And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
— John F. Kennedy, inauguration address, January 20, 1961.
It is the spirit of doing more for your country, JFK signed Executive Order 10924 less than a month and a half later on March 1 creating the Peace Corps and following through on a campaign idea. The Peace Corps Act was authorized by Congress on September 21, 1961 declaring that the purpose of the program is “To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”
However, it is naïve to say that the Peace Corps was purely an altruistic move on the part of the U.S. federal government – this was the height of the Cold War and ugly ‘Yankee Imperialism’. Perhaps some young, smiling American faces living and working in remote communities would build some goodwill for Uncle Sam in the fight against communism.
JFK appointed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to be the first program director and structure the organization better. This piece by Shriver in 1963, two years into his five year term as director, is insightful to the ambition of the young federal agency. Shriver’s leadership would prove critical to the long-term success of the Peace Corps.
During the fifty years since its founding, 220,000 Americans served in 141 countries throughout the world.
One of those 220,000 is where my Peace Corps story starts. A young man named Gene, who joined the Peace Corps leaving from the seminary shortly before becoming ordained, served as a volunteer in the town of Lorica, Cordoba, Colombia from 1966-1968. Gene is the youngest brother of my grandma, Mary Ann, and he would go on to marry Vilma, now my great-aunt and a native of Medellin, after meeting her during his service. I had never really spent quality time with Gene until 2011 given that he lived in faraway Seattle. Nevertheless, hearing his story early in my youth ignited my initial Peace Corps spark; the experience of living and volunteering in a developing country seemed to me to be something that everyone should have if he/she wants well-rounded perspective on the world. Service is important and I like helping people as much as the next idealist, but in some ways, Peace Corps service has been a selfish endeavor for me stemming from the fact that I never came up with a good answer to the test posed as the question ‘why not be a Peace Corps Volunteer?’. What greater way to develop as a human being and help people less fortunate than to be a Peace Corps Volunteer? I still do not have the answer.
Throughout the first two and a half years of college, my plan was to be a Peace Corps Volunteer upon graduation. However, like many of my Wake Forest peers studying finance, I chose investment banking having been wooed by challenge, prestige, and six-figure incomes. I would spend my first two years after graduation (2014-2016) in Charlotte, NC, working as an analyst for Wells Fargo’s investment bank.
While I had some testing and trying moments in this demanding atmosphere, two formative years as an analyst developed a work ethic, an attention to detail, and an attitude that will continue to render benefits for the rest of my life. Those days when I left the Duke Energy Center as the sun was rising with the goal of returning to my desk in three hours by 9AM taught me a hard lesson which ultimately converted me from someone who talked about joining the Peace Corps to someone who actually volunteered. That lesson was that personal and professional growth does not come within ones comfort zone – one needs to be challenged to advance in life.
Not to mention the fact that Peace Corps changed its application process in 2014 allowing applicants to choose their role and host country rather than apply and accept a position blindly. Further aligning the stars, Peace Corps Colombia, recently re-opened as a PC site after a hiatus from 1981 to 2010, was initiating a Business Advising program in August 2016, i.e. the first possible date that I could work after my two years in banking. The thought of serving in Colombia like Uncle Gene, being able to make my professional experience of use, and the ideal timing brought me back to that question – why not? Or, more bluntly, what’s your excuse Andrew? In August 2015 I sent in my Peace Corps application (essay available here).
The journey to Colombia took its biggest early step on February 5, 2016, when I received perhaps the most consequential email of my life telling me that I had been accepted to Peace Corps Colombia as a Business Advising Volunteer. I was working remotely from the Wells Fargo offices in New York City and close to leaving for the taping of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (thanks to one of my best friends from college, Connor), when the email arrived. Running through midtown Manhattan with tears of joy in my eyes, I made it just in time for the show where I showed the email to Connor, who more than five years earlier had heard me talk about my Peace Corps ambitions.
On June 24th, I left the great state of North Carolina after calling it my home for six years including four at Wake in Winston-Salem and two working in Charlotte. I spent the following five weeks traveling and catching up with friends and family before taking the Peace Corps plunge. I flew out of my native central Illinois on August 1, 2016 to follow in my great-uncle’s footsteps and do what JFK first imagined – promote world peace and friendship.