Last week, we celebrated the Swearing-In Ceremony of 70 new Peace Corps Ghana volunteers. During this event, we also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which, as some of you may already know, was launched (so close to home!) on the steps of the University of Michigan in a speech by President Kennedy. The exciting part about being a volunteer in Ghana is that this was the destination of that very first group of Peace Corps volunteers way back in 1961, and since stepping onto Ghanaian soil, Peace Corps has maintained a continuous presence in this country for fifty years straight. The newest group of volunteers was sworn-in on the same day as the first batch of Ghana volunteers back in the 60s, so last week's event was an amazing culmination of the challenging and rewarding development work that has taken place over the past five decades.
At the ceremony last week, the Ghanaian Secretary of Foreign Affairs and other dignitaries addressed the audience and shared with us some of their personal interactions with Peace Corps volunteers, some of them having been taught by teachers in the first group of volunteers in Ghana. It was absolutely beautiful and touching to hear the stories about how these young Ghanaians were challenged and inspired by their American teachers (in the beginning, the programs in Peace Corps Ghana mostly centered around the education sector). It was also fascinating to hear about the experiences of those first volunteers who boarded planes in the early 1960s in their three-piece suits and high heels with no idea what they might face ahead of them. Those first volunteers were not awarded the luxury of researching their destination before they departed, or receiving any intense cultural or technical training to prepare themselves, or having access to cell phones or the internet. They were truly committed to embarking on an adventure and offering themselves as tools in the work of international diplomacy and development. After having asked themselves what THEY could do for their country, they found an answer that lied halfway across the world. Generations after them have continued to ask the same question of themselves, and have found the answer by following in the footsteps of those first Peace Corps volunteers. I consider myself lucky to be named among those who have taken those steps and found themselves here, even though I'm becoming convinced that my life has been more impacted by my service than any Ghanaian that I've worked with.
As I've been reflecting on the existence of Peace Corps in a country like Ghana for 50 continuous years, I've thought a lot about a question that I've been asked many times: "Why isn't the country developed yet? Is Peace Corps really doing its job if they still need volunteers after this long?" To put it bluntly, I'm really starting to hate these questions. Sure, I understand where they originate, but I think that asking these types of questions illustrates a limited understanding of the scope of Peace Corps and its mission. For me, personally, my job as a volunteer is less about bringing this country to a higher level of development and more about cultural exchanges and mutual learning experiences. Certainly, we as volunteers can help by bringing our education, technology, and experience to areas where these services are needed to improve the basic health and well-being of our international neighbors, but I believe that the work of a volunteer ought to focus more on the exchange of beliefs, culture, and ways of life than it should about bringing the "third world" lifestyle up to "first world" standards. This is why I think that the work of an organization like Peace Corps is something that ought to be encouraged to EXPAND, rather than diminish over time. Leaving your own way of life, even if it's for a short period of time, to experience a new way of thinking, acting, or living, is a powerful challenge to the mind and spirit. Entertaining or even EMBRACING new perspectives is one of the most effective ways we grow and develop personally, and I feel like like my experiences here are the daily illustrating that point.
Maybe I'm making volunteerism sound more glamorous or impactful than it really is, but I truly feel that a life dedicated to opening up oneself to new experiences is a powerful inspiration to the world around you. I have certainly been inspired by the example of that first group of volunteers who took President Kennedy's challenge seriously and allowed themselves and their communities to be changed, and I hope that my service here, in some small way, will become a part of that cultural legacy of the USA.
So thanks for everything, Peace Corps, and happy birthday! My hope for you is that many generations to come will have the chance to reap the rewards of this beautiful experience.