Western Michigan University Commencement Address

Kalamazoo, MI | June 12, 1965

If the security interests of this continent are fulfilled by the military intervention, surely other interests of our nation are met by these Peace Corps Volunteers who really get to the people, who are accepted by them, who walk in the mud with then, who live and work with them, who understand them.

The Peace Corps and the War on Poverty are two sides of the same coin. They are dealing with the same thing: the education and development of people. Or, rather, I should say they are seeking to help people develop themselves through education and action. Together they comprise a national program to promote peace and end poverty, at home and abroad.

Both are designed to open opportunities for people. Both tap the volunteering spirit of the American people. But most of all they are both programs of continuing public education – education both of the Volunteers and those served. And as such they properly belong among the special responsibilities of American institutions of higher education. They should become, I believe, integral parts of the curriculum of a great modern university.

It is clear that the Job Corps Training Center is itself an educational institution, and that it is a natural laboratory for a university's teaching and research. Your plans for the Fort Custer Training Center already involve the collaboration of your Schools of Education, Liberal Arts, Applied Arts and Sciences, and Business. Many of their programs will be applied and tested -- programs of guidance and counseling, reading, audio-visual education, motivation research, physical education, speech correction, arts and crafts, modern mathematics, clerical and vocational training. Your Job Corps Center, like others around the country, will be on the front lines of educational experimentation and progress. You will find the ways to reach the young men and women in these centers, and in challenging them you will be challenged -- in teaching them you will learn.

Through the joint efforts of the Federal Government and American universities at such places as the Brookhaven and Argonne atomic research laboratories, we have learned much about the nature of matter. A similar partnership between our universities and our new Federal programs for human development will yield new knowledge about the nature of man.

It is clear that training Peace Corps Volunteers for their overseas assignments is an educational responsibility that this University, like more than a hundred others, can and should carry. But we can go further than that — and I am happy to know that you are planning to go further than that — in connecting the Peace Corps with higher education.

The next big step, which President Miller and some of your faculty have proposed, is to recognize Peace Corps overseas service itself as part of the higher education of an American.

In a general sense, everyone would agree that Peace Corps Volunteers learn a lot. Congress has listed the promotion of better understanding of other peoples as one of the main purposes of the Peace Corps. And I am sure that the 43 Volunteers from Western Michigan have learned a lot, I am sure that Dean Limpus's daughter Robin understands the people of Nigeria much better; that Dick Joyce, now back from the Philippines on your English faculty, understands something of the people of Asia that he would never have understood through books alone.

But I am talking about something more concrete and practical than just the diffusion of knowledge as a result of the thousands of Peace Corps experiences abroad. The general point about the value of volunteering overseas would have remained just an idea in the air if President Kennedy had not decided to do something practical about it, to create a program to bring it down to earth.

That's what needs to be done now about this general idea that Peace Corps service is a part of the education of Americans. That's what President Miller now proposes to do. He and Vice President Seibert, Mr. Gernant, and a faculty committee have proposed a plan through which students who successfully complete Peace Corps training and service would receive academic credit. Under this plan, two years in the Peace Corps would be approximately equivalent to one year of college. A student here might enter the Peace Corps after two years of undergraduate work, serve two years overseas, and then return for another full year's academic work before earning his college degree. Or he might complete three years of undergraduate work, and then go into the Peace Corps, receiving his bachelor's degree after two years overseas and then return for graduate work. Particular departments would work out the details differently, but they would add up to about a five-year curriculum, a five-year "Peace Corps" B.A.  

We in the Peace Corps welcome this plan. We believe it can be an important step forward for you and for us.

It will involve problems for you and for us. You will want to continue some academic relationship with the Volunteers chosen from this University while they are overseas. You will want to know how well they do overseas, in learning the foreign language of the area, in teaching if they are assigned to a school, in working at whatever their assignment may be.

We will need to arrange good assignments for this new stream of Volunteers. We will need to convince some host governments which now require a bachelor's degree for teaching jobs that in certain fields and at certain levels, such as English-teaching at the upper-elementary or lower-secondary level, these Volunteers with two or three years of college can make a contribution. We will need to make sure, through our selection process, that the Volunteers who come at this earlier stage are mature and ready for the responsibilities of overseas service. These problems can be solved and they are worth solving. For this kind of formal and direct connection between college education and Peace Corps service should have great benefits for both, and for the host countries which we will both be serving.

