Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Students consider ethics of international work with Peace Corps

At Whitman’s Graduate School Fair on Thursday, Oct. 6, one table stood apart from all the rest.   The experience it offered was significantly different from the rest of the room: the mother of all community service, 27 months with the Peace Corps.

Credit: Cade Beck

According to their mission statement, the Peace Corps is an arm of the U.S. government that aims to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

Regional representative Erin Erickson was on campus to begin her job of engaging and recruiting students from Whitman. Erickson, herself a Peace Corps alumna after serving a term counseling nonprofit organizations in Moldova, arrived at Whitman with a specific strategy.

“My plan is to engage the modern languages department, French and Spanish speakers especially,” Erickson said. “To engage specific departments that are relevant to Peace Corps service is a strategy I’m looking for.”

At the fair, and at a presentation given later that day, Erickson explained numerous aspects of the Peace Corps: its deployment strategy, in which host countries request help from volunteers for projects in six general areas; its schedule, which includes three months of intensive training, a year of cultural immersion and a year of work in any of over 75 developing nations all across the world; and the program’s benefits for college graduates.

“It’s a life-defining experience: two years of quality, challenging and very rewarding international work experience in a technical field, which is very applicable to the workforce back home,” she said. “I can say that having Peace Corps experience makes you stand out over other applicants applying for jobs in the United States.”

At the informational session, several students expressed interest in the Peace Corps. Sophomore Morgan Walker first learned of the organization from a high school teacher.

“I really liked the idea of it,” Walker said. “It sounded like [my teacher] had this great experience that really benefited him . . . I really wanted to enrich myself by doing it, and maybe give myself a little more time before grad school, before starting the rest of my life.”

Assistant Professor of History Jacqueline Woodfork spent two years with the Peace Corps in Liberia, teaching English to middle school students. Woodfork believes that her service changed the entire direction of her life.

“Honestly, I got more out of it than I gave. I have learned that you cannot call yourself poor,” Woodfork said. “When you’re a graduate student and you have very little disposable income, the word ‘poor’ pops into your mind for self-description. But when you really see poverty, you realize that you simply cannot talk about being poor because you can’t go to the Taco Truck. Peace Corps was the best decision I ever made, although probably not for reasons I originally thought it would be a great thing.”

One challenge that Peace Corps recruiters often face on college campuses is a view held by some students that the organization represents an arm of American imperialism. Natalie Jamerson, co-president of Whitman Direct Action: an organization, similar to the Peace Corps in its mission, that takes Whitman students to work in the same community in Guatemala every summer: spoke to this viewpoint.

“If we perceive a need that externally seems like one that should be addressed, that might not be their priority, and they might not volunteer their own effort or resources,” Jamerson said. “The way to get things done is to empower the community members to solve their own problems. Taking ownership of the project is what’s really important.”

In graduate school, one of Erickson’s professors asked her to consider the interventionist angle of the Peace Corps. She concluded that the relationships built between volunteers and communities go far beyond imperialism.

“The value of building personal relationships is what brings peace, in my opinion,” Erickson said. “I was able to say, ‘I’m an American citizen, but I may not agree with everything my government is doing.’ And they could talk about their politics, and we could have an exchange and dialogue that wouldn’t have been possible if I had not been a volunteer.”

Woodfork’s personal experience with the Peace Corps informed her own opinion on the ethics of international development.

“What is important, that the Peace Corps sometimes loses sight of, is that we are working ourselves out of jobs,” she said. “We want nations to be able to fill their own human resource needs from their own citizen base.”

Woodfork said that she was struck by “how much of what we do is developed by the host country.” However, she acknowledges that there are multiple motivations that drive a Peace Corps volunteer.

“Saving the world is not going to happen through the efforts of one Peace Corps volunteer. There are cross-purposes and cross-motivations at play,” she said. “There is no saving the world. But sometimes you can have a positive impact on a person, and that is a good thing.”

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