Remarks at the Peace Corps Fellows/USA Convocation
April 13, 2000Remarks by Mark L. Schneider Director of the Peace Corps Peace Corps Fellows/USA Convocation Miami, Florida April 13, 2000
On behalf of the Peace Corps and nearly 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the world, I want to say what an honor it is to be in Miami for the annual convocation for the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program. As we mark the 15th year of this wonderful program, I would like to congratulate all of you for coming together to learn from one another, to network, and to strengthen the vision of the Fellows/USA program in the new century.
Many thanks also go to Florida International University for co-sponsoring this convocation. Florida International University is one of this nation's finest academic institutions, a place where people of every age and background can learn about the world and fulfill their highest potential. Over the years, more than 38 graduates of the university have served as Peace Corps Volunteers. So we thank the faculty, the administration, and the students for their outstanding support.
I would like to convey our deep appreciation and gratitude to our friends at the DeWitt Wallace Readers Digest Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the generous support they have provided to the Fellows/USA program over the years and the convocation we are holding this week. These organizations and the wonderful people who work for them have been a key factor in the success of the program, and we cannot thank you enough for your friendship and support. It is an honor to be associated with you.
Let me also express our thanks to the university coordinators and faculty members, and representatives from the community-based employing agencies and public school systems for their support and collaboration. We are grateful for all you do to ensure that our Fellows can continue their education and, at the same time, help meet the needs of your communities. We are proud to work with you and look forward to strengthening our programs in the future.
Finally, I wish to thank the organizers of this convocation for all of their hard work and dedication, especially the Fellows at Florida State University, Farley Ferrante, the Fellows Program Coordinator, and Gisele Michele of the Community Outreach Partnership Center.
As the first Director of the Peace Corps in the 21st century, it is a special pleasure to be here with so many people who first served our country first as Peace Corps Volunteers and are now serving communities here at home as members of the Fellows/USA program. Over the years, it has become evident that those who take the oath as Peace Corps Volunteers really are committing themselves not to just two years, but to a lifetime of community and public service. I would like to pay a special tribute to each of the Fellows for exemplifying the finest traditions of the Peace Corps. Your willingness to bring the world back home as you pursue your advanced degrees says a great deal about your character and your spirit of service. You join more than 1500 people who have the distinction of serving as Fellows over the last 15 years. We thank you for continuing the tradition of service. Please join me in thanking our Fellows with a round of applause.
I also would like to recognize Dr. Beryl Levinger for her leadership in establishing the very first Fellows program at Teachers College at Columbia University 15 years ago. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for recognizing how returned Peace Corps Volunteers could use their overseas experience to make a difference here at home. She is another example of how one person with an idea and the ability to articulate that idea with persistence can make a difference. We thank Dr. Levinger for her many contributions to development and education.
This is an exciting time to be associated with the Peace Corps. My own ties with the Peace Corps span more than 30 years since my wife, Susan, and I served together as Volunteers in El Salvadorrps span more than 30 years since my wife, Susan, and I served together as Volunteers in El Salvador. My first trip overseas as director was back to El Salvador and the barrio where I served. Much has changed, but the people and the friendships have lasted over three decades.
Today, there are nearly 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 77 countries. We have Volunteers serving Central America, Central Europe, and Central Asia. There are Volunteers living and working in South America, South Asia, and the South Pacific. We have Volunteers serving in the poorest towns of Bolivia, Benin, and Bangladesh.
Like the Peace Corps Fellows who served overseas before them, our Volunteers are working with the people of these countries to develop their communities and build better futures for their children through projects in education, the environment, agriculture, small business development, and health. They are making contributions at the grass-roots level, where the needs are often the greatest, where external support is always meager, and yet where the potential for progress is often most promising.
Since becoming Director, I have had the chance to meet visit many Peace Corps Volunteers at their sites in seven countries. I met three of them at schools in a region in Bulgaria about four hours from the capital. One was a recent Montana journalism graduate teaching English at an elementary school. Another held an M.A. in economics and is teaching business in a high school and advising local entrepreneurs. And one was a retired school teacher from Maine who is teaching English at a Bulgarian high school.
In a very different setting in Ghana, I also saw Alan Sai Li from the State of Washington who thought he was going to teach math at a high school in the capital city of Accra. The school director, however, asked Alan if knew what could be done with 15 computers that had arrived but seemed not to work. Alan suddenly became the director of the school's computer literacy program. For a year, he was the only teacher who taught computer operations to 1,500 students and their teachers.
In the West African nation of Guinea, I learned how Volunteers are working to improve education for young girls. These Volunteers also organized regional conferences for the third year where hundreds of girls came together to learn about HIV/AIDS prevention and other health issues, to explore the role of women in development, and to share ideas with one another.
Peace Corps Volunteers are helping their communities protect the environment, working with a variety of partners. One Volunteer, Jeremy West, a forester from North Carolina, is working with the equivalent of our National Park Service to help turn the former Communist Party headquarters in Etrepole, Bulgaria, into an ecology resource center.
Other Volunteers I met in Honduras are working with local municipalities in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. I saw one Volunteer Brendan Doherty from Cheshire, Connecticut, who, along with his counterpart Olancho city council counterpart, are jointly learning how to develop a community-based disaster mitigation and response system. In Ghana, I learned about how Mark Donahue from San Antonio has helped an environmental NGO forge an alliance with local tribal chiefs and government agencies to protect the last remaining hippopotamus habitat in the country.
