Column: Practical Ideals and the Peace Corps

Some thoughts on the program's 50th anniversary

Fifty years ago this week, I was a few days away from ending nine months of gestation in my mother’s belly – which is to say, on Oct. 14, 1960 I wasn’t among the throngs gathered in front of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m., enduring fatigue and drizzling rain to hear John F. Kennedy give a campaign stump speech.

Mary Morgan Peace Corps

A photo taken in 1985 with the Moudyoutenday family at the start of my Peace Corps experience in the Central African Republic. I'm the one looking the least dignified.

But 25 years later, my life was tightly intertwined with that speech, though I didn’t know it at the time. In October of 1985 I was a Peace Corps volunteer, fumbling my way through the first few weeks of life in a mud hut, learning to accept rats and roaches as daily encounters, realizing how much I missed American toilets – teaching English, of all things, to youngsters in the impoverished Central African Republic.

It was a transformative two years for me – but not in the way that recent hagiographic celebrations of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary might have you believe. In fact, I emerged from the experience with ambiguous feelings toward the Corps, and specifically toward the mythos that’s arisen around it.

I was struck by that ambiguity again on Thursday morning, as I listened to speakers on the steps of the Michigan Union describe with such certitude the pivotal role that the Peace Corps plays in fostering world peace. It gets to the crux of my discomfort with this message: While I believe wholeheartedly that the program benefits the mostly single, middle-class, recent college grads who make up its ranks, I’m much less convinced of its lasting positive impact on the countries where volunteers serve.

A Volunteer’s Life

So if the big picture is a goal of world peace, what are the pixels that make up that composite? On a daily basis, mundane things consumed our time as Peace Corps volunteers. Fetching and purifying water was a Herculean effort, as was buying and preparing food. It’s one reason why most volunteers hired help – in that way, we made a concrete contribution to the local economy, at least.

In fact, the direct economic incentives for communities to have Peace Corps volunteers stationed there were formidable. The head of the school where I taught also got rent from me and my roommate – another volunteer – for our small hut. My understanding was that the headmaster “helped” with the housing of most volunteers who passed through the school every two years, providing him with steady, supplemental rental income. My guess is that this was of far greater value to him than anything we brought to the classroom, where on any given day 50% of the students skipped class, out of necessity, to work the fields. Bear in mind, this was an elementary school.

We also hired someone to cook on weekdays, and to do our laundry. This was common practice among volunteers in that country and elsewhere. And on the advice of just about everyone, we also hired a “sentinel” to stand guard over our home at night – or rather, to sleep in a chair outside the door – as a deterrent to thieves and snakes.

Our salaries, a pittance by U.S. standards, put us among the affluent in Dekoa, the village where I lived during my first year in the Corps. More powerful, perhaps, was the undertone of even greater wealth that was never far from the surface: The periodic caravans of Peace Corps officials, passing through in Jeeps and delivering care packages from our friends and families; photos of home that showed nearly unfathomable excess, by comparison to our African neighbors; and the knowledge that after our relatively brief stint of service, we’d be returning to this land of plenty. One of the most common questions I heard from Africans while I served as a volunteer could be roughly translated to this: With all that you have at home, what the hell are you doing here?

In fact, for most volunteers I knew, the reasons had more to do with adventure and career ambitions – or lack thereof – than the more noble goals espoused by Peace Corps officials. Many volunteers were recent college graduates who either didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives, or who knew they wanted a career in the foreign service, and viewed the Peace Corps as a way to pay their entry-level dues. Though we were often accused of being CIA operatives, which I found to be both hilarious and unnerving, in fact the volunteers I knew who were on a career path were more likely destined to be bureaucrats than spies.

And being an American bureaucrat in a Third World country wasn’t a bad life, from what I observed. Peace Corps administrators in the Central African Republic lived in spacious homes with servants, were provided with a car and a driver, entertained frequently, and spent considerable time being courted by African officials who were eager to profit from whatever U.S. aid was available. Aside from fairly common gastrointestinal issues – when volunteers gathered, we talked a lot about the color and texture of our bowel movements – life in that strata was hardly a hardship.

But more than that, serving in the Peace Corps – even at higher levels – conferred a status on people who would be unremarkable if they held similar jobs stateside. I squirmed whenever someone told me they thought I was brave or selfless or somehow worthy of praise just for being a Peace Corps volunteer. Would they have offered the same praise if I’d been teaching English in inner-city Detroit or rural Mississippi? Maybe, but not as likely.

So being involved with the Peace Corps clearly benefits the volunteers and other paid staff. There are also benefits I haven’t mentioned, like the ripping away of assumptions that forever transformed my perspective on the world. Not everyone has easy access to potable water? This was a revelation for a young, middle-class Midwesterner like me. More profoundly, living for two years in Africa grounded my belief in the common ties of humanity: a love of family, the ability to laugh at the absurd, to feel the heavy hand of sorrow, to struggle for a better life – all of the things that show how we’re more alike than our differences might mask.

