On October 14th, 1960, shortly before he won that year's Presidential election, then-Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave a short speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries:
"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? "
This idea took root, and on March 1st, 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Today, the Peace Corps, one of the world’s most successful international service programs, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.
The Peace Corps was designed to foster mutual understanding between Americans and other cultures of the world. Trained volunteers would live and work in developing countries around the world, helping the host country meet its need for skilled workers. And because they lived among the local population, they would be learning about the people and culture around them. At the same time, the local people working and living alongside them would get to know Americans as people not much different from themselves.
Over the past five decades, some two hundred thousand volunteers have served in a hundred thirty nine countries and learned over two hundred languages and dialects. Volunteers serve two year-periods, helping to build a better future within their host country, and to establish good will. They get no pay except for a stipend to cover their room, board and a few essential expenses.
Their mission has adapted with the times and needs of the people they serve. Volunteers still continue to do important work like bringing clean water to communities and teaching children, as they did in the organization's early days. But today, volunteers also work in areas like HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, food security, information technology, and business development, addressing global needs as they arise.
"I’m hopeful that it will be a source of satisfaction to Americans and a contribution to world peace," said President John Kennedy as he signed the executive order that gave birth to the idea that people of good will can and should help their fellow man with no strings attached. Half a century later, his idea is still going strong.