Imagine a job that offered opportunities on the edge of innovation -- from installing solar-powered computer labs to helping communities switch to renewable energy; from linking local entrepreneurs to global markets to developing cellphone text messaging services to answer questions about HIV.
Sound like something you might find at MIT or in Silicon Valley? Guess again. This is the Peace Corps.
Established in 1961 by then-President John F. Kennedy with a mission to promote world peace and friendship, the Peace Corps preserves its founders' practical idealism, while responding to modern realities. Today's innovative, tech-savvy Peace Corps volunteers are America's grassroots ambassadors around the world, helping local people take charge of their own futures in a spirit of solidarity and support.
Yet, it may be when volunteers come home that the Peace Corps' power is greatest. As we like to say, "What happens in Botswana doesn't stay in Botswana: The impact of Peace Corps service lasts a lifetime." Living and working in villages and communities far from home, volunteers learn to see the world in new ways and to communicate in new languages, to adapt to new environments, manage teams, troubleshoot obstacles and organize large-scale initiatives. Put simply, the Peace Corps is a life-defining leadership experience and launching pad for a 21st century career.
Increasingly, our returned volunteers are social entrepreneurs like Siiri Morley, who, after serving in Lesotho, founded a scalable, fair-trade candle-making social venture empowering women in war-torn regions. For her efforts, Siiri was recently named to Fast Company's "League of Extraordinary Women."
They're advocates like Mark Seaman, a volunteer in Niger who now directs development and communications efforts for Philadelphia FIGHT, southeastern Pennsylvania's largest HIV/AIDS service organization and a center for cutting-edge research on potential vaccines and treatments.
They're innovative business leaders like Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who taught math in rural Swaziland. In his words, "Once you have hitchhiked across Africa with 10 bucks in your pocket, starting a business doesn't seem too intimidating."
They're high-flying explorers like Joe Acaba, who volunteered in the Dominican Republic, and went on to become the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to serve as a NASA astronaut; as he says, "Being in Peace Corps, you learn to adapt, to communicate effectively, and to be creative -- all 21st century skills that really got me to where I am today."
A significant number of international development and foreign policy specialists started out as Peace Corps volunteers. I proudly count myself among them, as did Ambassador Chris Stevens, who credited his Peace Corps experience in Morocco with sparking his public service career.
And while Peace Corps volunteers have always shared their experience with family, friends and the public, both during and after their service abroad, today they're employing modern technology and tools to continue their work in new ways.
Last year, for example, the Peace Corps launched the Innovation Challenge, in collaboration with Random Hacks of Kindness, a semiannual global hackathon where civic-minded coders develop technology-based solutions to real-world problems. One returned volunteer helped develop a low-tech app that enables transparent financial accountability by allowing local project volunteers -- without Internet access -- to text expenses directly to a Google spreadsheet, which can be edited, shared and published to a website.
These examples all illustrate what President Kennedy anticipated half a century ago: Volunteers come home "better able to assume the responsibilities of American citizenship and with greater understanding of our global responsibilities." Today, the qualities Peace Corps service cultivates -- adaptability, open-mindedness, eagerness to contribute and connect -- are more essential than ever to maintain the United States' global leadership in our interdependent world.
These qualities are vital to national security, as we strive to better understand the perspectives and motivations of other nations and peoples. They're key for global competitiveness, at a time when exports support 9.7 million well-paying U.S. jobs, and as global employers seek workers who can excel in multi-cultural teams. They enhance our ability to tackle challenges that know no borders, such as climate change and pandemic disease. They reinforce the can-do, innovative spirit at the core of our national character.
As much as the Peace Corps is a high-yield investment in American "soft power" abroad, it's also a meaningful contribution to a thriving country here at home.
So this Peace Corps Week, as we mark the 52nd anniversary of our agency's founding, the Peace Corps is not only celebrating our past, but looking forward to our future. As the more than 210,000 current and returned volunteers can affirm, the Peace Corps changes lives -- not just the lives of people abroad, but the lives of the Americans who serve; and, in so doing, it can lift and strengthen the life of our nation itself.