UC Berkeley renews the call for grads to join the Peace Corps

Mi-Hwa Saunders, a UC Berkeley philosophy major, at the Peace Corps office in Oakland

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, University of California, Berkeley, graduates Paul Vitale and Kathleen Mossman Vitale were headed to New York to be sworn in as Peace Corps trainees. Instead of abandoning their plans amid the nationwide shock, the couple traveled on – ultimately to Ecuador – inspired by Kennedy’s message “to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.”

“He gave his life. So that helped buoy our spirits to carry on,” said Paul Vitale, a retired urban planner who worked for the Peace Corps and USAID.

As the Peace Corps marks its 50th anniversary, UC Berkeley is celebrating its unique place in the U.S. agency’s history as the all-time top producer of volunteers, and is renewing the call for more graduates to serve.

“I am proud that, after 50 years, UC Berkeley remains the top all-time producer of Peace Corps volunteers, and I would like to challenge our graduates to recapture the No. 1 spot in the annual college rankings,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. “Our campus has a proud history of volunteerism and public service, and I know that it will continue keeping the Peace Corps strong for another 50 years.”

In the annual college rankings for Peace Corps volunteers released today (Feb.1, 2011), the campus placed No. 6 among large universities, with 92 volunteers. The University of Colorado (117) and the University of Florida (97) currently hold the first and second spots, with the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington tied at No. 3 with 94 volunteers.

UC Berkeley has consistently placed among the top 10 universities for the number of alumni in the Peace Corps and ranked No. 1 in 1984. Since 1961, more than 3,400 UC Berkeley alumni have served terms with the Peace Corps. As yet, no other university has surpassed the 3,000-volunteer mark.

Peace Corps volunteer on house he built

“The Peace Corps and UC Berkeley share a commitment to fostering the next generation of Peace Corps volunteers and service-minded Americans,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “I thank the more than 3,400 UC Berkeley alumni who have honored the Peace Corps with their service, and welcome future Cal graduates who are inspired by the Peace Corps’ goal of world peace and friendship.”

“Cal Renews the Call” is the theme of UC Berkeley’s homage to the Peace Corps at 50 and will be echoed at various events this spring semester. On Feb. 26, an all-day symposium will be held at the campus’s International House to explore the impact, relevance and future of the Peace Corps. Among the speakers will be C.D. Glin, the Peace Corps’ director of intergovernmental affairs. An evening reception for hundreds of Bay Area returned Peace Corps volunteers will cap the daylong conference.

On April 16, Cal Day, the annual campus open house that draws some 40,000 visitors, the Peace Corps and public service will be the overarching theme of the day. At a public event on Cal Day, Deputy Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet will recognize UC Berkeley’s historic role in the organization. She also plans to chat via Skype with UC Berkeley grads who are currently serving in the Peace Corps.

Kathleen & Paul Vitale: Peace Corps, Ecuador, 1963-65 (3:38 min.)

Among them will be Christine Russell, who is serving in the Dominican Republic. She graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in history, and is working on an eco-tourism project in the town of Bajabonico Arriba. As a student at Los Altos High School, Russell recalls being the least adventurous of her peers. But she said UC Berkeley inspired her to spread her wings and explore new career paths, including a “Cal in the Capital” internship in Washington, D.C.

“I grew so much at Berkeley. It really changed me,” she said.

Russell, 23, is in the “diagnostic” phase of her service, which includes interviewing 100 families in her village to learn how they live and what they need. Peace Corps volunteers typically spend three months training and an additional two years serving overseas. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old. Most Peace Corps volunteers from UC Berkeley have been assigned to the areas of teaching English, health and nutrition, economic and community development, computer technology, agriculture and forestry.

Peter Ross: Peace Corps, India, 1963-65 (4:56 min.)

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 through an executive order signed by President Kennedy. A year later, Kennedy spoke to a crowd of more than 80,000 at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium about the need to get developing countries “on the road to genuine national independence.” Sargent Shriver, who died last month at age 95, was the first director of the Peace Corps and its driving force, many say.

“In creating the Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy inspired our generation.  But it took Shriver’s unorthodox, positivist leadership to translate that inspiration into reality,” said George Scharffenberger, special assistant for international development policy and practice in UC Berkeley’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. Scharffenberger served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal from 1972 to 1975 and was the country director for Gambia from 1980 to 1983.

Today, UC Berkeley is home to a lively community of returned Peace Corps volunteers whose e-mail signatures often refer to the country they worked and the years they served. Famous UC Berkeley Peace Corps alumni include Robert Haas, chairman of Levi Strauss (Ivory Coast 1964-66) and Congressman John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek (Ethiopia 1966-68.)

As for graduating students bound for the Peace Corps, Mi-Hwa Saunders, 21, is a philosophy senior and an intern in the Peace Corps’ San Francisco Regional Recruitment Office in Oakland. She’s on track to teach English for the Peace Corps, but does not yet know where she’ll be sent or when.

“It’s an ineffably exciting feeling to know that I have the opportunity go overseas and change people’s lives,” Saunders said.

The Vitale family in Ecuador

That’s how the Vitales felt when they embarked on their first Peace Corps mission in 1963. The Peace Corps was brand new back then, and still a work in progress. After Kennedy’s assassination, the Vitales were whisked away to the tropical rainforests of Puerto Rico for outward bound training and cut off from the outside world.

“We were kind of a test case. We didn’t know what to expect,” said Mossman Vitale, who produces video documentaries about indigenous textiles for the couple’s nonprofit company, “Endangered Threads.”

After more Peace Corps training at the University of Denver – where they were asked to kill a chicken in front of a psychologist – and in San Antonio, Texas, they were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers at Houston Airport and boarded a Pan American-Grace Airways flight to Quito, Ecuador.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, Mossman Vitale taught the locals art history, among other subjects, and how to advocate for their rights. Paul Vitale used his urban planning expertise for infrastructure and community development. Today, the Vallejo, Calif., couple believes joining the Peace Corps was the best decision they ever made. In all, they spent seven years in Ecuador, and adopted two of their three children there.

“The Peace Corps gave us the challenge to live overseas, and we just ate it up,” said Mossman Vitale. “We loved it.”