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FEATURES  

Interview with Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams: First Published on May 2010 by FrontLines
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Jun 8, 2010, 17:16
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New Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, a former senior official at USAID, sat down on April 7 in his Washington headquarters office with FrontLines editor Ben Barber to discuss his plans for the future and the USAID-Peace Corps relationship.

Q: What are your priorities as director of the Peace Corps? What would you like to accomplish in the next few years?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is a wonderful time for the Peace Corps. The president has issued a call to service to Americans, and the Peace Corps is a part of that. He’s asked us to build the Peace Corps.

And Americans are responding. Applications are up. We’ve got 15,000 applications for about 4,000 positions, so we have the demand. Americans want to serve. And Congress has been very supportive. We have strong, bipartisan support on the Hill.

I have three areas that I’m focusing on as my priorities.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams

First of all, we’re going to expand the number of countries where we currently operate. We just announced this past year we are returning to Sierra Leone and Indonesia.

And almost every week, I have either meetings or letters from our ambassadors in various countries, or the ambassadors of host countries, asking us to either enter for the first time or expand our programs in the country or reenter a country.

And there are many countries where we expand existing programs such as TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language]; education, which remains our number-one sector; and health, including HIV/ AIDS and malaria awareness and prevention.

ICT [information and communications technology] is also growing; and small business development and agricultural development are other key sectors.

Q: How many volunteers do you have today?

WILLIAMS: 7700.

Q: Wasn’t it once up as high as 15,000?

WILLIAMS: That’s right. In the Kennedy/Shriver era. We’d like to attain that if we continue to receive resources.

Growth is my first priority. The second is innovation. The Peace Corps is about to celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2011. I now have the chance to take a look at all of our operations across the board—in headquarters, in the field—to see how we can innovate, reform, improve our processes and our operations.

Q: What are the main goals of the Peace Corps?

WILLIAMS: Our goals are: number one, provide Americans to countries that want trained personnel to assist them in development projects; two, give the people of those countries a better understanding of America, to see the true face of America, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, working with them at the grassroots and community level; and three, to bring that rich, varied experience back home to America and enrich our society and give Americans a broader perspective on the world. We’ve got about 200,000 alumni—returned Peace Corps volunteers—who are leaders in every sector in America. We have six returned Peace Corps volunteers in the Congress. We have many returned Peace Corps volunteers who are staff in the Congress. We have leaders in government, in public health, higher education, and business. There’s a chance to really engage with that community.

Q: Do many Peace Corps volunteers lean towards a development career at USAID or at other agencies?

WILLIAMS: That’s a great question. After I was sworn in, I went to see the Peace Corps in action, right now in 2010, in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Thailand. Many of the senior officials at the embassy are returned Peace Corps volunteers.

And in the USAID mission, many, many people are former Peace Corps volunteers or staff. Then, when you talk to the host governments, many of the ministers have been positively impacted by Peace Corps volunteers in the past, at a very early age in some cases; teachers that they encountered, or mentors, coaches, et cetera. So they have a very positive view of the Peace Corps.

Then, when you go out to the field and look at projects in any given country and you look at the leading NGOs—World Vision, Care, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Mercy Corps—many of their project leaders are returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Q: What do you look for in volunteers— what age group, expertise? Generalists or farmers and engineers?

WILLIAMS: Enthusiasm and a willingness to serve. That’s at the top of my list. Age has no bearing on it whatsoever. Our oldest volunteer is 85 years old. She’s a health care worker in rural Morocco.

The vast majority tends to be in their mid to late 20s—generalists, liberal arts graduates. That’s still the backbone of the Peace Corps. We also want the engineers, the health care specialists. But we take a liberal arts graduate and we train them for health projects or to teach English as a second language or to work in the ICT areas. We also train in 250 languages.

Q: Do volunteers still go out to the villages for long stays?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. Often, they live in remote areas.

Q: I recall that some years ago they often stayed in the capital cities.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that that model probably was not unusual in the ’60s and the ’70s. But now volunteers work all over the country, and they really focus on grassroots, village- and community-level work. We want our volunteers to be in the field, shoulder to shoulder with people working on projects that are going to become sustainable at the village level. Now, there are some advisors in secondary cities and capitals, but Peace Corps volunteers work primarily at the grassroots/village level. If you look at our HIV/AIDS programs, our malaria programs, that’s where you’ll find a lot of our volunteers in those sectors, working in towns and villages.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your own Peace Corps experience?

WILLIAMS: I served in the Dominican Republic from ’67 to ’70. I was a teacher trainer my first two years. I worked in a program that provided a high school education to rural schoolteachers. The average one had a sixth-grade education.

I rode on horseback and walked and rode a motorcycle to visit them and I lived with them in the villages where they lived during the week. So I spent the week out in the countryside with them and then I spent the weekends teaching. These teachers were probably 20 years older than I was. I was only 20 at the time. They gave up their weekends and their entire summer for two years to enroll and be trained in this course. This was a tremendous sacrifice for them and their families. And it was a marvelous experience for me. I had a chance to work with some very dedicated people, and I like to think I made a contribution to improving their lives and the lives of children they taught.

After two years, I was asked to go to the Catholic university in the Dominican Republic—the first private university in the nation—to create a teaching program for their senior students in the education department.

 

Q: You didn’t have a graduate degree in teaching?


WILLIAMS:
No. The Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to research American teacher training programs and I created a course for the university working with the faculty there. Pretty amazing to get that kind of leadership opportunity at 22 years of age.


And I was very fortunate because I met my wife in the Dominican Republic, which changed my life forever. Eventually, after I got my master’s degree in business, I chose to join USAID and had a marvelous 22-year career there.

 

Q: How do you see the USAID and the Peace Corps relationship in Washington and the field?


WILLIAMS:
It is absolutely a wonderful relationship. Everywhere I go in the world, I visit with the USAID mission directors, many of whom are my former colleagues and friends, and we have a very strong partnership between our Peace Corps country directors and the USAID mission.


And this is all encouraged and supported by all of the ambassadors where we have Peace Corps programs. A lot of these folks are former Peace Corps volunteers. We are looking for ways to strengthen and broaden that relationship.


I have had some preliminary talks with [USAID] Administrator [Rajiv] Shah about ways that we can strengthen and build the Peace Corps/USAID relationship.


We’re part of the interagency Global Health Initiative he’s leading and we interact with USAID on PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] and the Food Security Initiative. We also receive significant funds from USAID’s special project assistance grants supporting grassroots projects.

 

Q: How do you see the young people today? Do you think that there’s a rebirth of selfless international effort to improve the world?


WILLIAMS:
I think you really captured it in that expression: a selfless interest in improving the world. We see that wherever we go, volunteers who are doing just absolutely marvelous things at the grassroots level, working shoulder to shoulder with people in the developing world to make a difference in their lives.


And, of course, what you receive as a Peace Corps volunteer is enormous. I mean, as I did in my own personal experience in the Peace Corps, it changed my life forever, put me on the path to something I’d never even envisioned before growing up in Chicago, and so it happens every day to thousands of Americans around the world.


And I guess the last thing I would say is that from my standpoint, as you can imagine, to be asked by the president to serve as the new director of the Peace Corps, for me as a returned Peace Corps volunteer, to come back to an organization that has done so much for me in my life is pretty extraordinary, and it’s a privilege to serve at the Peace Corps.

                                      = END =

FrontLines is a news magazine published by the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs of the U.S. Agency for International Development


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