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Hard corps: Peace Corps acting director visits St. Louis, looks at future of volunteering

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - Mike Murray went to his globe and searched until he found the country he was looking for. It sat there, just above Ecuador, just below Venezuela, hugged by both the Pacific and the Caribbean, holding the hand of Panama.

Murray found Colombia.

And soon, he'd be leaving for the South American country with the Peace Corps.

It was 1961. Murray was in the first group to go to Colombia, in the first year the Peace Corps began sending Americans overseas. He was drawn in by civic service speeches from R. Sargent Shriver, who spoke at Murray's high school and college graduations, and later became the first head of the international service organization dreamt up by President John F. Kennedy.

On Feb. 19, Peace Corps acting director Jody Olsen will speak at Washington University in an information session at and a symposium on the future of international volunteering.

Forty eight years after Murray heeded the call, the draws of service and adventure haven't changed much.

"Young people are truly, truly eager to get out into the global society and make an impact," says Fran Noonan, recruiter for the Peace Corps in St. Louis and a returned Peace Corps volunteer.

But the world has changed in that time, as well as the ways the Peace Corps tries to make an impact.

Off To see the World

From life in the Chicago suburbs to a rural village in Colombia, the shock of what Murray found in his Peace Corps experience was hard to get over at first.

Everything was unknown. "Even the Peace Corps admitted they weren't quite sure they knew what they were doing," Murray says.

He saw poverty, lives lived much differently than what he'd known at home.

"But then I saw that people everywhere have no distance in their daily challenges and the lives they lived and the joys they find in so many small things," says Murray, who returned to the states after two years with the Peace Corps and later served as a country director for Peace Corps Peru, then came home and opened his own business. He's now retired and the president of the St. Louis Peace Corps Association .

Volunteers today want essentially the same things as those first groups heading out into the world, he thinks -- adventures, to see the world, to "know that we don't live in a cocoon here."

And a generation later, that was part of Robert Phelan's reason for joining the Peace Corps.

From 2004 to 2006, Phelan served in Morocco. Though his family was never rich, they never knew poverty, he says.

"And I knew there were people out there that did. I needed to balance the scales a little bit."

But what he expected from the experience and what he found weren't the same.

"I expected to be completely alone, living in a hut, earthen floors, and to be working on projects, to be doing physical labor -- just the average public's idea," says the St. Louis resident. "And what I found was very different."

The bureaucracy in Peace Corps Morocco was intense, he says. The first speech he heard was basically "here are the rules." If volunteers were caught riding bicycles without helmets, for instance, they would be automatically kicked out. The same was true if they left their sites without completing the proper paperwork.

"It was really rammed down our throats from day one," Phelan says. And part of his displeasure came from having no indication of the strict structure during his application process.

After his training, Phelan headed into his village in the southeast of the country, and stayed as far from the office as he could. He worked as a hygiene and sanitation extentionist, working on concrete projects, building a medical waste incinerator, teaching English and making a Berber language manual for the Peace Corps.

Phelan learned patience, gained confidence, developed thick skin and a better understanding of Muslim culture. And he'd do it all again. But it still wasn't what he thought he'd signed up for.

"We all thought we were gonna go save the world."

Programmed to serve

When Olsen, the acting director of the Peace Corps, served in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, she worked with English and health programs. Later, as the country director in Togo, programs focused on education, health and agriculture. In the 1980s, business programs became part of Peace Corps's mission, and decades since have brought projects around ecotourism, information technology and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

The Peace Corps has continually forged into new places, too, including Hungary in 1989, the former Soviet Union in 1992, China in 1993 and South Africa in 1997. In 2005, volunteers worked domestically in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and in January of this year, the Peace Corps returned to Rwanda after a 15-year absence.

"The Peace Corps' mission of promoting worldwide peace and friendship and the goals of providing technical assistance and creating a better understanding between Americans and the people of other countries remain the same," Olsen writes in an e-mail interview with the Beacon. "However, today's Peace Corps has evolved to address important current issues."

