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Peace Corps Director: ‘Volunteers Give Meaning to World’

From left: SPA dean William LeoGrande; Peace Corps director Aaron Williams; Peggy Focarino; Kenneth Baker; Roger W. Jones selection committee chair David Walker; and Robert Tobias, director, Key Executive Leadership Program (Photo: Jeff Watts)

In 1967—seven years after Senator John Kennedy asked a question that inspired a generation—Aaron Williams answered the call to service.

“For me, the Peace Corps changed everything; it opened the door to the rest of my life,” said Williams who, 39 years after returning from his service in the Dominican Republic became the organization’s 18th director. “The Peace Corps provides volunteers with the experience of a lifetime—and with life-defining leadership experience.”

Williams, only the fourth director to have served in the Corps, delivered his keynote remarks before an auditorium of more than 100 career public servants at the 33rd annual Roger W. Jones Award ceremony, October 25. Sponsored by the School of Public Affairs, the Roger Jones Award honors excellence in executive leadership.

October 14 marked the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 2 a.m. speech to 5,000 students at the University of Michigan in which he challenged students to give two years of their lives to help people in developing countries. The address spawned the Peace Corps.

More than 200,000 Americans have since volunteered in 139 countries, “living side-by-side with locals and working shoulder-to-shoulder” on a variety of issues, including education, HIV/AIDS, and the environment.

And while Williams joked that “we only got 1,500 students out of bed” for the commemoration of Kennedy’s remarks on the steps of the Michigan Union earlier this month, Corps volunteers “continue to give shape and meaning to the world.” This year alone, more than 8,000 volunteers are working in 77 countries,from Albania to Zambia.

AU is among the top producers of Peace Corps volunteers. This year, the university ranks second among medium-sized colleges and universities—those with 5,000 to 15,000 undergrads—with the most Peace Corps volunteers, climbing one spot from last year. Fifty-one AU alumni are currently volunteering around the globe. AU also ranks fifth among graduate schools, with 14 volunteers.

“Our volunteers are our best asset,” said Williams of the Corps’ ranks, who are fluent in more than 250 languages and range from fresh college grads to senior citizens.

Williams recalled a recent meeting with the Corps’ oldest volunteer, 86-year-old Muriel Johnston, a health education worker in Morocco. A grandmother of two, Johnston, who blogs about her work in the African nation, told Williams: “I have the rest of my life to relax.”

Like Muriel, “I hope that our vision remains forever young,” he said.

“The journey is not complete. As long as there is suffering and strife in the world, our work is not done,” Williams continued. “Through unity and teamwork we can achieve magnificent things together.”

The event at which Williams spoke was also a celebration of the achievements of the Roger Jones Award winners: Kenneth Baker, principal assistant deputy administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and Peggy Focarino, deputy commissioner for patents, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Baker has led every major nonproliferation and arms control initiative at NNSA and its predecessors since 1994. He’s created and expanded two dozen programs to upgrade nuclear security around the globe, including a radiation detection program that prevents dangerous radiological materials from entering the United States and being used to build “dirty bombs.”

Focarino has led a variety of e-commerce initiatives at USPTO, including revamping the electronic filing system, which saved the agency more than $12 million. Her efforts to forge new cooperative agreements with intellectual property offices abroad also increased the efficiency of the patent search process for inventions filed in the United States and overseas.