History of Peace Corps Week

By Third Goal
Feb. 27, 2016

With the stroke of a pen, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. 

With his signing of Executive Order 10924, and his subsequent press conference where he outlined his vision of service, Kennedy fulfilled a campaign pledge he made the previous year in an extemporaneous speech at the University of Michigan. Each year in late February and early March, that call to service is renewed in the form of Peace Corps Week. This celebration, with activities both in the United States and at posts all around the world, is a way for current and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to share their service with others. According to former Peace Corps Director Mark Schneider, it was started as a way, “to shine a spotlight on the agency, the development work of… Volunteers around the world, and the continuing service that returned Volunteers bring to their communities in the United States.”

In 1971, President Richard Nixon proclaimed May 30 – June 5 of that year as “National Peace Corps Week,” to honor of the agency’s tenth anniversary. The Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program, initiated in 1989 by then Peace Corps Director Paul D. Coverdell, however, created the foundation for Peace Corps Week. The program, which connects educators with current and returned Volunteers, provided an opportunity to support the agency’s Third Goal which is: “To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

The program's focus on the Third Goal led to the celebration of World Wise Schools Day in 1997. That year over 4,000 returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) visited classrooms across the United States, sharing their experiences with more than 100,000 students. Building on that initial success, Peace Corps rebranded the celebration as “Peace Corps Day” and it was held for the first time on March 3, 1998. That year 6,600 RPCVs shared their service with over 320,000 U.S. students, and firmly established Peace Corps Week as an annual event.

These early events also had the added role of bringing attention to the “domestic dividend” that America receives from volunteer services, or the concept that a Volunteer’s commitment to service is not limited to his or her time in Peace Corps. For many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, the 2 years they spent living, working, and interacting in a community in their country of service acted as a launching pad for careers in public service.

For the next seven years Peace Corps Day worked to increase intercultural understanding. RPCV classroom speakers were supplied with prepared lesson plans to enhance their classroom discussions. A “Speaker’s Kit,” including bookmarks, stickers, posters, and a press release were handed out to increase interest in Peace Corps among K-12 audiences. Additionally, the agency promoted video conferences and long distance phone calls between students and currently serving Volunteers. By 2003 Peace Corps was encouraging RPCVs to register online and provided resources for their presentations at the Peace Corps website. The biggest change to this yearly tradition, however, would not happen until the following year.

Although not the first week-long celebration of Peace Corps, Peace Corps Week 2004 expanded the time frame for highlighting Third Goal activities and set the date in late February/early March to be closer to the time of year of Kennedy’s original order. Peace Corps used the additional six days to promote Third Goal activities, going beyond traditional K-12 classroom visits to include youth groups, workplaces, libraries, cultural festivals, newspapers and the internet. Encouraging a wide variety of audiences to share volunteer stories and experiences has mirrored Peace Corps’ aim to increase and diversify the applicant field.

Although Peace Corps Week has been modified, renamed, and even expanded since its inception, there is one common theme that has been consistent over the years. The mainstay of Peace Corps Week has always been the emphasis on the Third Goal. Advancing peace and friendship by promoting the understanding of different people and cultures on the part of Americans can be accomplished in many different ways, with Peace Corps Week highlighting several of them. Whether speaking to a class about past experiences, or organizing a dinner to share unique recipes, or even writing a blog or newspaper article about your service, you are working to further world peace by breaking down stereotypes, inspiring volunteerism and broadening the American perspective. As President John F. Kennedy once said, “The logic of Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.”


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