From our standpoint, the Peace Corps' primary purpose of providing needed manpower to host countries will be advanced by this new flow of Volunteers corning out of American colleges. There are still many unmet needs for Volunteers in the 46 countries where we are now serving and in the two dozen countries on the waiting list. We hope that through this program we will be able to supply the kind of hard-working, dedicated Americans these nations need.

A Volunteer overseas discovers that he does learn as much as he teaches. He discovers that his service is understood better and appreciated by the people he is serving if he comes as a student of their civilization as well as a bearer of ours. If he makes this discovery sooner rather than later he will be able to accomplish more. If he knows that his service is part of his college education, he should have this learning spirit from the beginning.

From your standpoint, a student’s college education should be better if it includes a period of work beyond the walls—if the student has a chance to go from theory into practice, to test ideas in action. This is the "experiential education” that educators all over the country are now advocating. This is the “moratorium” from the classroom, the encounter with reality which the author and psychiatrist, Dr. Erik Erikson, recommends. At our recent Washington Conference on the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, many leading educators, including President Miller, concluded that the Volunteers had enjoyed a powerful form of such experiential education.

That sounds abstract, but first-hand experience can be quite a teacher. Michael Sellon, a returned Volunteer from the Dominican Republic, wrote to me that the primary experience of the Peace Corps is “becoming, in mind and even more in spirit, those very people we has come to help.” Speaking for all Volunteers, he said that ''when our educative experiences became complete, we felt like Dominicans, reacted like Tanzanians, and even often suffered like Thais.” Such “total involvement is very hard to find in contemporary education,” he said, "yet it is undoubtedly central to learning.”

He wrote that before the revolution broke out in the Dominican Republic. Let me assure you that the educative experience of his colleagues who were in Santo Domingo during the revolution was even more complete. They truly felt and reacted and suffered like Dominicans.

"These are our people," said a Peace Corps nurse from Portsmouth, Virginia, who chose to stay and work in her hospital in the rebel territory. After interviewing a number of Volunteers in Santo Domingo, the correspondent of the Washington Star wrote that the Volunteers there considered it the greatest experience in their lives. "It gives you a completely different perspective on your own life, and on life in the United States,” said Volunteer Roger Weiss. “In the United States we were living completely within ourselves," he added. “We didn't understand the way other people lived.”

Listen to the words from another Volunteer in Santo Domingo, Kirby Jones: “One person said to me, 'You live with us. When were hungry, you're hungry. When we walk through the mud in the streets, you walk through the mud in the streets. You understand us." "This is what the Peace Corps really means," said Kirby Jones. "It really gets to the people. It's sort of like when President Kennedy died — no one really realized the feeling across the world about him until he had died. And in this situation, I didn't realize that the Peace Corps was so accepted until its acceptance was tested in a situation like this and that's one reason I've got to go back. I feel I can't let them down."

This is what the Peace Corps means for America. If the security interests of this continent are fulfilled by the military intervention, surely other interests of our nation are met by these Peace Corps Volunteers who really get to the people, who are accepted by them, who walk in the mud with then, who live and work with them, who understand them.

And this has an important meaning for American higher education, a meaning that goes beyond just the experience, a meaning that goes beyond just a "moratorium.” It is learning-by-doing. And the learning includes stuff of real academic content as well as feelings. Those Volunteers in Santo Domingo know something about revolution, about the process of social change that no lectures could convey. If I were a teacher they are the kinds of students I would want to have in a class on social science. They are coming back full of questions. And they will read more in a book on Latin America or on Communism or on the history of social revolution than the students who have never studied beyond these walls.

Mary Bunting, an Atomic Energy Commission member and President of Radcliffe, said after our Conference on the Returned Volunteer that they went out as ambassadors of the United States and came back citizens of the world.

In today's world the great role of all educational institutions is to educate people for citizenship. The Peace Corps is part of that educational process. So are the new institutions being created in the War on Poverty. So are you.

I do not know when we will finally see the Great Society. But I am sure that I am right now looking at potential Great Citizens. For this University is deeply involved in the training of citizens. This is a journey we are all taking, a journey that takes us out of ourselves, that gives us understanding of people at home and abroad, that will make us citizens of the world.