The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps warranted celebration on two fronts, Ambassador Robert Gelbard ’64 told an audience on campus in March for just such a celebration. The Peace Corps spawned a new social phenomenon—a whole class of national service organizations, several of which were represented at the events—and it helped establish a perception of America abroad as a country unique for its volunteer ethos, commitment to service, culture of philanthropy. “That is something that’s still unique to America,” he said.
More than 100 students, community members, and former Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year, and Teach for America alumni gathered March 10 for a dinner and panel discussion organized by the Goldfarb Center and featuring all of those programs. Gelbard, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer before a distinguished career in foreign service, moderated the panel.
“I was a Colby student when the Peace Corps was founded; that’s how old I am,” he said. During training, at Brandeis, Gelbard met a Jesuit priest who spoke Quechua, an indigenous language of the Andes, and became enchanted with the language. Placed in Bolivia, he became “the first blanco since the revolution” to visit particular villages high in the Andes.
The people there didn’t even have a monetary economy, he said. “These were people who’d never seen aid, never heard about aid, had no idea. They were tremendously self-reliant.” But they knew what they wanted: a school to teach the children Spanish so the village could no longer be cheated when dealing with outsiders, public health so they could avoid cholera, and irrigation.
Twenty-two years after his volunteer hitch at 14,000 feet, Gelbard returned to the country as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia—the first time a Peace Corps volunteer went back to their country of service as ambassador, he said. He credited the Peace Corps with directing him toward public service and the foreign service, and he credited his liberal arts education for preparing him to be of help as a just-graduated volunteer.
“I was a poor kid from Brooklyn. What did I know?” he said. “But I knew how to find things out for them. I had learned how to learn when I was at Colby, and that put me in a very good position to help them to solve problems that they had, which led to some significant changes in their lives.” he said.
The panel he moderated (Goldfarb Center audio podcast is online) included: Mollie Puskar ’08, who talked about the enormous opportunities, responsibilities, and ultimately impact she has experienced working with and for City Year; Mary Kathryn Brennan ’02, who was an AmeriCorps member in the Southeast and who now is an attorney for Legal Services for the Elderly in southern Maine; Roger Schulman ’92, whose Teach for America placement in Baltimore has led to a career in nonprofit education organizations, currently as CEO of the Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore; and Ellen Whitesides ’03, who talked about her service in the Peace Corps in South Africa, but who also taught in Teach for America in New Orleans.
At the dinner Gelbard praised the College for its role in America’s culture of national service, including the Peace Corps and Teach for America. “On a per student basis,” he said, “Colby is one of the leading schools, perhaps the leading school in the United States,” he said.