Aaron S. Williams
Peace Corps Director
September 1, 2010
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to thank President Gearan for his warm and generous introduction. President Gearan is filled with creative ideas, I feel fortunate to know him as a friend and true advocate for volunteer service. I just completed a top to bottom assessment of Peace Corps and it is clear that President Gearan's ideas and leadership have created a lasting impact on the agency. I am excited to be with you today to kick off your academic year. It is a true honor to share this day of celebration and to discuss a topic close to both President Gearan and I, the profound significance of volunteering and public service.
I was asked to reflect on the theme: The Power of an Idea. Peace Corps is a wonderful example of a remarkable legacy from a remarkably powerful idea. Peace Corps is an example of a remarkable legacy from a remarkably powerful idea.
In 2011, we are celebrating our fiftieth anniversary. Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by an executive order issued by President Kennedy. This order was finalized only 137 days after an announcement of an idea -- those 137 days marked the announcement of the idea, the victorious presidential campaign and an inauguration speech that is at the foundation of our nation's commitment to public service where President Kennedy famously challenged Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
But let me get back to this idea, an idea that few could have imagined would lead to the creation of an American institution dedicated to promoting world peace and friendship. An idea announced on a college campus – at 2 am October 14th 1960 – after more than 5,000 students at the University of Michigan waited patiently to get a glimpse of then-Senator Kennedy who was in Michigan campaigning for the Presidency.
Kennedy challenged the students to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. In the speech's aftermath, hundreds of students signed a petition committing to volunteer, and many eventually were placed by Peace Corps to serve overseas.
Kennedy had an idea, and it inspired a service movement. Today, I ask you: What do you imagine you can achieve? Can you do it here in your local community? On campus? In the state of New York? Overseas? The power of a great idea can be a goal, it can guide your trajectory, and it can keep you motivated when things seem hard. An idea – no matter how bold -- is just a challenge you can work towards.
When I was coming out of college, a few years ago, I was motivated by the legacy of public service as promoted by President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver. But I was also eager to try something new. I grew up on the Southside of Chicago and the first time I got on a plane was to fly to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps when I was 20 years old. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967-1970, working as a teacher's trainer. It was a different world for me.
My first assignment was to serve at a teaching center in a small town. I was responsible for 50 rural primary school teachers. These teachers had never obtained a high school degree. My goal was to teach two years of high school courses required for the teachers. Accomplishing this would allow the teachers to obtain their diplomas, and improve their teaching capabilities.
For two years, the teachers voluntarily attended all day Saturday classes during the school year and gave up their summer vacations for intensive courses. They made this sacrifice based on the promise that I would help them gain a high school diploma. They were inspired to become better teachers and gain higher pay and positions in urban areas. I was determined to do everything in my heart and soul to help them succeed. I became a leader, a coach, and a friend to each teacher.
I learned that when we work together for a common goal we can achieve magnificent things, and today the Peace Corps continues to provide the bridge to accomplish great things around the world, person to person, community by community. That is the power of my idea to serve.
The idea for me was to Volunteer and try something new, and those three years of Peace Corps service firmly placed me on the path to pursue a career in international development. I think about my experiences in Dominican Republic all the time. I got back far more than I gave. In countless ways, that idea, and those years shaped who I am today.
There are many ways to give back -- to make a difference. Peace Corps was the right decision for me, today I challenge all of you to consider, what is the right decision for you?
Today, we have another inspirational President committed to the call to service and he is asking Americans what they can do for their country. Respecting the dignity of all human beings is a driving force behind a commitment to service.
Convocations are a time for aspirations and a time to chart your course for the year and beyond, but it is also a time for commitment -- a time to set goals – and a time for choices. You have many choices in front of you. What will you decide? As you wrestle with your own ideas and assess professional and personal questions, please keep in mind the significance of choosing to volunteer.
You are all talented. What can you contribute with your heart and your time to make someone's day better? Can you give an hour, a day, a week, a year? Can you give 2 years? There are several opportunities for you to volunteer at home or abroad. I encourage you to consider how volunteering fits into your busy lives.
Peace Corps is one option. Today nearly 8,000 Americans are serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in 77 countries in Africa, South America, the Pacific, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Volunteers work in several service sectors: from teaching English as a second language, improving access to clean water, encouraging public health awareness in the global fight against HIV/AIDs and malaria, to helping small farmers sell and distribute more of their crops.
Peace Corps wasn't just my story. To date, over 200,000 Americans have served abroad with Peace Corps, just like I did. Think of that, 200,000 Americans said goodbye to their friends and family, gave up everything that was familiar, got on a plane and volunteered to work in cooperation with a local community many times in a foreign language. For many, this selfless act became the life-defining leadership experience they never could have expected. For many, they were struck by the fact that they received much more from the experience than they ever could give.
Without Kennedy and Shriver's vision and commitment, and without the powerful idea announced at the University of Michigan, Peace Corps probably wouldn't be a reality for all of the Americans who have served and the countless communities around the world who are proud to have worked with Peace Corps Volunteers.
This is your time to think, achieve, create, contribute and inspire. I challenge you to never think one idea is just too big.