Oct. 14, 2011
In commemoration of Peace Corps' 50th anniversary, thousands of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) joined the Peace Corps staff and community members in Washington, D.C. to honor the contributions of more than 200,000 Americans who have served as Peace Corps volunteers.
John Lorentz, professor emeritus and associate provost for International Education at Shawnee State University, was in one of the first groups of volunteers in the Peace Corps in 1961, and spent two years in Iran where he met his wife.
"It was not what we did, it was the fact that we were there as volunteers – not paid – sacrificing ourselves for two years," Lorentz said. "It was a transformative experience. Our lives were never the same."
From Wednesday, Sept. 21 to Sunday, Sept. 25, the Peace Corps, the National Peace Corps Association and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C., among many different NPCA groups collectively held more than 200 events across Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary.
Sunday morning, a gathering was held at the Arlington Cemetery for a memorial service for the 236 volunteers who died while serving in the Peace Corps. Kennedy family members attended the memorial service.
One thing that moved Lorentz was the impact that the University of Michigan students had in influencing the creation of the Peace Corps.
One student at the time gathered 1,000 signatures to give to Kennedy when he visited the university on the campaign trail. The signatures were from students who opted to volunteer for the Peace Corps before it was ever started.
Kennedy, thinking that he would stop by and say a few words to a few students at the student union, arrived at 2 a.m. to find 3,000 students gathered on campus to see him.
"That's what pushed Kennedy into founding the Peace Corps," Lorentz said. "It was one of the first things he did when he was elected. That student spoke at the celebration. It literally brought tears to my eyes."
Lorentz taught English as a second language while in the Peace Corps but that wasn't the most important thing that he did. While he was there, he started a library, created a soccer field, and was instrumental in starting an intramural program.
"The most important thing was the people-to-people exchange," Lorentz said. "Their whole perception of people from the United States was that of mostly Hollywood characters. You really get to know the culture and the people, and that is where the value is."