March 1 marks 45 years since the founding of the Peace Corps. President John F. Kennedy's administration launched the Peace Corps in 1961 with the following mission: 1) to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
In the 45 years since its founding, over 182,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 138 different countries. I know of at least five Truckee area residents among those who served as Peace Corps volunteers.
In 1981 with new college degrees in hand, I was one such volunteer. I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer on the southern Philippine island of Leyte. My work was with a municipal government that was trying to secure U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding to build a technical training school. This school was needed to help train local workers in industrial skills.
The local Filipino mayor reasoned that if the town could enlist the services of a Peace Corps volunteer, then chances of securing American aid funding to build the school would improve. The mayor was right. The town got the money and I ended up spending the next two years working hand-in-hand with Filipinos designing and building the new facility.
When I served in the Peace Corps from 1981-83, the annual budget was roughly $60 million. This relatively modest budget supported more than 6,000 Peace Corps volunteers throughout the world. Peace Corps volunteers do not receive a salary but rather a living stipend. The stipend allows volunteers to live at a level similar to what would be considered middle class in the host country.
The Peace Corps is a lesson in diplomacy and, after all, volunteers are ambassadors of the United States. To adapt to a foreign culture does not necessarily mean imitating the people, dressing as they dress, feeling as they feel. Adapting is being who you are as a Peace Corps volunteer: An American attempting to immerse, live, and work in strange new surroundings with sensitivity.
Sensitivity is the key to better global understanding.
As a branch of the U.S. State Department, the Peace Corps still has a vital role to play. The past 45 years has realigned the mission and many are surprised that the organization still exists. The ideal, however, remains a noble one " to promote world peace and understanding.
The Peace Corps not only offers Americans a chance to immerse in another culture, it is equally a chance to see America through a new lens. Many people in rural areas served by the Peace Corps have never seen Americans before. Uttering a few words in the local dialect or teaching basic hygiene or introducing Frisbee to the kids are less lofty accomplishments, yet every little bit is important.
And it certainly doesn't harm American relations in the developing world at a time when Americans are largely misunderstood.
David A. Tirman is a Truckee resident, an architect and project manager with East West Partners. He is
a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in the Philippines from 1981-83.