The Peace Corps

"To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves."

President John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961. Its mission is to aid and empower people in developing and re-developing countries by providing the most basic of all resources: people. Based upon "volunteerism" and good will, the Peace Corps is an army of ordinary Americans. They do not receive diplomatic immunity in their host countries, nor any special benefits, and they live, work, and are paid similarly to the people they are helping. They do it for very little monetary gain, but almost all of their stories say the same thing: they were rewarded in ways they never imagined they could be.

The History:

In October of 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy, was embroiled with Richard Nixon in the final weeks of a hard fought presidential campaign that would land Kennedy in the White House. Prior to October 1960 there had been no public proposal for or against the Peace Corps.

October 13, 1960 was the evening of the third nationally televised presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Immediately after the debate, Kennedy boarded a plane and flew to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he was scheduled to speak that evening. Over 10,000 students waited as Kennedy arrived on campus to speak on the steps of the student center and address the waiting crowd. It was after 2 am, and the campaign party was extremely surprised to see such a massive turnout. The press had all gone to bed, thinking that the late-night affair would be of little importance. Despite the press' absence, the waiting crowd of Michigan students was extremely interested in what Senator Kennedy had to say...

That night, on the steps of the student union at the University of Michigan, the Peace Corps was born. Kennedy asked the students if they were willing to use their energies, talents, education, and kindness to help other people around the world. He wanted to know if they'd be willing to give up part of their lives, years of their lives, to help others. He wanted to know if the young people in this country were willing to not only serve their country, but serve the entire world, and at no real financial benefit to themselves. What he was proposing was an international service organization like none before it.

. . . on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think, will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete. I think we can, and I think Americans are willing to contribute, but the effort must be far greater than we have made in the past."

Senator John F. Kennedy - October 14, 1960, Ann Arbor Michigan

Kennedy was not the originator of the idea behind the Peace Corps. Pioneering legislative work by Senator Hubert Humphrey and Congressman Henry S. Reuss had laid the foundation for the idealism and passion that became the Peace Corps in previous bills brought before the house and senate. Kennedy never claimed responsibility for the idea, but rather became its champion. In June of 1960, Humphrey had proposed a bill to the senate that specifically used the name "Peace Corps," and intended it to be an organization where American youth could volunteer their time and energy on a worldwide scale.

The idea of Americans aiding underdeveloped nations was not a new one in the 1960s. As early as the 1950s, International Voluntary Service (IVS) had sent people to the Middle East and Southeast Asia to work in schools, aid in hospitals, and build houses and schools for poor villages. IVS was funded privately, and had religious foundations and connections.

For quite a while after the Peace Corps was formed, it was fondly referred to as "Kennedy's Peace Corps" by the overseas volunteers, and the credit has always been given squarely to Kennedy for the creation of what some call his finest monument. Kennedy was the first to really believe in the importance of the organization, the first to have the public stature and esteem to push it toward existence, and the first with the power to implement it.

No one is really sure why Kennedy decided to speak about the possibility of young Americans participating in an international service program that would extend past anything of its kind previously imagined. The thousands of students who waited up until the early morning to greet Kennedy, or the enthusiastic support some professors at the University of Michigan had already shown Kennedy could both have been factors. The response from the University itself, and thousands of students from across the country was overwhelming and the Democratic national office was deluged with mail supporting Senator Kennedy's suggestion. It quickly became evident that Kennedy had connected with the young voters in America, and the issue quickly rose to significance in the national spotlight. Over the last 40 years, more than 165,000 Americans have responded to the lasting challenge of the Peace Corps. And since then, the Peace Corps has demonstrated how the power of an idea can capture the imagination of an entire nation. Today, there is a plaque at the University of Michigan marking the fact that it was there that John F. Kennedy first publicly suggested the creation of the Peace Corps.

From there, Kennedy used the idea of the Peace Corps as one of the main speaking points in his political platform. College students across the country signified their readiness to serve, and the idea took on a larger than life significance with the American public. Press coverage was overall positive and the idea seemed to appeal widely. Kennedy would later clarify his intentions:

"This would be a volunteer corps, and would be sought not only among talented young men and women, but all Americans, of whatever age, who wished to serve the great Republic and serve the cause of freedom, men who have taught or engineers or doctors or nurses, who have reached the age of retirement, or who in the midst of their work wished to serve their country and freedom, should be given an opportunity and an agency in which their talents could serve our country around the globe."

On January 9, 1961, a press release from the office of the President-elect Kennedy, stated an intention to create an International Youth Service Organization. The original description of this organization was that it would be a pilot program, it was intended to assess the manpower needs overseas, and would at first oversee fundraising and disbursement to needy non-profit organizations already operating on a small-scale overseas. Later in 1961, the Peace Corps was formed bearing little to no resemblance to the organization outlined in the January press release.

The Beginning:

The man Kennedy picked to analyze the needs, and organize the formation of the Peace Corps was his very own brother-in-law Robert "Sergeant" Shriver, Jr. "Sergeant" Shriver was picked to pilot an organization no one thought would succeed. Perhaps to everyone's surprise, he would not only succeed, but rise to a brilliant political and public career. On March 1, 1961 now President Kennedy signs the executive order creating the Peace Corps, and Sergeant Shriver takes the reigns as the organization's first director.

By July of 1961, Peace Corps assignments have been planned for Ghana, Tanzania, Colombia, the Philippines, Chile, and St Lucia. In all, there are more than 5,000 applicants that take the first exams to join the Peace Corps. The response from Americans is tremendous. Not only do college-aged Americans apply to join, but many older Americans also take up the opportunity. The support is massive. The first group of over 51 Americans lands in Ghana in August. Their impressive introduction, forming an ad hoc chorus and signing the Ghanaian national anthem on the airport tarmac in the native language Twi before a number of national officials, leaves a lasting impression and signals the importance of what is to come.

