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Peace Work

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By Scott Fields

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:30 AM


"The Peace Corps helped put this university on the map," contends Vice Chancellor Emeritus Elwin Svenson '48, M.A. '50, Ed.D. '54, who helped manage the Peace Corps training program on campus 50 years ago.

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Photo provided by Kami Amestoy Lee '68, a health-education volunteer with the Peace Corps from 2006 to 2010.

March 2 through 5, Westwood returns the favor, as UCLA and the Corps celebrate their long partnership with an on-campus tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.

UCLA trained more than 2,000 of the famous Kennedy-era program's early volunteers. Probably more volunteers trained at UCLA than at any other site, representing 10 percent of the total number of trainees during the 1960s, when training for the Peace Corps shifted to international locations.

"Our first two programs were in Nigeria," says Svenson, charged with hiring instructors who primarily came from the UCLA faculty. "We didn't have any material on the Nigerian languages, but we had a faculty member who was writing a textbook on the subject, so he served as the language teacher."

The Peace Corps at 50

Video courtesy of UCLA Broadcast Studio

UCLA sent staff members to support the volunteers once they were placed. "We had people in Nigeria during their civil war and we were sufficiently well-respected to have full fluidity," Svenson recalls. "Crossing the border between warring states, we'd be escorted by one side into no-man's land, and then escorted out by the other."

Other early training centered on volunteers headed for Ethiopia, a program UCLA took over in the second year of training. "At the time, [UCLA] Professor Wolf Leslau had a master's program in the Amharic language that had three students," Svenson remembers. "We asked him if he'd like to have 350."

Leslau developed an entirely new curriculum, ultimately receiving a U.S. government grant to complete a textbook and Amharic dictionary "that became the definitive book in the field," Svenson explains.

Alice Gosak Gary M.A. '70 was one of the early volunteers who took Leslau's Amharic classes. "We had African history, education and language lectures," she says. "Even going to L.A. felt like foreign travel in those days. I'd never been west of the Mississippi.

"It was the 'Ask not what your country can do for you' generation," Gary continues. "You really felt part of something bigger than yourself. Serving in the Peace Corps attached me to the people of Ethiopia for life."

She adds that she often ships books to the people of Harar, the city where she was stationed.

The March event will bring volunteers who trained on campus together with UCLA faculty who served in the Peace Corps. Returning volunteers who are currently faculty or staff members include Robert Ericksen, Alan Fiske, Larry Grobel '68, Deborah Glik, Lori Vogelgesang Ph.D. '00, Peter Narins and Robert Spich.

"I largely credit my Peace Corps experience as the motivating force in my choosing a career in international education," says Ericksen, now director of the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars at UCLA.

Among a host of diverse activities planned for the event is a panel discussion about the Peace Corps legacy featuring Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, MSNBC personality Chris Matthews, who was a volunteer himself in Swaziland from 1968 to 1970, and Frank Mankiewicz '47, the veteran political operator and former president of NPR who served as the director of the Peace Corps in Latin America.

For much more about UCLA and the Peace Corps, plus details on all of this weekend's special events, visit Peace Corps' 50th anniversary celebration.

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