Think Again RPCVs: Robert L. Strauss Revisited

Most Peace Corps volunteer placements will be in soft positions where big steps towards progress are not feasible. I have sent some students into Peace Corps. One gave up after 6 months. The other stayed an extra year and when her project failed because of local government interference it broke her heart.

The idea of bringing high school students to rural Haiti is ridiculous. I have been with undergraduate and graduate students. They have to be mature enough to deal with what they have to live in. College grads are just barely mature enough to be away from home in a strange country.

Not to sound like I am a Pollyanna for the Corps, but I do think that Volunteers have a big impact. Maybe not all of us, but enough come back and teach, enter public service, run for office, conduct research. The rest of us understand foreign events better than the average citizen, who I might add could use a better international education here. I served with some of the best of the best. I wasn’t one of them, but I tried. I could enter a short list here, but I don’t want to embarrass anybody.

Avram Primack, in a comment on Think Again RPCVs: Robert L. Strauss, May 20, 2008

My hurt little ego aside, I think Mr. Primack is simply wrong; to me, his post represents a lack of imagination that seems particularly upsetting given that in less than five months we may have the first African American president of the United States.

There’s no guarantee that Obama will succeed, but this seems like a good time to dream big. I can’t set out a detailed proposal, given space limitations, but I can sketch out how a program such as the one I suggested might work, starting with the 9th grade.

Here’s a rough sketch of my idea. The program would offer full college tuition, including subsidized room and board and books, in exchange for 9 months of service, six-weeks at time. Students could begin as early as the summer after 9th grade, and finish by the summer following college graduation.

The first few months of the program– mostly likely filled with 9-10th graders– would be devoted to education, both in the cultures of developing countries and in the Peace Corps. The first six week long trip need not include any work at all.

It would not be a vacation but it would not be difficult work, either. The goal is to give the teenager some education in travel and in living in a developing country. I think this could be integrated into the school curriculum back home in many different ways too.

These school programs could link to domestic projects, such as AmeriCorps, or Habitat for Humanity, could become a part of the curriculum. These experiences would serve as an introduction to the summer service.

They would also be an initiation into the ideals of service that give the student the opportunity to see and experience domestically what he or she will experience abroad. Similarly, the second summer of service could be rooted in a shadowing-based internship with older volunteers.

These students, having worked in their communities for a few years, and traveled abroad twice, for a total of twelve weeks, would be well prepared for the challenges represented by their last three months of service during High School.

Grades 11-12, then, would be a kind of apprenticeship in which these younger students worked with older college students, learning the ropes of the program. Again, these programs could be coupled with school year programs in community service.

As I hope has become clear, one of the most important goals of the first half of the program is to create students who are capable of doing the more independent and difficult work that would comprise the four and a half months of summer service during college.

What will these volunteers do? I think there are a lot of options out there, all rooted in already existing programs that might welcome the help. Among these I would include the Solar Electric Light Fund, Kiva, and Kick Start.

The one thing left out of this program would be the traditional two-year Peace Corps service. That however, might be persevered too in the form of a post-college voluntary program. Imagine the work that could be accomplished by these knowledgeable, seasoned volunteers.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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