Peace Corps Turns 50, Got its Start at Texas Western
February 28, 2011 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
The first group of Peace Corps volunteers at TWC
Fifty years ago a young, charismatic leader challenged his countrymen to be part of a bold, innovative program that could improve the world. The first stop on that journey for many of these initial volunteers was Texas Western College, now The University of Texas at El Paso.
President John Kennedy signed an executive order on March 1, 1961, that established the U.S. Peace Corps, an organization that would send skilled Americans to other countries to promote peace and mutual understanding. They would work with governments, schools, and nonprofit and nongovernment organizations in fields including education, business, information technology, agriculture and the environment.
That first group of Peace Corps volunteers at TWC was made up of 43 surveyors, geologists and civil engineers who would help map and construct roads in what is now the East African country of Tanzania.
The men, whose median age was 26, reported to Texas Western that June and spent six weeks preparing for their assignment. They studied the language (Swahili), the culture, and world politics before they laid out imaginary roads on nearby hills. The volunteers averaged about 66 hours of preparation per week.
While corps officials selected El Paso because its climate and terrain mirrored Tanzania, it also was chosen because it was desegregated, said Nancy Hamilton, author of UTEP: A Pictorial History of The University of Texas at El Paso.
Hamilton said one of Shriver's review teams visited UT Austin, the intended training site of the Tanzania volunteers. However, the plan changed after one member of the review team, a black man, was denied access to a UT faculty lunchroom. Shriver was aware that Texas Western was integrated and moved the training to El Paso.
The corps has attracted more than 200,000 volunteers who have served in 139 countries through the years. Those volunteers include John McClure, Ph.D., professor of metallurgical and materials engineering, and Kathleen Staudt, Ph.D., professor of political science.
McClure, who taught science in Ghana in 1968-69, called his time with the Peace Corps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It's an adventure in a new place that you will never have again," he said. "I urge students to take the opportunity when they can."
Staudt served as an elementary math teacher in the Philippines from 1967-68. She said the corps internationalized her perspective and inspired her to continue her education. Her academic journey led her to UTEP, where she founded the Center for Civic Engagement, which has helped thousands of students become involved in community-based public service and service learning through the center's coursework.
"I must credit the Peace Corps for sparking the light to foster an ethic of public service, not only in myself but also – I hope – in the hearts and minds of many UTEP students and graduates," she said.
Originally posted on News @ UTEP.