Heart From the Heartland: Peace Corps Is Special Tradition at
The New York Times, May 11, 2005
by Samuel Freedman
MADISON, Wisc. - Four hundred miles deep into the North African desert, Jim Doyle gathered the bundle of aerograms and month-old magazines that were his link to a former world, the one he had left behind to join the Peace Corps. This particular day in November 1967, the mail carried news about his college campus and hometown, the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There had been a protest against the Vietnam War, specifically a blockade against recruiters for the company that made napalm, and it had ended with tear gas, billy clubs, arrests and demonstrators taunting cops with cries of "Sieg heil!"
Even at such a distance, Mr. Doyle could not call himself entirely surprised. In his senior year, he had seen the university's radicals shout down Senator Edward M. Kennedy. This was the brother of the president who had created the Peace Corps, and who before that was the presidential candidate a 14-year-old Jim had met on a campaign stop in Madison. "I understand you play shortstop," John F. Kennedy had said, having been well-briefed about the son of a prominent local politician.
Now the erstwhile shortstop was teaching English in a village school in Tunisia, encountering people who went six months without meat, who lived in caves, who had never had a day of formal education. It all made for an acute contrast with the turbulence back home, the same idealistic impulse that he felt being applied in a different, newly confrontational way.
"We volunteers would talk about this endlessly," Mr. Doyle recalled. "Is there a responsible way to change the world? What were we doing? Were we wasting our time? Were we making any difference?"
Decades later, Mr. Doyle has his answer. The would-be revolutionaries of Madison reached their crescendo with the bombing of a military research center in 1970, which succeeded only in killing a physicist who opposed the American intervention in Vietnam. That scientist's death was to the antiwar movement what the 1969 Altamont concert, where four attendees died, was to rock 'n' roll -- an end to innocence, or at least to the pretense of it.
Meanwhile, the Peace Corps has thrived in Madison, outlasting not only the trendy, occasionally lethal leftism of the counterculture but the apolitical cynicism that gripped so many colleges in its wake and, most recently, the contempt for the United States government in much of the world.
As the governor of Wisconsin, Mr. Doyle counts himself among 2,654 alumni of the Madison campus to have served in the Peace Corps. (The state's first lady, Jessica Laird Doyle, is another.) That number places the school second only to the University of California, Berkeley, as a generator of volunteers. For each of the last 10 years, Wisconsin has supplied the most entrants of any college or university, roughly 130 annually, some of whom will be graduating this weekend and decamping for Ghana or Turkmenistan soon thereafter.
The campus's track record partly reflects a tradition of social activism that dates back at least to Robert M. LaFollette and the Progressive movement, a sense of larger purpose known here in somewhat self-congratulatory fashion as the Wisconsin Idea. At a more pragmatic level, as a land-grant university in a largely rural state, Wisconsin has always developed the teachers, engineers, and agriculturists much coveted by the Peace Corps.
Those factors alone, though, cannot explain the phenomenon. More importantly if more ineffably, over its 44-year history, the Peace Corps has become an integral element of the campus culture, as pervasive as beer and bratwurst. (Well, almost.) An emeritus professor of educational administration, Joseph Kauffman, served as the program's first training director. The popular and dynamic president of the university during much of the 1990's, Donna Shalala, was a Peace Corps veteran.
So great is the current interest that Peace Corps recruiters hold information sessions for several hundred prospective applicants once a month, offering slide shows, world music and assurances that everybody feels bewildered and overwhelmed the day they get off the plane. Wisconsin even holds workshops to help students write their application essays.
"This is, what shall I say, social marketing?" asked Mary Rouse, who directs the university's Morgridge Center for Public Service. As she spoke, she was pointing to a wall display documenting the university's Peace Corps tradition. It hangs at eye level in a seminar room that is the first stop for virtually all of the 30,000 high school students and parents who visit the campus each year.
Taken down to the most personal level, the social marketing means someone like Krista Czerwinski. The 22-year-old, who had never traveled outside the United States until her sophomore year at college, will graduate on Sunday with a B.S. in human development and await assignment to either Eastern Europe or Latin America.
Ms. Czerwinski heard about the Peace Corps from her college boyfriend, Max Goggin-Kehm, whose own application is pending. Max, in turn, heard about it from his older sister, Molly, a Wisconsin graduate now doing AIDS education in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. And Molly heard from their parents, who met as corps members in Colombia, with her mother, Patricia, fresh from -- guess where -- the University of Wisconsin.
"I think one of the reasons they got married," Max Goggin-Kehm said, "is that being in the Peace Corps is such a different experience it's hard to share it with anyone who didn't do it."
These days, the experience also means embodying the United States at a time when the Iraq invasion and occupation have made it widely reviled abroad. "That hasn't discouraged me," Ms. Czerwinski said. "It's been more of a reason to go. I know that the way Americans are portrayed around the world isn't the way many Americans feel. Because of the war and 9/11, it's a time we should be reaching across borders and showing another face of the American people."
A mile up State Street from the campus, in a capitol building whose scale and grandeur approach Washington's, Gov. James E. Doyle took stock of the experience with the advantage of 36 years of hindsight. The only time he has seen his Tunisian village since leaving in 1969 was as a setting for the film "The English Patient."
"For many years, I thought I'd made no real, lasting difference on the village," he said. "But I knew it had tremendously affected me. We didn't do such great things for the world. It was what the world did for us."