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Sunday, April 14, 2024



Peace Corps Deputy Director David E. White Jr.: Good afternoon! Thank you for the warm welcome. And thank you to all the Returned Volunteers for sharing their countries of service with all of us.

I want to start off by passing along greetings and best wishes from my boss, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn.

I have only been a part of the Peace Corps for a relatively short amount of time, but even before I started at the agency I recognized the passion, the joy, and the commitment to service that the Peace Corps imbues in everyone who has been a part of it. I feel it myself.

And it is a passion and a commitment, as we all know, that started right here in Ann Arbor, on the steps of the Student Union, on a late night in 1960 when John F. Kennedy boldly challenged the thousands of students who greeted him by asking how many would be willing to take their skills, go live in a remote community in another country, and live and work alongside the people there to build a better tomorrow.

Out of that simple question, asked in the dark more than half a century ago, has arisen an institution that has changed not only the way that Americans see the world, but the way in which the world looks at the United States. And not because of the agency itself, but because of the more than 241,000 people – like all the RPCVs here today – and the more than 2,600 Volunteers serving in 58 countries right now who have given two years of their lives to serve a mission greater than themselves… a mission of world peace and friendship… and to do so one individual interaction at a time as they live in and work side by side with the communities they serve.

So, it’s wonderful to be here at the University of Michigan today. This sacred ground for the Peace Corps which I now have the distinct privilege of being a part of. And soon, all you Wolverines who have started on this path of service will hopefully be full members of it as well.

Now, I’ll be honest with you all. There’s a perception out there that the Peace Corps is a bit of a Cold War relic; that we’re a throwback to the idealism of the 1960s.

There’s a misconception that what we do just isn’t as important as it once was. But let me tell you, from my own personal experience, that that could not be further from the truth. If you visit any country where Peace Corps Volunteers are serving, or have served at any point, and you’ll hear story after story about the impact that Volunteers have had on people’s lives in those countries. And you’ll hear the esteem with which leaders in those countries hold Peace Corps.

I was just in Cameroon and everywhere I turned I would hear incredible stories about Peace Corps Volunteers. I got to see them in action at places like a Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ program. And I got to meet and speak with them myself about the impact that not only they thought they were having on their communities as they work on issues like curbing the spread of HIV, but that their communities are having on them.

And what was absolutely crystal clear to me everywhere I went was that Peace Corps matters… and it matters a lot. In fact, I would argue that it matters more today than it ever has before.

The personal connections that our Volunteers make in the communities where they live and serve inspire people every where they go. They cut through the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there online and on social media to show who we truly are as Americans. They work with communities and partners to build the skills and expertise to address things that those communities have made a priority – whether it’s in education or health care or food security. And Volunteers help bring the larger world to remote communities and, in turn, share the beauty of those communities with everyone back home.

In a world that is facing enormous challenges from a changing climate, drought, and famine to Russia’s unprovoked and continued invasion of Ukraine… from growing disparities in education and economics, to widening social and political divisions even as technology has made it easier than ever to come together and share knowledge… what could be more impactful than connecting at the most basic and personal level? What could be more powerful than partnering with each other to build a brighter future together?

That’s what we do at Peace Corps.

But more than that, it’s what the individual Volunteers who go off to live and work and immerse their whole selves in communities across the globe do every single day. And I’m thrilled to say that few schools in this country have produced more Volunteers who have carried out this vital mission than the University of Michigan. In fact, you are consistently in the top 10 Volunteer producing colleges and universities.

Since 1961, more than 2,000 Wolverines have served as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Philippines, Ghana, Morocco, Ecuador, Kenya, Cameroon and so many other countries. And right now, at this moment, 21 University of Michigan graduates are continuing that incredible tradition volunteering somewhere in the world.

People like Lauren Benitez, a business Volunteer in Fiji who says that her favorite part of service is that “no day looks the same. Some days,” she says, “I wake up to a call from the village spokesman, who walks around shouting in each corner of the village to inform everyone of an evening meeting. Other days, I rise at 3am to go fishing because if we wait any longer the tide will go out and the boat won’t be able to travel through the mangroves to sea.”

But no matter what the day brings, Lauren loves it and embraces it because, in her words, her job “is fostering new relationships,” and those relationships “are strengthened by integrating in the village – attending the evening meetings, going fishing at 3am…”

What is it about this University that has inspired such an incredible commitment to volunteerism and service over so many years… and continues to inspire it today?

Lauren credits the Peace Corps Prep program and the staff who are a part of it for helping tailor her courses and extracurriculars while on campus to ensure she was ready and prepared to serve. As well as the Alumni and RPCVs she was able to connect with who helped inspire her passion for service and economic development – a big and involved alumni and RPCV community that all of us at the Peace Corps are so appreciative of for their ongoing commitment to world peace and friendship.

Emma Peterson, another alumnus who’s serving as a health care Volunteer in Peru, says that the kind of civic engagement that drives Peace Corps Volunteers is a core value here at the University of Michigan. The University, Emma says, is “committed to producing global citizens through a top-tier, well-rounded education rooted in diverse world perspectives and intercultural competence.”

As a student pursuing a Spanish degree, for instance, Emma’s studies went far beyond language and grammar. It included a deep dive into history, music, art, film, food, traditions and so much more. Because in order to understand a language you also need to understand the culture and everything that has contributed to the development and evolution of that language.

That broader understanding makes someone a far more engaged citizen of the world, and it sets them up perfectly to become a Peace Corps Volunteer whose entire job, at the most basic and fundamental level – regardless of whether they’re working in health or youth development or English language education – is building those connections of understanding between cultures.

And we need that type of civic and cultural and international engagement that this University excels at – and which all of you who are here today have engaged in in some form or another – more now than ever before.

We are at a decisive moment in world history. Amid all of the challenges we’re facing, we are also seeing the largest generation of youth in history coming of age and taking their place on the world stage. Today, there are about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old across the planet, nearly 90% of them living in low-income and developing countries. The median age across Africa today, for instance, is just 19. But by the year 2050, one in four people living on this planet will call that continent home.

Now, some might see these global demographic trends as a challenge to be confronted. But at the Peace Corps, we see them as an opportunity to be embraced. An opportunity to work with the leaders of today and tomorrow to develop skills and pursue opportunities that will stem the tide of irregular migration, give them the chance to invest in their communities, and work with partners the world over to forge a brighter future for all.

That’s what the 2,600 Peace Corps Volunteers around the world are doing at this very moment. And by being here today… by being a part of this University and this community… by taking these first steps towards serving an idea and mission greater than yourselves through the Peace Corps Prep Program, each of you is already playing an important part in building that brighter tomorrow.

It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight and there will be stumbles along the way. But I know, in my heart, that we’ll get there and that the dream that began on the steps of the student union here in Ann Arbor more than 60 years ago, the dream of a group of people willing to leave their comfort zones behind in the spirit of world peace and friendship – the Peace Corps – will continue to be a lived reality.

Thank you.

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