Peace Corps celebrates 49th anniversary, looks forward to milestone

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As Peace Corps volunteers, John Greisberger and his wife taught English as a foreign language to students in Afghanistan.

"It was a terrific experience," says Greisberger, director of the International Center. "The teaching conditions were far from ideal. There were no books or chalkboards — sometimes, no desks or chairs. Often we taught under trees. But the students were interested in learning."

Greisberger says the experience, from 1973-75, had a huge impact on his life. "I know I wouldn't be in field of international education if I hadn't joined the Peace Corps."

The U-M connection

The university played an important and historic role in Peace Corps history. It began at 2 a.m. Oct. 14, 1960, on the steps of the Michigan Union, when then Sen. John F. Kennedy gave an unprepared campaign speech challenging U-M students to devote a few years of their life working in developing countries around the world to promote better understanding between those nations and the United States. Within weeks, 1,000 students had signed a petition calling for the establishment of the Peace Corps program. Less than a year later, the federal Peace Corps agency was formed.

Source: International Center

Wednesday marks the 49th anniversary of a speech delivered at U-M by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in which he challenged the students to give two years of their lives to help people in countries of the developing world. The speech, delivered on the steps of Michigan Union as Kennedy stumped for president, is considered a key event in the creation of the Peace Corps. Since the inception of the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 2,200 U-M alumni have served — the fourth most of any university.

"John Kennedy said creating the Peace Corps was one of his proudest accomplishments as president," Greisberger says.

Looking forward to next year's 50th anniversary, the university is planning many events, including a national symposium on the future of international service and a semester-long series of programs, activities and events.

"We want to acknowledge U-M's long history and commitment to volunteerism and service learning, both in this country and abroad," Greisberger says. "We also want to celebrate our student and faculty activism that helped create the Peace Corps, and encourage our currently enrolled students to consider various opportunities to engage with service learning."

Alex Pompe, campus coordinator for U-M's Peace Corps office and a master's student in the School of Information, served in the corps from 2006-08, teaching math in Namibia.

"Overall it was a great chance to be immersed in the culture for two years," Pompe says. "I learned a new language and made a tangible difference in the lives of youths. We empowered them through HIV/AIDS-related education and left in place a chance for them to become political leaders in the future."

Gabe Krieshok, a master's student pursuing degrees at the School of Information and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, served in the Peace Corps from 2007-09, teaching high school English and training English teachers.

"My experience helped me gain a global perspective," he says. "Now when I think about the rest of the world, I can understand people and the conditions they are facing. This is real world knowledge that I can apply, rather than just reading about it in a book."

Ford School master's student Alex Guild volunteered for the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where she worked in primary schools providing information about healthy habits, such as hand washing and tooth brushing.

"My time there gave me a broader world view," Guild says. "Classes have international perspective, but this gave a greater appreciation of Guatemala, and of the hardships immigrants endure in the United States transitioning to a new culture."

In preparation of the 50th anniversary celebration, the International Center seeks identify students, staff and faculty who served in the Peace Corps. Those returned volunteers are asked to e-mail the center at icenter@umich.edu.