Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, February 1, 2010

U-M and the Peace Corps: Plans taking shape for 50th anniversary celebration

As preparations are being made locally and nationally to celebrate 50 years of the Peace Corps, those at the university where the idea was sparked are seeking stories from faculty, staff and students who served as volunteers, staff or consultants in the program.

And, as one of the largest producers of Peace Corps volunteers — boasting 2,235 alumni in service over the program’s history — U-M undoubtedly has many people on campus with very interesting stories to tell, says John Greisberger, director of the International Center and co-chair of the Peace Corps anniversary steering committee. Greisberger and his wife served as volunteers in Afghanistan and that experience led to his career in international education.

“Telling these stories gives you a chance to relive the memories, and helps you reflect on how the Peace Corps affected your life,” he says. “We also hope some of these stories will be inspirational for our current students, who may be considering some form of service, either in this country or overseas.”

A Web site — peacecorps.umich.edu/ — has been created to collect the stories and showcase events planned for the semester-long anniversary celebration. The site includes events that have been scheduled to date, a list Greisbeger says will grow significantly as committees work to create more activities in four goal areas: Student Learning, Faculty Engagement, Showcase U-M and National Symposium.

The latter goal is a major national event — co-sponsored by the university, the Brookings Institution, and the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) — that will focus on the future of international service. The director of the Peace Corps will attend this event, and Colin Powell has been invited to give the keynote address.

“The Peace Corps office in (Washington) D.C. asked us to serve as the kick-off event for their year of celebration,” Greisberger says. “They chose three locations to celebrate the 50th anniversary: Boston, at the site of the Kennedy Presidential Library; the National Mall in D.C.; and Ann Arbor, the place where JFK challenged our students to serve this nation by serving others in developing countries.”

According to Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director, “[The Peace Corps] might still be just another idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty.”

An impromptu, three-minute speech by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy on the front steps of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m. Oct. 14, 1960, started a student movement that led to establishment of the Peace Corps. According to Ted Sorensen, who was Kennedy’s speechwiter and adviser, “the Peace Corps was one of JFK’s proudest achievements, the epitome of his call for service and sacrifice …”

Kennedy, weary from a day of campaigning, had not planned to speak before resting for the night at the Union. But the presence of some 5,000 students who had been waiting for four hours compelled him to make the speech that contained provocative questions and his “call to service.”

“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? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete,” Kennedy told the cheering crowd.

Over the next few days, students stirred by his challenge formed a new organization to gather signatures on petitions saying they would volunteer. A couple weeks later, U-M students drove to Toledo to meet Kennedy and present him with their petitions. This inspired Kennedy to formally propose his idea for a Peace Corps during a speech in San Francisco only six days before the election.

The Web site features a full account of Kennedy’s stop at U-M and the events that followed. An audio clip of his speech also is available.

The site also includes a complete list of the committees that are working on the celebration. Questions or comments for the teams or the oversight committee members can be sent to peacecorps50@umich.edu.