Interview with Peace Corps Director and UW Alum Aaron S. Williams

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams

By Kerry G. Hill, Division of International Studies

 “We’re really happy to be here,” says Aaron S. Williams, arriving at Memorial Union for an interview. “This is really a wonderful opportunity for me to come back home and have a chance to interact with our wonderful Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.”

Williams, director of the Peace Corps, came to Madison to participate in “Peace Corps and Africa: 50 Years,” a conference organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison African Studies Program and Peace Corps at UW-Madison to honor a half century of Volunteer service and assess the impact of the Peace Corps in Africa and beyond.

When Williams became director of the Peace Corps on August 24, 2009, he returned to an organization that has played a pivotal role in his life. After earning his bachelor’s degree in geography/education at Chicago State University, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1967 to 1970 in the Dominican Republic, in a training program for rural school teachers and as a professor of teaching methods at the Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra.

Upon completing his service, he remained with the Peace Corps as minority recruitment coordinator and project evaluation officer in the agency’s Chicago regional office. In that role, Williams made contacts that led him to the MBA program in international business and marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Williams has fond recollections of his time on campus, particularly of Eagle Heights, where he lived: “It was an international festival. It was really a great place.”

He also mentioned two individuals who had a significant impact on him then: Isadore V. Fine, professor of business (marketing), and Lewis H. Ritcherson, assistant football coach, who became assistant to the chancellor for affirmative action.

The Peace Corps and UW-Madison together provided Williams with a strong launch pad for a distinguished career in the design and implementation of worldwide assistance programs, working in the government, business, and non-profit sectors.

As mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he led a billion-dollar foreign assistance program in South Africa during President Nelson Mandela’s administration. He also has extensive experience in the strategic design and management of assistance programs in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Williams, the fourth Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to lead the organization, says he remains in touch with a circle of friends who share both Peace Corps and UW-Madison connections. Their special bond brings them together at least once a year.

Photos by Pauline Zhu, Division of International Studies

In a one-on-one interview, Williams talks about his perspective on the Peace Corps at age 50, the people who volunteer, and his vision for the future.

Question: In terms of mission and activities, how has the Peace Corps changed over the past 50 years?

Williams: One of the really wonderful things about the Peace Corps is that we have continued to pursue the same mission—to promote world peace and friendship—for 50 years, the exact same mission that Sargent Shriver [the first director] created for the Peace Corps. This mission continues to be the focus for the Peace Corps and continues to be important in how we conduct our activities.

We still have the same three objectives.

First, we provide trained Americans, men and women, to work on priority projects in countries where they need assistance.

The second objective is to give the people of the countries where we serve an opportunity to see the true face of America, with all of our diversity, and to work shoulder to shoulder with the average American. In many of the villages and communities where we work, a Peace Corps Volunteer might be the only American they ever see in their entire life. It carries awesome responsibility.

The third goal, our famous third goal, is to bring back the rich, diverse experiences of our Peace Corps Volunteers to make a difference in American society. Peace Corps Volunteers are leaders in all aspects of our society, whether it’s in education, health, government, or the nonprofit world.

Very few federal agencies can say that they’ve been pursuing the same mission and objectives for 50 years.

Q: Have you observed any differences between the Peace Corps Volunteers of your era and those of today?

Williams: Between the Volunteers of my era, the late ‘60s and early 70s, and the volunteers of today, I think there’s something that’s very similar.

I have traveled now to nine countries in the year and a half since I have been director of the Peace Corps, and seen the enthusiasm, the dedication, the compassion, and the extraordinary linguistic skills. Many volunteers in many parts of the world have learned to speak more than one language (in addition to English) in order to be effective in their communities and villages. Their abilities to adapt to new cultures, their cross-cultural skills are really quite amazing.

The one thing that is different between the volunteers of previous eras and the volunteers of today is, of course, the use of technology. When I was a volunteer, there were no cell phones and no email. So once you arrived in your country, you were pretty much cut off from your family and friends for a significant period of time.