Congress officially authorized the formation of the Peace Corps on September 22, 1961. They laid down a mandate to serve as the goals for the future of the program to "promote world peace and friendship." The Peace Corps mission remains the same today as it was in 1961:

  • To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

Over 7,300 volunteers were in the field by the end of 1963. The nation was rallying around the people joining up to go overseas and volunteer. The volunteers were recognized in their local papers, they were profiled on the national nightly news programs, and they were honored at the White House. The days they departed for training were announced like local holidays in small towns across America, and for the summer of 1962, these volunteers were local heroes across the country. By 1963, the Peace Corps was active in 44 countries across almost every continent. They were working in community development, agriculture, public works, and health care.

Shriver's initial work wasn't easy. To begin with, he had no intentions of actually running the agency when he was originally appointed by Kennedy to head the task force charged with building the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps had already acquired the nickname 'Kennedy's Kiddie Korps' by some critics, and Nixon said the Corps would be a 'haven for draft dodgers.' The plan was ridiculed and it was apparent it would be a difficult task to head the agency that many felt would fail. Shriver took the position, and rode the wave of support from the American public. He valiantly fought to make Kennedy's idealized notion of a volunteer service organization a reality. By 1966, there were more than 15,000 active Peace Corps volunteers. It was the largest total in the history of the organization.

The Peace Corps Today:

It hasn't been an easy road for the Corps. In 1971 Nixon tried to fold the Peace Corps into a larger government organization called ACTION, along with other service and volunteer organizations. President Jimmy Carter came to the rescue in 1979 and signed an executive order that granted the Peace Corps full autonomy. In 1998, the Peace Corps moved into its new permanent headquarters on 20th Street in Washington, D.C. Also in 1998, President Bill Clinton proposed an initiative to expand the Corps to 10,000 volunteers by the year 2000. The initiative wins large approval in Congress. In more than 30 years since the Peace Corps' founding, it has had more than 135,000 men and women volunteers in over 135 countries.

Despite budget cuts in both the 1970s and 1980s, the Peace Corps has grown to become a fully independent government agency. The talent and skill of volunteers has grown incredibly. 82% of the current volunteers have undergraduate degrees, and 13% have graduate, or higher, degrees. The Peace Corps has become somewhat competitive in accepting volunteers into their programs. They seek more skilled applicants than ever before.

Only US citizens are permitted to join the Peace Corps, and volunteers must be 18 years of age or older. Almost all positions require a four-year college degree, or the equivalent of three to five years working in a management or skilled position. Volunteer positions are all two years, plus three months prior training in the host country. Host countries depend on where the Peace Corps has established volunteer programs. A volunteer program is established after a formal request from the government of the country that would like Peace Corps volunteers to serve. Typical types of assistance are English language training, computer training, environmental and agricultural aid and awareness, as well as small business development. In recent years, new programs have been established in a number of countries including Georgia, Jordan, and East Timor.

Current Stats:

This is short cross-section of the volunteers, as of the start of fiscal year 2002:

  • There are currently 7,000 volunteers in 70 countries
  • 61% women, 39% men
  • 91% single, 9% married
  • 15% of volunteers are minorities
  • Average age 28, median age 25
  • 7% of volunteers are above the age of 50, and the oldest volunteer is 82
  • 82% have undergraduate degrees
  • 13% have graduate or higher degrees
  • Percentage of Volunteers per sector:
    • 34% - Education
    • 17% - Environmental
    • 21% - Health
    • 14% - Business
    • 09% - Agriculture
    • 05% - Other
  • 2002 budget: $275 million

What kind of Volunteers is the Peace Corps looking for and how do I apply?

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

President John F. Kennedy

To begin with, the Peace Corps actively encourages anyone interested in volunteering in a foreign country to apply. Specifically, they are more interested in people with backgrounds that lend well to developing and re-developing countries. Currently, the Peace Corps is very interested in people with agricultural/forestry skills, French language proficiency, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) background, business experience, people who are certified teachers, and minorities. Even if you don't fall into one of these categories, there are hundreds of different positions. The skills/attributes listed previously are simply in higher demand due to the profile of countries the Peace Corps is currently active in.

Most successful applicants have a four-year degree, or significant experience in a field that is applicable to the Peace Corps mission. If you're interested in applying, the best way to get started is by visiting a regional recruitment office and/or calling the toll-free recruitment number. More information on those can be found in the following section on contact information.

The Peace Corps also encourages older applicants. The experience and wisdom afforded by older volunteers is especially useful in many situations. Minorities are actively being recruited as well, and minorities with foreign language skills are highly sought after.

Peace Corps volunteers are offered a number of benefits. Student loan deferment, foreign language training, and future scholarships and fellowships that are awarded only to former volunteers are some examples of what the Peace Corps offers. Monetarily, the Peace Corps offers as much as it can. They pay a monthly living allowance to cover housing and basic needs, and they transport you to and from the country you are stationed in. There is also an option to cancel 15% of the amount of any outstanding Perkins Loans a volunteer may have taken out during their college career. Health insurance is provided, and a $6,075 re-adjustment payment is provided at the end of the volunteer period.

More complete and detailed information regarding the application and interview process can be found at the Peace Corps' web page, as well as more detailed information about the countries where the Peace Corps is currently active.

Peace Corps Contact Information:

Mailing Address:
Peace Corps
The Paul D. Coverdell Peace Corps Headquarters
1111 20th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20526

Toll free recruiting number:

Web Site:

There are also 11 regional recruiting offices:

Check out for contact information and telephone numbers for regional offices.


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