Improving the Peace Corps for the next generation

Robert J. Englund, MD, lives in Munsonville.

In March of 2020, COVID disrupted the entire planet, and the Peace Corps, established by John Kennedy in 1961, was forced to abruptly withdraw nearly 7,000 volunteers from 70 countries.

After this two-year hiatus, volunteers have already returned to Zambia and to the Dominican Republic, and hundreds of volunteers will be returning to more than twenty other countries in the next few months.

In November of 1963, I was a senior in college without a clue as to what I wanted to do educationally or professionally. It was a very uncomfortable time for me, especially with a draft card in my wallet. However, on the day after JFK’s assassination, I made an immediate decision to apply for John Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Two months later I was accepted for a PC training program at Columbia University training teachers for Nigeria.

My two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria were exceedingly rewarding and worthwhile. My assignment as a biology and chemistry teacher at a Nigerian Secondary School fit my college background in biology. In addition, I spent three of my school vacations as a volunteer lab technician at a rural Nigerian hospital focusing on parasitology. Working closely with two Danish missionary physicians, I developed an interest in medicine as a possible career.

Later, I attended medical school at the University of Vermont, and following a three-year residency program, I accepted a position as a primary care physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock/Keene (now Dartmouth Health). Since retirement a decade ago, I have worked with many non-profit organizations, and now I am an elected Cheshire County Commissioner. The Peace Corps prepared me for these life experiences.

March 1st marked the anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Since that time, 253,0000 volunteers have served in 141 countries.

Yet more needs to be done. The first step toward completing an overhaul of Peace Corps operations involves authorizing new legislation. The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (HR 1456) includes provisions to improve in-service and post-service health care; extend the critical mission of a Sexual Assault Advisory Council; enhance several volunteer financial benefits; expedite applications for volunteers wishing to return to service after COVID brought them home, and raise opportunities and respect for Peace Corps service.

As volunteers return to the field, battling COVID will be a significant part of their work. In October 2021 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Acting Director Carol Spahn said, “The Peace Corps is committed to playing a critical role in global COVID-19 response and recovery by returning volunteers to work in partnership with underserved communities around the world. ”

Climate change is also a priority. “There’s no time to waste,” Spahn said in a recent interview. She continues, “Countries where volunteers serve are feeling some of the most damaging effects of climate change, and Peace Corps will be partnering with communities across sectors.”

While it has been more than twenty years since Congress reauthorized the original Peace Corps Act, last September Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee came together to pass HR 1456 by a vote of 44 to 4. The rest of Congress should follow their lead .

Now is the time for action as volunteers again prepare for service. You can help by urging NH Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas to pass the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (HR1456) in the House as soon as possible. Also, encourage New Hampshire’s Sens. Shaheen and Hassan to support this legislation as well.

Volunteers work in health care, agriculture, education, environmental issues and social services and their efforts have touched millions of people. As one of 600 teachers in Nigeria in the mid-sixties, I can report the graduation rate of Nigerian high school students increased significantly, with a doubling of the high-school graduates going on to college.

I am grateful for my Peace Corps experience for pointing me in the direction of my professional career in medicine as well as providing me the foundation for my ongoing community and government service.


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