Then what’s the harm, even if the end result is a program that only provides personal growth for individual Americans? Maybe that’s enough – that we volunteers take away a richer understanding of our world, and carry that with us the rest of our lives. Yet I’m not convinced that those benefits offset the massive U.S. aid-industrial complex that’s grown over the past few decades, which seems to foster a culture of dependence and to enrich the developing country’s elite more than its impoverished population. At the least, it’s a debate worth having.

Something to Celebrate

I say all this to bring a little reality into the whole Peace Corps narrative. The tendency to romanticize is strong, particularly given the program’s ties to John F. Kennedy – the Peace Corps capitalizes on its association with the idealism embodied in Kennedy’s Camelot era.

Bob Dascola

Bob Dascola at the Oct. 14 ceremony marking John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech at the Michigan Union, which Dascola also witnessed.

On Thursday morning, I thought a lot about my own experience in the Peace Corps, as I watched people gather for the ceremony marking Kennedy’s Oct. 14 speech at the Michigan Union. Many of them brought their own reflections, having fond memories of being in that spot 50 years ago. They remember Kennedy’s charisma, and the sense that they were part of something special.

Bob Dascola, whose barbershop is just a couple of blocks away on State Street, was 14 years old at the time, with generous parents who let him stay out late until Kennedy appeared around 2 a.m. The next day he rode his bicycle alongside Kennedy’s motorcade as it left the union – that moment was captured by a Michigan Daily photographer and it ran in the newspaper the next day, Bob told me. He remembers it like it was yesterday.

Thursday’s event drew a lot of people from the community, like Bob, who also attended a smaller gathering across the street, just before the ceremony on the steps of the Michigan Union. Standing in a tight cluster at the corner of State and South University, they were there to unveil the latest historic street exhibit, a program spearheaded by Ray Detter 11 years ago. If you ask him, Ray will tell you the practical realities of getting this project off the ground took tremendous effort. (Nothing like doing laundry in an African village by beating it against a rock, but still.)

This newest street exhibit marks the Kennedy “Peace Corps” speech, which was actually just some brief remarks that included a general call to international service, as well as a call to help in his presidential campaign. The speech reflects Kennedy’s mastery at mixing the practical and the ideal, and it struck me that many people at the event – politicians and community leaders like Bob Guenzel, Joan Lowenstein and Leah Gunn, among others – often do the same.

And, of course, that’s what we do here at The Chronicle, too – balancing the idealism of fighting for an open, inclusive government and working to  inform this community better, with the practical reality of slogging through a city council report or trying to sell an ad.

It’s important that the narrative of our work includes both aspects, because one doesn’t exist without the other. I’d hope that more of our elected officials and other community leaders embrace that as well – it’s important, even essential, to acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable reality, even if it doesn’t meet your ideal, even if it isn’t pretty, even if it’s sometimes painful to confront that reality in public.

And that’s an ideal worth celebrating.


  1. October 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm | permalink

    An interesting, thoughtful, thought-provoking and honest reflection. Thanks for posting this.

  2. October 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm | permalink

    Enjoyed this reflective and forthright article; thank you.

  3. By Jay
    October 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm | permalink

    Enjoyed reading your article – I lived in a small town in the Central African Republic for 10 years of my childhood – got to know several Peace Corp volunteers who came through our town. I now work for an NGO in the same country – although I’m not living there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it’s good to hear some of those expressed.

  4. October 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm | permalink

    Wonderful article–and you still look as lovely now as you did 25 years ago!! :)

  5. By Rod Johnson
    October 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm | permalink

    Every PCV I’ve known has had some degree of ambivalence about the experience. Thanks for expressing it so honestly.

  6. By Mimi Chapman
    October 16, 2010 at 10:22 pm | permalink

    I’ve felt much the same way as Mary when people (Americans)praise me for my “great sacrifice” in spending two years in North Africa teaching English to high school students. I have always said I thought I reaped as many of the benefits of my Peace Corps tour as my students did. However, the contrast between my students’ lives and mine wasn’t as great as in Mary’s case. The ministry of education in Tunisia used Peace Corps volunteers where needed to fill teacher gaps. The decision to make English a mandatory third language was due to the huge importance of the tourism industry in that country. By the early 1980′s the Peace Corps was no longer needed in the fast-developing Tunisia and the end of the program there was cordial and natural. Besides learning at least some English (I hope!) my students got the chance to pepper me with questions about American life and I got to learn about Tunisian customs and holidays from them. It was always a 50/50 proposition.
    With the rise of extremism in the last 15 years, I’ve often thought of my students and other Tunisians I befriended and who welcomed me so openly and hoped that they remembered that not all Americans felt antagonism towards foreigners in general and Muslims in particular.

