Rep. Sam Farr poses with students whom he taught during his time volunteering with the Peace Corps in Colombia from 1964 to 1966.
The agency has a $400 million budget, and to Farr, that’s not acceptable. The government must not only keep the Peace Corps running but expand it, he said.
“It’s the best training anybody can have heading into the rest of their lives,” he said.
Rep. Mike Honda El Salvador, 1965-67 Honda likes to say that he joined the Peace Corps because he needed to grow up.
As an Asian-American coming of age in the middle of the civil rights movement, he didn’t know where he fit in. He took a break from his studies at San Jose State University to join the Peace Corps.
“I realized that I wasn’t ready for the world,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to graduate. I had a lot of issues around self-esteem and did a lot of questioning for a young person growing up Asian in this country.”
On his first day in El Salvador, the villagers came to meet the van that he was dropped off in, but they ran right past him.
“I think they were expecting a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy,” Honda said.
He learned how important education was to the villagers. He remembers one student who used to walk three kilometers uphill to go to school. The boy went home each day during lunchtime, helping his parents work the land before walking back to school.
Honda recommended the boy for a scholarship in the United States. The boy ended up returning to El Salvador after only nine months because he was homesick.
But that exposure made a difference in the child’s life. Last year, Honda got a letter from the student, now an engineer in his home country.
“The thought that he could ever become an engineer based on where he came from was absolutely absurd, but it happened,” Honda said.
Rep. Tom Petri Somalia, 1966-67 Petri didn’t expect to get into the Peace Corps for one reason: He applied but never took the volunteer test required of those who want to join the agency.
Despite that, he got a packet in the mail congratulating him on being accepted into the agency’s first class of volunteers in 1962. (Years later, he learned that the agency was so eager to get started that they accepted anyone they thought would do well on the exam, regardless of whether they actually took the test.)
Petri decided to attend Harvard Law School and turned down the program, saying that if they needed a lawyer in three years, they should give him a call.
After he completed law school, Petri finally joined the Peace Corps, working as a lawyer in Somalia. He spent much of his time translating the country’s laws into English, at one point visiting a government office daily because they would only give him one law a day.
The experience taught Petri to appreciate the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy.
“You realize how fortunate we are with our Constitution and principles,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity others don’t have in other places. When you see that, you stop taking it for granted.”