the community.
Regardless of the challenges the day presented, she always made an effort to get to know her host community.
“I tried to visit one family every day, just to make sure I met everyone,” she said. “This is how I developed friendships.”
Across the Atlantic, MacWhirter worked for a women’s organization in Grenada that focused on gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS projects. She lived with a host family during her first months and eventually moved to a community closer to the capital of the island.
“I never had the ‘mud hut’ experience that many other volunteers go through,” MacWhirter said. “I was very glad to be where I was, and I was lucky not to have to spend so much time on survival elements and instead able to focus on enjoying my work and my community.”
MacWhirter now works as a program manager in the Office of the President while she pursues an evening MBA, which she hopes to complete in 2012.
MacWhirter’s work at Georgetown echoes the social justice themes of the Peace Corps program, using knowledge and experience gained while in Grenada to focus on HIV/AIDS issues for University President John J. DeGioia’s health policy initiatives.
FIVE DECADES LATER
The half-century celebration for the program was marked by reunions and a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill, followed by a celebratory gala on Saturday night and a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday to commemorate those lost while serving in the Corps.
The anniversary also coincided with the release of the largest survey of former volunteers ever conducted. According to the responses of nearly 11,000 alumni, 80 percent believed their service accomplished the goal of promoting a better understanding of Americans. Ninety percent responded that their experiences were excellent, and 98 percent said they would recommend the Peace Corps to a close family member.
“It’s powerful knowing that so many people had such positive experiences with the organization and would encourage their own children or grandchildren to serve as well,” Gearan said.
Hoya Staff Writer Anne Skomba contributed to this report.