Why the Peace Corps Should Mean More to Dallas

People Newspapers reporter Claire St. Amant is a former Peace Corps volunteer. She contributes this essay about the importance of the organization:

As the Peace Corps turns 50 today, there’s little time to savor the moment. While those inside the organization are celebrating, outsiders are questioning its relevance–if they’re even familiar with it at all.

Dallas is surely home to many a returned volunteer. But you’d never know it.

As the third most charitable city in America (and one with patriotism aplenty) this is an ideal place for Peace Corps advocacy. Dallas ISD should invite returned volunteers to speak in classrooms, and pair with current volunteers in the already established exchange program, World Wise Schools. How is it that Dallas is home to the John F. Kennedy Learning Center and a Peace Corps regional office but lacks any real awareness of the agency?

Kennedy lost his life in our city. His dream for the Peace Corps shouldn’t die here, too.

We need to utilize our vibrant, forward-thinking city to educate and recruit in every level of schooling and profession.

When I taught English in western Ukraine, I regularly informed people about the mission and history of the Peace Corps. This didn’t bother me, as I was the first volunteer to be assigned to this village. But when I came home to my native land, from which the Peace Corps originated, I expected a more educated populous.

No such luck.

For a program that’s been around half a century, you’d think more people would know about it. But those in the same age range of the corps seem to have the least understanding of it. Happy with their initial impressions of recent college grads building wells in Africa, they’ve put it out of mind. More than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries, yet the only lasting image of the corps is from the initial programs in the ’60s.

Texas is actually a fair producer of Peace Corps volunteers, ranking in the top 10 states historically. However instead of capitalizing on a returned volunteer base of more than 6,000, the Peace Corps allowed them to slip under the radar in professions all across our fair state.

This is not only Dallas’ fault. Peace Corps marketing efforts have traditionally been abysmal. Not long after Kennedy’s impassioned speech, detractors developed terms like “kiddie corps” and labeled the organization a place for draft dodgers and pot smokers. The Peace Corps has yet to debunk these myths in any tangible way. Most people believe all you have to do to join is sign on the dotted line.

In actuality, the application process, in which only about 20 percent of candidates are accepted, lasts a year. A college degree or three to five years of work experience in a relevant field is required, as are multiple interviews, medical exams, and psychological evaluations. It’s not exactly a hippie’s dream job, unless that dream is to fill out mounds of paperwork and submit to a federal background check.

Just as a person approaching 50 reevaluates his life, so too must the Peace Corps. This isn’t the end.

It’s merely a mid-life crisis.

Hopefully, the Peace Corps has a lot more than 50 years left to work with. But its ability to effectively communicate its mission will be what defines its lifespan. I’m tired of having to spout the basic goals of an organization twice my age.

If the Peace Corps ever wants to celebrate its 100 year anniversary, it should make a concerted effort to increase its reputation. There’s no better place to start than Dallas.

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