On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps, and the following summer the first Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) went overseas to Ghana and Tanganyika (now called Tanzania).
Since then, more than 200,000 volunteers have traveled to 139 countries to help people by promoting peace and friendship. Santa Clara University has had 342 alumni volunteers in the Peace Corps and was ranked nationally for six consecutive years from 2000 to 2005 as producing the most volunteers among small universities. Currently, 10 SCU alumni serve around the world.
A number of SCU faculty and staff also served as PCVs, including Peter Ross, who retired last fall after teaching in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at SCU from 1982 to 2010.
Ross was a PCV from 1963 to 1965 in Andhra Pradesh, India, where he taught secondary school students mathematics, physics, and even some English.
“The teaching was very challenging. Most of my students had never even used rulers,” says Ross. “I also had to use textbooks in the regional language of Telugu during my first year due to a school mix-up.”
The Peace Corps experience not only instilled in Ross a dedication to teaching, it gave him a taste for volunteering, which he has done to a modest extent ever since.
In the last two decades Ross has made 14 Sierra Club “service trips,” each a week or longer, working on trail construction, trail maintenance, and the like. The two most exotic trips were to Russia in the 1990s. One of these was a three-week trip to Siberia, where trip members helped Russian rangers build foot-bridges in Pribaikalsky National Park near Lake Baikal. Closer to home, Ross now volunteers at the JW House (a Ronald McDonald-type home) at Kaiser Santa Clara and also as a dog socializer at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley.
When Ross joined the Peace Corps in June 1963, there was little reliable information about it, as no volunteers had completed their two years of service and returned from overseas. But now there are many online resources.
SCU junior Ashley Ciglar, a civil engineering major, is considering joining the Peace Corps after she graduates in 2012. Although she first learned about the organization in high school, she hadn’t thought about joining until she began her college career.
“After coming to SCU, I saw many people working with all kinds of communities, making me want to volunteer. Doing so has really given me more insight into the world, while growing deeper as a person and more knowledgeable about my surroundings,” says Ciglar.
Ciglar then met a former PCV during an immersion trip in Nicaragua last summer. She says he constantly talked about his experience as a volunteer. Ciglar says she’d love to join the Peace Corps and do some kind of work related to water treatment, but even if she were called upon to teach English, she wouldn’t hesitate to go.
Students or others at SCU who are interested in the Peace Corps can talk with Ross or other former Peace Corps Volunteers on campus, such as Anthropolgy Associate Professor Mary Hegland (Iran), engineering graduate student Michael Neumann (Tanzania), Santa Clara Magazine Editor Steven Saum (Ukraine), and Law Professor Kandis Scott (Romania).
The Peace Corps advertises, “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” While Ross thinks that “love” is stretching things a bit, he does say that his two years in the Peace Corps were the most significant and rewarding in his life.
The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th
anniversary with events around the country this month. More information is available on its website.