Yet even as the Peace Corps' mission has remained essentially the same since it was established—to help the people of developing countries help themselves—our Volunteers are responding to the contemporary needs, challenges, and aspirations of the people with whom they work.
One of those challenges that I saw with horrendous clarity on my trip to Africa last month is the threat of HIV/AIDS. Of the more than 33 million cases of HIV/AIDS worldwide, more than 23 million are found in Africa.here already are eight million orphans from AIDS. The Peace Corps has begun to respond. Perhaps a here already are eight million orphans from AIDS. The Peace Corps has begun to respond. Perhaps a quarter of the Volunteers in Africa are working in health programs which specifically target HIV/AIDS prevention. In the near future, I intend to announce a new initiative that will dramatically expand the role that our Volunteers play in the fight against AIDS. I view it as the most serious humanitarian challenge in the world today and the greatest threat to economic development, political stability, and the very fabric of society in Africa.
We also are finding ways to help Peace Corps Volunteers bring the extraordinary skills they possess in information technology to the struggle against poverty in the communities where they live and work. Throughout history, the poor have been the last to benefit from advances in technology. In the developing world today, the vast majority of people have never used a telephone, much less surfed the Web. Each day, they fall further and further behind, separated from the rest of the world by a digital divide that could leave them locked in poverty forever.
But today's Peace Corps Volunteers can build bridges across that divide. For most of the countries of the developing world and virtually all of the impoverished communities, our Volunteers are comparative experts in using computers, the Internet, and other forms of information technology. That is why we are expanding the role that technology plays in the work of our Volunteers. Volunteers are helping schools, municipal governments, NGOs, and businesses obtain computers and get connected to the Internet. They and their counterparts are creating new Web sites to market products and communicate with customers.
Today, a Peace Corps Volunteer with a single computer can bring the wealth of knowledge in the Library of Congress to a poor classroom in the middle of Africa. A few months ago, one enterprising Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya powered his laptop with abandoned solar panels to connect to the Internet and download information to prepare lesson plans for his students. We want to make it possible for Volunteers to bring their skills in technology to the crucial task of reducing poverty in the developing world. But it must be sustainable. It must be part of a project owned by the local community. And it must be a tool that does not separate the Volunteer from the community but offers the community a window to the world's bounty of knowledge.
These are just some of the tangible contributions that Volunteers are making around the world. And in many ways, they are building on the work that all of you in the Fellows program accomplished during your service overseas.
The good news is that all of these projects and initiatives will serve to further strengthen the Fellows/USA program in the years ahead. As the needs of our own communities here at home change over time, I believe the skills that our Volunteers learn or enhance while serving in the Peace Corps will prepare them even more to take part in the Fellows program.
I also believe that the intangible skills that our Volunteers learn in the Peace Corps will continue to play a key role in their success as Fellows here at home. Let me explain why.
As we all know, the demographics and culture of our society are going through rapid changes. We are more multi-cultural than at any time in our history. In less than 20 years, Hispanic Americans will become the largest minority community in our country. As they have throughout much of our history, people from other cultures are coming here in search of freedom, opportunity, and the chance to contribute our country's future.
I believe that the increasingly multi-cultural nature of our society is a source of strength, and we should embrace it. But as our diversity expands, we must find new ways to understand one another, to respect our differences, and, at the same time, ensure that we remain united citizens of a free society.
Tur differences, and, at the same time, ensure that we remain united citizens of a free society.
This is why the kinds of language and cross-cultural skills that our Fellows here today possess and which the 7,000 Volunteers overseas are gaining have become more important than ever, and will take on even greater significance in the years ahead.
As we think about these issues, I am reminded of what Bill Moyers, the distinguished journalist and commentator who was an early Peace Corps staff member once said. "What was the idea that summoned us?", he asked. "It was the belief in the need to affirm life, to affirm that there are still great things to be won here at home and in the world. But if we are to reckon with the growing concentration and privilege of power; if from the lonely retreats of our separate realities we are to create a new consensus of shared values; if we are to exorcise the lingering poison of racism, reduce the extremes of poverty and wealth and overcome the ignorance of our heritage, history and world; if we are to find a sense of life's wholeness and the holiness in one another; then from this deep vein which gave rise to the Peace Corps must come our power and light."
Those thoughts drive us to continue to examine how we as individuals can contribute to solutions to the challenges that we face around the world and in this country.
The Fellows/USA program is a vital part of the "domestic dividend" that our Volunteers bring home with them. It is the largest source of placement for returned Volunteers, and it continues to be a valuable part of our efforts to encourage talented people to join the Peace Corps.
As we look to the future, we hope to expand the Fellows/USA program in a judicious way in new areas of study, such as technology, law, the environment, and public health. We also would like to find new ways to reach out to institutions that serve graduate students and communities of color.
The Peace Corps has a bright future ahead of it, not only because of the outstanding work that our Volunteers are doing important work around the world, but also because we have the Fellows/USA program and so many returned Volunteers who serving their communities. This is the true genius of the Peace Corps.
So, again, let me express our enduring gratitude to the DeWitt Wallace Readers Digest Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, our many friends at the universities and community-based employing agencies, Florida International University, and, most importantly, to the Peace Corps Fellows themselves. I thank you for your service and wish you the very best as you continue your education and your efforts to make our communities here at home better places to live.
It is a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you very much.