  7. October 17, 2010 at 12:53 am | permalink

    I loved reading this, Mary! Thank you for writing and sharing it!

    I learned from your Peace Corps visit, too, actually. I’m laughing as I write this, because this will probably sound silly, but the following two things impressed me and have stayed with me for 25 years, even as you and I lost touch for a while.

    Before you left for the Peace Corps, I came to visit you at your home in Indianapolis as you were packing. You told me that the Peace Corps had told you that rolling your clothes in your suitcase would take up less space than folding them. I have packed my own suitcase that way ever since!

    When you came back and were living in Bloomington, Indiana, again, I came to visit you and you told me that you now rinsed and re-used every ziploc bag until it fell apart. I started doing that, too, so as not to be wasteful but also so as not to take anything for granted. Unfortunately, I no longer rinse and re-use every ziploc bag…but I do use fewer plastic bags to begin with. That’s something, I guess. And it is a direct result of you being in the Peace Corps.

    I am so glad we are back in touch! Keep fighting the good fight, Mo!

  8. October 17, 2010 at 5:26 pm | permalink

    “…brave or selfless or somehow worthy of praise…” Then, perhaps (and only perhaps,) no. Today. with the idea, effort and daily accomplishment of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, yes.

  9. By Andy Brush
    October 18, 2010 at 8:23 am | permalink

    It has been a thought-provoking week, thanks for provoking more thoughts. My ambivalence this week was about getting up at 2AM and attending some of the events in the face of family life and a busy work schedule.

    As a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka 1991-1993, I had no such ambivalence. I didn’t think I was there to save the world, I was only there to be there. I was all over the place sucking in all the experiences that I could.

    I taught english at an English Teachers College in Kandy and got to know students from all over the country. Sri Lanka had just emerged from one kind of civil war (a primarily political one) and was in the midst of another (a primarily ethnic one). Through my students I learned what it was like to see live through horrors and displacement that we hope to never see in our country.

    All that was there as a backdrop, but the lesson that you learn from being there (and most RPCVs report something like this) is that as people we share far more than what divides us. We talked, we laughed, we have friends and families, we love… at some level we’re all the same. It is our job to look for and embrace that sameness.

    I worked hard when I was there and one of my students remarked, “I can see why America is a rich country because I see how you and Mr Kyle work”. That was nice to hear, but that isn’t why. We are the same but we’re not the same.

    We’re different in the cultures we come from and we’re really different in resources that are generally available. Many Sri Lankans assumed I was rich, but I really wasn’t. I owed a bunch in student loans and the $2,000 payout at the end was already spent. Now, 19 years later I know more what they meant. I live in a country where the base level is richer and more people have the opportunity for a middle class existence with things that were just starting to be middle class in Sri Lanka. When I go back to visit, I’m rich, and richer for the experience.

  10. By Susan
    October 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm | permalink

    Mary, I’ve always thought that the underlying goal of the Peace Corps was to teach affluent young Americans precisely what you learned…that not everybody gets potable water every day. And to learn it viscerally, not just intellectually. Every PCV who returns to the US with that knowledge has a better understanding of what poverty means, and just maybe is better prepared to be a good citizen of the world.

  11. By sally m
    October 18, 2010 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Well said. A more bitter, but also beautifully written meditation on the role, past and present, of NGOs in East Africa can be found in Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari.

  12. By abc
    October 18, 2010 at 4:46 pm | permalink


    I am not sure if I would agree that the Peace Corps underlying goal was directed toward affluent young Americans. None of the people I know who joined the PC were, or are now, affluent. Those that I knew were liberal-minded, lower middle class ideologues. They came back a bit less idealistic; reflecting many of the sentiments offered by Mary in the article.

    I would agree though that understanding the suffering found in other parts of the world and developing a true appreciation for all of the comforts we have here in the US can be aided with international travel.

    I am also cognizant of the fact that similar visceral lessons are available to us right here in America. You may however have to look a little harder as familiarity is sometimes the best camouflage.

  13. October 24, 2010 at 9:47 pm | permalink

    This is written as a fan of Mary Morgan, the Ann Arbor Chronicle,
    and the Peace Corps, all three. Having served during the Kennedy Administration as Peace Corps’ first Community Relations Director, I did my best to help promote the enthusiasm and high expectations for the Peace Corps which are referred to in Mary’s excellent article and the comments above. We need to remind both friends and critics of the Peace Corps that it has three purposes — in addition to providing mid-level personnel requested by third world nations, Peace Corps aims to promote gut-level understanding of other nations and peoples by Americans, and to promote better understanding of American ideals and realities, abroad. Conditions, Peace Corps assignments, and seemingly endless obstacles all vary so widely from place to place that some failures and many frustrations are to be expected. But the nearly 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have made impressive progress toward the achievement of all three Peace Corps goals.