Fifty years ago Senator John F. Kennedy addressed students at the University of Michigan in Ann Harbor about actively changing their world. The following spring, Kennedy signed an executive order to initiate the Peace Corps.
Since then, thousands of Peace Corps volunteers have worked to help improve the daily lives of people in 77 countries from Latin America to Europe.
Although the number of Peace Corps applications have increased within the past two years, the racial demographic of the applicants is skewed. Only 16 percent of those who volunteer are minorities, according to the agency’s website.
Alethea Parker, a regional recruiter and diversity liaison for the Southwest Regional Office in Atlanta, is trying to change that.
Parker said African American volunteers have an opportunity to dispel some of the negative stereotypes that exist about them around the world.
“Volunteers are , “building relationships with people who may have never met an American before,” said Parker, who served for two years in Cameroon.
However, while some FAMU students are familiar with the organization, others just aren’t aware of its benefits. The agency gives volunteers the “global exposure that is unprecedented elsewhere,” said Parker, who was on the Florida A&M campus earlier this semester.
“Joining the Peace Corps is a good way to increase your professional skills until the job market bounces back,” Parker said.
Bianca Johnson, a fourth-year psychology student from D.C., has heard about the benefits of serving in the Peace Corps. She wants to join.
The Peace Corps is intertwined in her family history. During the spring of 2009, Johnson was interviewing her grandmother, Geraldine Shavers, for her Women in Psychology class. When the conversation turned casual, she asked for her grandmother’s advice about joining the Peace Corps. Johnson had made up her mind. Her grandma’s blessing would give her the push she needed to do it.
“How would you feel if I told you I wanted to join the Peace Corps?” Johnson asked.
It was then that Shavers told Johnson she was interested in joining the Peace Corps years before, but became pregnant with Johnson’s father and couldn’t go.
That was all Johnson needed to hear before filling out an application that would begin a process that could take her six months to a year to complete. She turned her application in on Oct. 1.
If she is accepted, she would be living her grandmother’s deferred dream.
As a college student at Winthrop University in South Carolina, Donnie Campbell always dreamt of seeing the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the means to do so.
Joining the Peace Corps gave him the chance and opened his eyes. A mental health counselor for the Department of Health from Beaufort, S.C., Campbell made his first Peace Corps tour in 1982 to Kenya at age 23. After his return, he decided to do another 27-month-tour and served in Haiti.
While some might see the Peace Corps as solely an opportunity for financial stability, Campbell valued the spiritual advantages even more.
“I saw the world differently after I went to Africa,” Campbell said. “It was as if my ancestors awakened me.”
Now, Campbell is not only an advocate for more young African Americans benefitting from what the Peace Corps has to offer, but for what they can offer the world.
“We are probably the best ambassadors [for the Peace Corps],” said Campbell who helped with agricultural extension and lived on Lake Victoria while in Kenya.
As a result of his years of service and subsequent travels, he also learned Swahili and developed friendships with people, who he now considers family. Those experiences have made him wiser and more appreciative of life.
“It disciplined me,” Campbell said. “It’s given me a purpose to what I do now.”
Today, Johnson’s binder rests on the table beside her. The faces of less-fortunate children are smiling up at her from the Peace Corps insert she has affixed to the front of it. ‘Life is calling. How far will you go?’ is printed in bold letters at the top.
How far will she?
It has taken months to get herself mentally prepared to leave. She takes yoga classes and meditates regularly to stay focused. She recently signed up for kickboxing classes to defend herself if someone tries to abduct her overseas.
Johnson hasn’t romanticized the idea of serving. Instead she faces the facts: To thrive in another country, “you have to be prepared for worse case scenarios. If you do that, everything else is easy.”
She has been doing her research. She accepts that she’ll be living with less because that is part of her destiny.
“I feel like someone is over there that I’m supposed to meet. Someone over there has something to tell me,” said Johnson. “My motto is: I’m going to walk out, but I’m going to let God guide my footsteps… The mission has begun.”