After their service, both Murray and Phelan saw the world differently, experienced other cultures and came home changed.

But what effect do the Peace Corps and other international service programs like it have, both in foreign countries and at home?

Amanda Moore McBride is trying to find out. Along with colleagues at Washington University, McBride is in the middle of an impact study looking at international volunteerism.

For all the international service organizations, she says, there's little known about the impact on the volunteer, the host organization, the community and what difference length of service makes.

"The research just is not there," says McBride, an assistant professor, director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, and research director at the Center for Social Development at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

In the impact study, which is at its half-way point, McBride and her colleagues are looking at two specific international volunteer programs, Cross Cultural Solutions, which is a one-month program that works with orphanages and women's co-ops, and World Teach, a nine-month program that puts volunteers in schools.

So far, she says, there's little difference in time served and the impact it has on volunteers.

"You can stay one week or you can stay one year, but you're still going to have a transformational experience," she says.

But one difference is emerging: The people who stay longer often go into development work or education.

Though the Peace Corps isn't part of the study, some of its positives include the established structure, which offers expectations for both the volunteers and their host countries and prepares them to meet those expectations, she says. The amount of time given to in-country training before service begins is also an effective model.

The impact study will also examine how international service influences intercultural connections, civic engagement, the depth of social networks and global citizenship.

So far, she says, it's evident that the immersive experience of international service changes volunteers for their entire lives.

"In this era when our difference are at once seemingly declining and also becoming more stark, I think these sorts of programs are really needed."

Peace Out

In the last 48 years, 195,000 people have served in 139 countries with the Peace Corps. Currently, 70 of those people are from the St. Louis area.

In the last year, Peace Corps applications have risen by 16 percent, the largest rise in five years, according to Christine Torres, public affairs specialist with the Chicago regional office. Also a record is the number of baby boomers applying; last year there were 44 percent more applications from people 50 and over.

And the new president's renewed call for national service may have a role in that. "We're hoping it will have a significant impact," Murray says.

And while it's a little early to tell, at a recent job fair at Washington University, Noonan set up an information table about the Peace Corps and met with a young man who had worked with Obama's campaign. He wanted to sign up, he told her, because the president directed them to get involved in community service.

"We also saw a spike in our applications around the time of the inauguration," Olsen writes, up "175 percent compared to the year before so the message of service is certainly once that is resonating with Americans," Olsen writes.

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary in two years, the National Peace Corps Association has started the More Peace Corps campaign. The group, a nonprofit for current and returned volunteers, aims to double the size and budget of the Peace Corps by 2011, making the program "bigger, better and bolder," by petitioning Congress for support and building support online and in communities.

Expansion is great, Phelan says, but the program also needs to make some changes, such as offering volunteers more support and respect and treating them like professionals.

"In the early days, Peace Corps cared about getting middle-level professionals and treating them as such, not getting kids out of college and treating them like high schoolers."

The hostile environment he found went hard against the wild hopes of driven young people, and he'd like to see that change, too.

Murray would like to see the Peace Corps internationalized, with American volunteers working with volunteers from other countries, and people from those countries coming to the States.

And those programs do work, McBride says. Some multilateral programs in European countries and Canada are less patronizing, she thinks, and allow for more of an equal exchange.

For now, the Peace Corps will continue developing alongside the world and the generations that keep signing up.

The motto remains the same: "The toughest job you'll ever love."

But Phelan summed up his service in a way that could work, too.

"If you can make it in the Peace Corps," he says, "you can do anything."

Very PC

Locally, there are about 11 volunteers from Washington University, with 497 alums serving since 1961; about seven volunteers from St. Louis University with 302 alums serving since 1961; two from the University of Missouri-St. Louis with 77 alums since 1961; and about five current volunteers from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, with 52 alums serving since 1961. Now, about 70 people are serving Peace Corps from the St. Louis area, according to Christine Torres, public affairs specialist with the Chicago regional office. About 1,271 St. Louis area residents have served since 1961, when the agency began.

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis. She served in Guyana in the Peace Corps.