By Audrey Huse
Last Friday, SIPA student David Kortava spoke at TEDxSIPA, taking the stage to expose what he considers an ugly truth all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) conceal. “The Peace Corps in its present manifestation functions largely as a government sponsored study abroad program for privileged youth,” he said. At times, Kortava’s talk sounded conspiratorial, and I feel it necessary, as a fellow RPCV, to set the record straight on two key points.
First, Peace Corps’ primary mission is to promote world peace and friendship (hence the name). Notice it is not called the US Agency for International Development. Under this broad umbrella of promoting peace and friendship are these goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Kortava’s live editorial focused mostly on the first goal. When referencing a speech given by President John F. Kennedy, who established the organization via an executive order, Kortava said that Kennedy’s vision of sending qualified Americans abroad is not being realized because volunteers are too young and most only have a bachelor’s degree. While it is true that most volunteers are recent college graduates, this is largely a matter of practicality. Later in life, with such pressures as a career, a mortgage and/or children, it becomes increasingly difficult to make such a commitment. And while more experience is always better, as a recent college graduate upon entering service, I found my general liberal arts degree sufficient to teach about the importance of hydrating sick children, or washing your hands with soap.
Secondly, Kortava argued that the only beneficiaries of the Peace Corps funding are the volunteers themselves. He corroborates this by stating that all RPCVs will tell you they feel they received much more than they were able to give to their community. I have heard many other RPCVs say this, and I say so myself. I do not hear RPCVs boasting about the work they did, how much they were able to teach others, or how many lives they influenced. This, however, does not mean that they didn’t make a difference and that their communities received nothing. And, the benefits the volunteers reap from their experiences do not come at the expense of their work.
It is also worth mentioning that the U.S. benefits from the global perspective of RPCVs. Living in a melting pot like New York City, it is easy to take for granted a certain level of international awareness, but throughout most of the country it is severely lacking. Improving our understanding of other countries and cultures not only works to achieve the Peace Corps’ overall mission, it also makes us more competitive in the global economy.
When the first group of volunteers left for Ghana, Kennedy said, “The logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.” Volunteers are asked to continue to work on improving this understanding at home, and the organization uniquely facilitates opportunities to do so. Besides this, most RPCVs I know were inspired by their volunteer experience abroad to return to study and/or work in public health, international development, government, and other careers oriented towards global impact.
The Peace Corps is not without its shortcomings. All RPCVs could speak at length about reforms they would like to see. I agree with Kortava that the organization needs to strengthen its monitoring and evaluation in order to optimize its budget and impact, and I do think there should be more screening and monitoring to weed out ineffective volunteers who are poorly representing the U.S. I disagree, however, with Kortava’s general catch-all opinion of the Peace Corps program. In the end, each volunteer’s experience is depends upon the person and their community. It is largely what you choose to make of it.
I’m surprised Mr. Kortava finished his two years, and I commend him for it. But it seems he thought he was going to South Africa to singlehandedly halt the HIV epidemic, and such high expectations can lead to disillusion and disappointment. The TEDx event did not seem an appropriate venue to vent his frustrations. The TEDx platform is intended to present innovative ideas worth spreading. If there was one in Kortava’s talk, I missed it.