A Peace of the Action

Kennedy-created corps still going strong at 50

President Shalala, Peace Corps director Aaron Williams, Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen (Venezuela, 1966-68), and Educate Tomorrow founder and UM student Virginia Emmons McNaught (Niger, 2000-02).


Jennifer Grimm’s Peace Corps assignment included getting fishermen to stop blowing up fish.

“They didn’t understand the importance of coral reefs and other vital ecosystems, and how dynamite would harm them,” said Grimm, M.A. ’08, who worked with government officials and local residents in the Philippines from 2003 to 2005 to devise alternatives to dynamite fishing.

Moderator Helen Aguirre Ferré

“I loved it!” she said of the experience. “I didn’t want to come home.”

Now an environmental coordinator at Florida International University, Grimm was one of around 100 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who commemorated the agency’s 50th anniversary at a University of Miami-hosted event in September on the Coral Gables campus.

Spanning five decades of service, many other Peace Corps ’Canes came to celebrate, from Greg Zell, B.S. ’62, J.D. ’68, who taught science at a girls’ school in Lagos, Nigeria, before returning to Miami for law school, to Felicia Casanova, M.A. ’09, who had just returned from a two-year stint working on economic development, family planning, and civic engagement initiatives in rural Guatemala.

“In my community the women were very timid when I got there,” recalled Casanova. “But now they speak in public and express their views about issues affecting them and their families. They have gratitude for what I taught them, and I have learned from them. This is the cultural exchange that is the purpose of the Peace Corps.”

Since its founding at John F. Kennedy’s behest in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 cultural ambassadors like Casanova into 139 countries, seeing a spike in applications the last few years.

Regularly a top producer of Peace Corps talent, UM currently has 23 alumni serving and nearly 400 returned volunteers. The School of Education now offers a Peace Corps Master’s Inter-national Program, which blends a year of coursework on campus with a 27-month placement abroad.

September’s event featured the “Making a Difference” career fair and a returned volunteer panel discussion with Peace Corps director Aaron S. Williams and UM President Donna E. Shalala, among others.

Confirmed as the agency’s director in 2009, Williams volunteered in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970. It was the “best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “There’s no way I’d have the skills to run an international organization without Peace Corps experience. That’s where you learn how to be a diplomat.”

Shalala said that “Kennedy inspiring a generation to serve and a chance for an extraordinary adventure” led her to volunteer in Iran from 1962 to 1964. “It was a lesson in listening to other people’s priorities. Those of us who served really have a feel for the way the people of the world live and what their challenges are, and that never leaves you.”