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Week of 19 March 1999

Vol. II, No. 27

Feature Article

The Peace Corps

BU leads New England in volunteers

By Eric McHenry

When some people hear that Earl Yates works for the Peace Corps, they start treating him like a time traveler.

"I'm always surprised to meet people who say, 'Oh, Peace Corps. Is that still around?' " says Yates, who was named the Corps' regional director for Africa last November. "It's strange. Peace Corps has been in existence for 38 years now and has served in 134 countries around the world. Yet people ask me that question all the time."

The Peace Corps, Yates assures them, is not only alive but thriving, with more than 6,500 volunteers in 80 countries. BU, he says, can claim a share of the credit for that vitality. It produces more volunteers than any other New England college or university and ranks in the top 25 contributors to the Corps nationwide. On Friday, March 19, Yates will visit the University to meet with faculty members and administrators, including President Jon Westling, as part of a weekend of activities designed to help spread the Peace Corps message.

"It requires a continuing effort to inform those communities that we have established relationships with, such as the Boston University community, about the Peace Corps of today," Yates says. "We want to keep schools apprised of the areas in which we're now operating, both geographically and programmatically. We want to let them know what skill areas are most in demand these days, and which of those are hardest to fill. And we want to keep before them the importance of making their students aware of the opportunities that Peace Corps provides."

Established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps is an international service organization that recruits volunteers, most of whom are young, college-educated Americans, to help promote higher standards of living in developing nations. Although this has been its steadfast objective for nearly four decades, the Corps has adapted to meet the changing needs of the populations it serves. In addition to such traditional points of emphasis as education and agricultural development, the Corps now deploys volunteers with training in HIV and AIDS awareness, small- and medium-enterprise development, environmental protection, and natural resource conservation.

Earl Yates

The Corps is also responsive to the world's changing political climate, Yates says. It relies upon the invitation of governments to establish outposts in new countries. A global trend toward political liberalization has given volunteers entrée into nations that were completely closed off when the Corps was founded.

"There has been an increase in participatory democracy worldwide," says Yates, who served as country director for South Africa before taking his current post. "South Africa is a great example. Russia is another. Back in 1961, it was not anticipated that Peace Corps would operate in these countries."

By the same token, the Corps is vigilant where its volunteers' safety is concerned. In the nations that most need assistance, Yates says, political stability is often a temporary condition. The Corps, he laments, recently had to withdraw entirely from Ethiopia because of dangers posed to volunteers by the country's ongoing war with Eritrea.

Also on Yates' docket for March 19 is a visit to Symphony Hall, where the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston will premiere "The Voice of Peace," an oratorio by Dan Welcher commemorating President Kennedy's establishment of the Peace Corps. Scored for orchestra, chorus, and solo cello, and featuring spoken narrative with excerpts from Kennedy's speeches and favorite poems, the oratorio is the first original piece commissioned by the Handel and Haydn Society in over 20 years.

Yates will also attend a March 19 orientation and send-off for new volunteers bound for Senegal. Steffen Cambon (CAS'93), one such volunteer, says he plans to spend his two years of service doing agricultural work.

"When I was in high school, my first job was at one of the largest chicken farms in Connecticut. I never thought I'd use those so-to-speak 'skills' again," says Cambon, who is fluent in four languages and conversational in a fifth. "It's funny that that experience of 13 years ago contributed to me getting into this program."

Cambon will fly to Dakar, Senegal's capital, on March 20. From there he will travel about an hour inland, to Thies, for three months of rigorous training.

"I'm apprehensive," he says. "But it's only two years. When you're 20 or 21 and you join the Peace Corps, two years might seem like a huge commitment. But it doesn't to me. I'm 28. I can remember what I was doing two years ago, and it doesn't seem like that much time. I feel that at my age I have a real advantage in joining the Peace Corps."

For more information about the Peace Corps, visit its Web site at www.peacecorps.gov, or call the Boston Regional Office at 800-424-8580, ext. 1.