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Wednesday, March 6, 2024


Delivered on Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Peace Corps Director Spahn: Ayubovan (Hello)!

It is such a wonderful privilege to be back here in beautiful Sri Lanka to administer the Peace Corps pledge to our newest group of Peace Corps/Sri Lanka Volunteers!

To First Lady, Professor Wickremesinghe and Minister Premajayantha for so warmly welcoming the Peace Corps back to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean - Bohoma Sthuthi. Thank you!

And I want to convey my deepest gratitude to President Wickremesinghe, who I was able to spend time with earlier this week, for his leadership in bringing the Peace Corps back to Sri Lanka.

From his days as Education Minister where he created the DELIC program, to his invitation as Prime Minister for Peace Corps’ return to Sri Lanka, and now as President he has been such a passionate advocate for the Peace Corps.

He has witnessed, firsthand, the tremendous impact of connecting across cultures and building world peace, one relationship at a time.

And thank you, U.S. Ambassador Chung, Peace Corps Country Director Pullapilly, all those on staff who were with us back in 1998 and have come back to join us once again, our government partners, our big-hearted host families, and everyone else who put so much passion and commitment into bringing the Peace Corps mission back to life here in Sri Lanka.

It takes a village – and it is truly the honor of a lifetime to work with this village who made this day a reality.

And, of course, a very big thank you to the Volunteers who made the choice to be a part of something much bigger than themselves.

World peace and friendship isn’t easy – but it is some of the most important work that we can be doing. Especially right now, in this time of uncertainty. We need to continue building on and strengthening the bonds of connection and shared purpose that are the foundation of a strong global community.

And that is what you all are here to do. To demonstrate “Optimism in Action” – which just happens to also be the theme of Peace Corps Week which we celebrated last week for our 63rd birthday as an agency.

During my first trip to Sri Lanka last June – and I shared a bit of this with the Volunteers at their staging back in November – I had the opportunity of visiting both a Hindu and a Buddhist temple. Both were powerful, moving experiences.

In the Buddhist temple, I participated in a Bodhi-Puja ceremony, where we walked around an ancient Bodhi tree, nourishing its roots with glasses of scented water with small flowers in them.

And I bring that up today, because I continue to be struck by the simple beauty of that ceremony, and how it is so reflective of everything we do at the Peace Corps.

We nurture connection and growth with every smile, every meal enjoyed with others, every story told or laugh shared. Everything we learn from one another is like a drop of water nourishing those roots, strengthening us, and helping us grow stronger and healthier, and branching out in new, unexpected, and ever-more important ways.

From the more than 500 Peace Corps Volunteers who served here in Sri Lanka between 1962 and 1998 and their ongoing connection to Sri Lanka, we know that the roots of friendship between us are already incredibly strong.

We see it in all of the teachers who either worked with or were taught by Peace Corps Volunteers and went on to teach and inspire generations themselves.

And we are so privileged to have one of those teachers on our team. 33 years ago, Shamali was a teacher trainee in a DELIC center where she was taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Through the interactive techniques she introduced – like music and roleplaying – that Volunteer inspired Shamali who adopted those very same techniques once she became a teacher herself. And she thrived, working her way up to become a teacher trainer in the Ministry of Education herself and visiting a number of countries to conduct trainings before deciding to join the Peace Corps family because, as Shamali said, she “really wanted to contribute to Peace Corps and [her] country because of [her] Volunteer.”

We see the enduring connections in all those who signed up as Crisis Corps Volunteers to help on relief and reconstruction projects after the 2004 tsunami.

And we see it in the open arms with which this newest group of Volunteers has been welcomed these past 12 weeks.

To all the host families and counterparts here with us today, let me take this opportunity to welcome you to the Peace Corps family!

It takes courage to welcome strangers into your communities, into your homes, and into your hearts.

And it took a whole other level of courage to try the home cooked American pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, latkes, and other treats that they made for you during the holidays!

Thank you for helping to foster an environment in which these Americans can learn to be “Sri Lankan” and to call Sri Lanka home.

And to our newest group of Volunteers – it is wonderful to see you again!

It’s hard to believe that it has been three months since we were together in Washington, DC, at the start of your incredible journey.

That day, which may feel like a blur, I shared my favorite quote: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” And over these last 12 weeks, you have gone far, far outside of each of your comfort zones.

I invite you to take a moment now and reflect on the experiences you have had that you never could have imagined before; the new, exciting, and unexpected ways that you have grown.

The awkwardness of saying the wrong thing; or learning to say coconut, the color orange, or the fruit orange in Sinhala – all of which are Thambili!

This awkwardness and discomfort is generally something we seek to avoid. Yet, that’s where real learning and real transformation happens. And these last 12 weeks, you have all embraced it – maybe not entirely by choice. But hopefully you’ve learned to laugh at yourself along the way.

Could you have pictured yourselves, back on that November morning, bonding with your host families as they took you out shopping for your own sarees, vestis, and sarongs? You look fabulous, by the way!

And now, you begin the next phase of this beautiful journey.

I hope that you have learned, through your training and your experience so far, that by joining the Peace Corps, you are joining a family that is defined by our belief that there is wisdom in every community; that we grow through intercultural relationships built on mutual respect and trust; that service with others is critical to deepening the bonds of our global community; and that every intercultural relationship can create the fabric of world peace.

This is a family that knows, through our 63 years of experience, that opening ourselves up with humility, vulnerability, and curiosity is an invitation to connection. It’s an invitation to relish our shared humanity and build understanding in new and unexpected ways.

And we know that it will be uncomfortable and confusing at times as you navigate working across cultures. Embrace that discomfort and do the work to learn from it. Sit with it… examine it… befriend it. Ask questions – of yourselves and others. And be brave enough to take a risk and to fail.

If you learn this one skill during your time in the Peace Corps – to become comfortable with discomfort – you will have laid a beautiful foundation for the rest of your life.

And, thanks to that foundation, you will accomplish great things. More importantly, though, you will make friends and surround yourself with the kinds of quality people who you see before you today – the kinds of people who are not content to sit on the sidelines. And who, no matter what happens, will know and understand you and who will have your back.

This beautiful enterprise that we call the Peace Corps – all of these wonderful host families, counterparts, government representatives – have said ‘yes’ to opening their hearts and homes to strangers. Why? Because they believe in the power of that connection. They believe in you.

So immerse your whole selves in the tapestry of life here in Sri Lanka.

Go have tea with someone who doesn’t speak any English. Eat mouth burning rice and curry. Pick up a cricket bat to play with the local kids – even if you have no idea what the rules of the game are.

Embrace all of it.

Speaking to a group of university students in 1962, President Kennedy remarked that “…we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time. I am reminded,” he went on “of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.'"

Today, we set out together to nourish and strengthen the existing roots of friendship that connect us to each other, even as we plant new trees of peace and connection who will continue to grow and mature far into the future. And I am so enormously grateful to the government and people of Sri Lanka, for our partners and counterparts and host families, and for our Volunteers who are walking with us on this journey.

There is no time to lose!

Thank you.

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