On June 16th, USINDO hosted a Special Event with Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams.
The Peace Corps was initiated in 1960 by President Kennedy. By the summer of 1961, programs in Ghana and Tanzania had been established. The program continues to be a 27-month commitment, but today training is in-country instead of at university campuses.
The Peace Corps reflects the diversity of America, with volunteers from all 50 states, 14 percent of which are over 30 years old, with no upper age limit. Fifteen percent of volunteers are a minority and six percent serve with a spouse. The volunteers are ambassadors of goodwill at the grassroots level.
The Peace Corps in Indonesia began in 1963 with volunteers training athletes for international competitions. The program was closed shortly after due to political unrest.
In October 2006, Indonesia invited the Peace Corps back to carry out an assessment of the potential for a new program. An agreement was reached in November 2009, and in December the program was finalized as the 76th country served by the Peace Corps.
Volunteers in Indonesia are teaching English as a second language in high schools in East Java. Williams explained East Java was chosen as the location because few volunteers work in the capital, and provincial officials in East Java expressed interest in supporting the program.
Although public health projects were considered, all parties agreed that education activities focused on English language teaching were the best way to proceed for volunteers.
In March 2010, the first group of trainees arrived at the University of Muhammadiyah Malang. Volunteers received 200 hours of Bahasa Indonesia training, as well as technical, and health and safety training. In June, 19 volunteers were sworn in and later that year they had the opportunity to meet President Obama.
Volunteers spend 16 to 20 hours in the classroom each week, with additional hours dedicated to extracurricular activities. In total, the Peace Corps volunteers are co-teaching 4700 10th and 11th grade students and leading over 700 students in extracurricular activities.
Perhaps most importantly, the volunteers are giving people in their communities exposure to Americans and American culture, as ambassadors at the local level.
On June 15, 2011, a second group of volunteers was sworn in, bringing the total number of volunteers in Indonesia to 47.
Williams remarked that the program is off to a strong start. The Peace Corps has been getting great feedback from the volunteers and the schools, and plans to expand in future.
Question and Answer session:
Q: Can you talk a little more about what the future holds? What kind of size will the program grow to? And what fields are you moving into?
A: In this budgetary environment, we aren’t looking at rapid expansion anywhere in the world. But we are hoping to double the size of our program in Indonesia in the next couple of years. Also we’re going to continue to look at different geographic areas within Indonesia and expand past East Java.
Q: What do you look for with potential volunteers? Do you prefer volunteers directly from undergrad or more experienced volunteers?
A: 85 percent of our volunteers are recent graduates. We find that they are great volunteers because we have substantial technical and language training to prepare them. We can train a generalist volunteer to make a difference at the grassroots level.
It is difficult to find volunteers with technical experience, it is still a challenge, but with the retirement of the baby boomers, we may get more experienced volunteers. Also in many cases, volunteers are returning for a second time.
I think personally, the ideal volunteer has patience, and the ability to listen and understand the priorities of communities you’re working in. Another quality we seek is passion about service. It also helps I think to have to have a sense of adventure, a genuine interest in trying to learn more about other cultures. The Peace Corps is not for everyone; it is only for a select group.
Q: What recommendations do you have for international service programs—key components for these programs to promote global citizenship?
A: Around the world, the Peace Corps has three components of training: cross cultural training, language training, and technical training. This allows volunteers to carry out their job and reinforce that with understanding of their work environment and society.
Q: I have had many young people come to me asking me what they need to do in college and afterwards to get into the Peace Corps. What would you recommend?
A: Advice for new applicants: I get that question a lot. Number one, our process is lengthy and we’re working to streamline that, but for now you have to have patience with the process.
Second, we like to see volunteer service in applicants; that is a good indicator you’re interested in service.
A lot of people think that language skills are important but they’re not, we have great training. It is good if you have language and a lot of times with French or Spanish you assume you’ll use those languages, but that’s not necessarily the case. To the extent you can demonstrate you are a good networker that’s important also.
Q: In ASEAN, they have considered the idea of volunteerism. Are you aware of any such programs in the countries you operate in? Is this the kind of thing the Peace Corps might want to get involved in?
A: There is lots of interest in that. I have been talking with Director Generals in Thailand and in Jordan. I hear more and more of that and there is potential for the future.
Q: As a returned volunteer, I am always trying to think of ways to expand our reach and maintain our connections with the Peace Corps, and build ties with current volunteers and with the organizations we work for. Do you have any ideas?
A: That’s an interesting idea. One way is through the affinity groups, we have 146. That’s an important way to do that. Another way is through the Peace Corps Association. With the 50th anniversary, it gives us a great platform to re-engage with the communities we’ve served.
Q: With the current budget challenges, could you talk a bit about your strategy working with the Hill and what the chances are that the Peace Corps can avoid cuts?
A: I dwell on this quite frequently before I go to sleep. First, the Peace Corps has always enjoyed bipartisan support on the Hill. Right now four Members of Congress are returned volunteers, and I meet with them quarterly to discuss strategy.
We so far have not suffered tremendous cuts, only slight cuts but it hurts a small agency. We are working to restore those cuts but its going to be hard to be the exception to the rule. We should ideally be a special case within the International Affairs (150) budget account.
Number one we need more global citizens, we need to remain engaged and the Peace Corps is great for that. The other thing we need to do is to identify other streams of funding outside of the federal government to come up with ways to do new and unique programs, because it’s going to be a tough budget environment for the foreseeable future.
Q: Are you under increased pressure to quantify the impact of your program? How do you demonstrate your results?
A: There is always great interest in quantifying our impact. We work both at the country level, and with global impact studies in five or six selected countries a year, to measure results. The key thing I try to focus on is we engaged in development of capacity at the village level.