The director of the United States Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, encouraged students Thursday night to broaden their horizons and engage in public service.
Williams, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, said coming to Cornell to talk with the students was important to him because of the significant role the University has played in foreign service with the Peace Corps.
Cornell has the third largest number of undergraduate alumni volunteers in the organization, with 46 people currently serving. Ithaca itself also has deep roots to Peace Corps service, with more per capita volunteers than anywhere else in the country –– an average of almost 13 volunteers per 100,000 residents.
“Cornell is a historic and important part of involvement in the Peace Corps. Cornell believes in and contributes to international development with an intense dedication seen in the staff and students,” Williams said.
The Peace Corps receives about 15,000 applications for 4,000 openings each year. With such intense competition, Williams said the most important thing an applicant can have is “dedication to serve.”
The organization has seen remarkable change and growth in its nearly 50 years of existence. This year is especially promising, Williams said, due to Congress’ decision to award the Peace Corps with its largest budget in history.
Williams attributes his own time in the Peace Corps — three years in the Dominican Republic — to much of his growth as a leader.
“You receive 15 times more than you give. The Peace Corps changed my life in ways I cannot have imagined,” he said.
Many of the audience members shared the same sentiments.
Nancy Maas, a resident of Ithaca, was a Peace Corps volunteer from Bolivia from 1964 to 1966. She said it is important to consider that the Peace Corps is invited into countries for specific purposes.
“The fact that so many countries want and need us is remarkable,” Maas said. “You have to be flexible — change happens all the time — but I’m excited for these students. An experience like this will open up so many doors.”
Williams said the Peace Corps teaches its volunteers countless skills, including education in a new language, of which they teach 250.
And the Peace Corps is growing, Williams said. The organization recently announced new agreements with Columbia, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. They will add to the Peace Corps’ current 77 host countries, in which 7,671 volunteers serve.
“This is a group of people you can be proud to serve with. They have a global view of life,” Williams said of the current volunteers all over the world. Volunteers can be anyone over the age of 18. The oldest is an 85-year-old women currently serving in Morocco.
Many Cornell students in the audience were inspired by Williams’ enthusiasm and personal stories of his time in the Dominican Republic.
Audrey Gyr ’11 said she has been interested in joining the Peace Corps for some time.
“It’s an invaluable opportunity to use everything you learned at Cornell. It almost seems selfish because returnees tell us you get more than you can possibly give,” Gyr said.
Williams emphasized Thursday night that return volunteers should share their knowledge with the rest of America.
With this year marking the Peace Corps’ 50-year anniversary, commitment to growth is more important than ever, Williams said.
“I want this year to be a platform not for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘good job Peace Corps,’ but for us to thank everyone who supports what we do. We can say, ‘America, look what you have accomplished’,” said Williams.
The biggest challenge to the Peace Corps, however, is continuing to get the resources needed to grow in the future, Williams said. Consistent funding, government compliance and dedicated volunteers will help make new and expanding programs operate to the best of their ability, he said.
Williams concluded his speech by encouraging audience members to look into public service as a way of deepening “human connections.”
“Today I ask you: what do you imagine you can achieve?” Williams said.