Innocents Do Good

Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps Country Director recently opined in the New York Times that “For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.” He argued that the Peace Corps sends too many recent college grads who lack the skills to do their jobs. I disagree with Strauss and wrote the following response. Other letters both agreed and disagreed with his assessment. Perhaps it’s not fair to generalize from one’s own experience–which goes for Strauss and me.

My own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1990s is so at odds with Mr. Strauss’ description that it almost sounds like he is describing a different organization. Full disclosure: I was almost a newly minted college graduate–even worse, I had spent 2 years working on Capitol Hill and then went to serve as a volunteer.

The recruitment process was arduous. My recruiter told that as I did not have any specific technical skills of interest to host countries that if I wanted to serve as an English Education volunteer that I would have to seek additional teaching and tutoring experience. (At that point, I had only worked as a teaching assistant in my university’s required computer class and taught English overseas for a summer.) I had graduated near the top of my class, but according to Mr. Strauss, that would not be enough.

I was a far cry from an expert English teacher–but in Rietavas, Lithuania, the students experience with native English was limited to poorly dubbed television shows and pirated movies. English instruction in Lithuania focused on reading and listening–not on speaking and writing. In service, I struggled with the same questions that Mr. Strauss writes about, specifically, whether or not someone could do the job better. Someone probably could have, but I was there, in a small town that wanted to improve its schools education programs, and I was keen on doing my best.

Our country field personnel conducted site visits and regularly surveyed host schools. Rietavas applied for and hosted 2 more Peace Corps Volunteers. The repeat business goes to customer satisfaction. Peace Corps only sends volunteers where they’re requested. In addition to teaching, while in Lithuania I worked with a group of Lithuanian educators to write Essential English, a new textbook for high school students that the largest educational publisher published, I helped open a youth center that provided after-school activities for youths who weren’t interested in the school’s academic programming. I became fluent in Lithuanian–and was an ambassador to surrounding towns. Just giving people a chance to interact is a key goal of the Peace Corps.

Mr. Strauss emphasizes technical experience at the expense of the very real connections that volunteers forge in a well designed and executed program. To this day I am in touch with former students, colleagues and host family. I am also teaching my daughter Lithuanian and love to regale folks with tales about this wonderful country on the Baltic Sea. Raising awareness of Americans about the world outside is the third goal of Peace Corps. I am amazed that someone in a leadership position at Peace Corps could be so disconnected from its basic goals.

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