The Peace Corps and Notre Dame
“The Peace Corps offers you a dimension that is lacking in our modern life — a spirit of idealism and adventure,” Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh at a dinner reception for the first group of Peace Corps volunteers trained at Notre Dame, 07/21/1961.
Shortly after his inauguration as United States President in 1961, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps comprises of thousands of young adults, mostly recent college graduates, who volunteer serving underdeveloped countries in various areas including education, health care, recreation, and agriculture. University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh quickly became involved in the formation of the Peace Corps and in establishing a training program at Notre Dame, the first such program sponsored by a university.
Notre Dame identified a number of opportunities in rural Chile for the first group. Before embarking on this adventure in a foreign land, the students went through eight weeks of intensive summer classes at Notre Dame, including language, history, economics, and the culture of Chile. “The mission of the training program in general will be to prepare this group of recent college graduates to play an informed, intelligent, and prudent role in providing the underprivileged members of the society of Chile with the means of their own intellectual improvement, with the means to realize and enjoy their human dignity” [“Exhibit B: Proposal for Training Program,” PNDP 30-Pe-01].
Walter Langford, Notre Dame Professor of Modern Languages, was the field director of the first Peace Corps group to Chile from 1961-1963. Over one hundred people applied to be one of the forty-two volunteers in the first group in 1961. Notre Dame graduates made up the highest concentration with nine participants and Saint Mary’s College came in second with three.
Success in those first years wasn’t guaranteed. Before the first group left, Langford acknowledged that there was the possibility of failure that could be a major set-back for all the parties involved. However, he wrote, “this means only that we have a great responsibility as well as a challenge worthy of our very best and an opportunity for good that is positively awesome” [Notre Dame, Fall 1961]. This weekend Notre Dame will celebrate its long relationship with the Peace Corps. Notre Dame will honor Fr. Hesburgh for his vision and leadership with the program and her alumni who have made a difference in communities around the world.