Miami University was recently ranked eighth among medium-size universities in terms of its alumni Peace Corps participation. The nature of the Peace Corps, and the motivations behind those who serve in it, have changed over the course of the past four decades, however, such a ranking is a testament to the broad worldview of many Miami students, as well as to the current generation’s commitment to service, both at home and abroad.
The latest Peace Corps numbers challenge the common fiction that Miami students are narrowly focused on pecuniary success and status. Rather, students’ interest in the Peace Corps-as well as in other service organizations such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and Habitat for Humanity-signals that students are interested in giving their time and energies to causes that will hopefully benefit others while broadening and profoundly changing their own views and assumptions.
Unlike in past times, when the Peace Corps was viewed as an alternative to being drafted into the Vietnam War, contemporary students are more frequently viewing post-graduate service programs as stepping stones to further personal development and future career opportunities.
Notably, Miami students are participating in service programs that carry medium-term time commitments, and oftentimes put young people in frighteningly unfamiliar situations. Yet, the intensive two-year commitment required to participate in a program such as the Peace Corps helps ensure that the experience is a deeper one for the participant, and potentially more complete for those on the receiving end of the Corps’ programs.
The Peace Corps was founded in 1961, during the height of the Cold War, with the unwritten hope of currying American favor in developing countries by fostering positive interactions with young Americans and local infrastructure development. Yet, Peace Corps efforts have been criticized for being ethnocentric and ill conceived. Additionally, there is sometimes political tension created with foreign governments when American volunteers work with local populations. Because there has rarely been a time with a greater need to improve the United States’ image abroad, the Peace Corps must now strive to work in a way that coincides with the local communities’ needs, and in a manner complementing-rather than dictating-local efforts and cultural norms.
While the Peace Corps can provide a positive international experience to young people, opening professional doors, stimulating new interests, and furthering cultural horizons, these experiences can be sought even within the Oxford “bubble.” Often overlooked is the need for service in the local community, and it is important for Miami students to remember to give themselves to their communities wherever they happen to reside.