I called home to Chicago, I think, once a year. And that was only from the Dominican Republic.

Nowadays, volunteers have access to cell phones. The vast majority has cell phones, and they use them not just to stay in touch with their families and friends, but in innovative ways to make a difference in communities where they actually work.

Q: Have the types of needs and projects changed over the years?

Williams: Countries still face poverty. They still have lack of sufficient food in many parts of the world. We now have new challenges, like climate change, that we didn’t encounter years ago. Food security also is a major new concern. You also have the rise of new diseases that we must combat, HIV/AIDS, and the resurgence of malaria.

Peace Corps Volunteers are engaged in all of those sectors. We remain relevant in terms of battling both the ongoing traditional causes of poverty and the new threats to the world population.

Q: How have the challenges facing the Peace Corps changed?

Williams: The world has changed, and how we engage in the world has changed. We, of course, focus as much as possible on ensuring the health, safety, and security of our Volunteers.

We continue to use a model that allows our Volunteers to be integrated into their communities. The communities, of course, still welcome our Volunteers worldwide. [Later, Williams mentioned that more countries and communities want more Peace Corps Volunteers than the agency has the resources to provide. “We can never fulfill the demand for Peace Corps,” he said.]

There’s a need to monitor carefully the changes that occur in countries. Look, for example, at what’s occurring now in North Africa and the Middle East. Fortunately, we don’t have Volunteers in any of those countries that have been hit by societal changes and turmoil. But we maintain a careful watch on all political trends in all countries where we have Volunteers.

Q: Have you seen any changes in what inspires people to join the Peace Corps?

Williams: We typically have about 15,000 applicants for about 4,000 positions. So Americans are certainly willing to serve. In recent years, President Obama’s call to service has inspired a number of Americans to consider service, whether that’s domestic service through the Corporation for National and Community Service or whether it’s through the Peace Corps.

Students on campuses like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is a global institution, believe that it’s important to have an understanding of the rest of the world. In order to be effective in your careers, you need be become a global citizen. The Peace Corps provides an excellent bridge for Americans to actually develop skills and learn about different societies, and learn foreign languages so they can, in fact, become global citizens. I think that’s a major factor.

Overall, I think it’s the willingness and interest in serving and making a difference.

Q: What qualities make the University of Wisconsin-Madison a top Peace Corps institution?

Williams: First of all, because it is a global institution, a global university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a diverse student body, an outstanding faculty, and

Director Aaron Williams presents a plaque to Vice Provost for Globalization Gilles Bousquet
Director Aaron Williams presents a plaque to Gilles Bousquet, vice provost for globalization and dean of the Division of International Studies, in thanks for support of the Peace Corps.

recruits some of the top students in the nation to come here. This university is interested in providing international opportunities for its students. All of that continues to make the University of Wisconsin-Madison an important partner for the Peace Corps.

The African Studies Program here is a prime example. Just the fact that you have this expertise in a very important part of the world, where still 30 percent of our Volunteers serve, provides tremendous incentive for the Peace Corps to continue to strengthen our partnership.

Q: On a personal level, how did your Peace Corps experience affect your life?

Williams: The Peace Corps for me meant everything. I grew up in a working class family on the south side of Chicago and I didn’t really have a vision of the rest of the world.

I joined the Peace Corps and it opened doors I didn’t even know existed. It allowed me to develop a career over the past 30 years, in government as a Foreign Service officer working in the field of international development, as a business executive, and as an executive in the nonprofit world.

The Peace Corps totally transformed my life, as it has for so many people who served in the Peace Corps.

Q: What has been the impact of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as a group in the United States?

Williams: Let’s look at education. You have outstanding educators in our country who are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who make a difference every day.

One principal example is Donna Shalala, who used to be chancellor of this university. She was in one of the early groups that went to Iran [1962-64, where she helped to construct an agricultural college]. She’s now president of the University of Miami and a former cabinet secretary, Secretary of Health and Human Services. She’s made a difference her entire life, and she started out in the Peace Corps.

No matter where you go in government, whether it’s local government, state government, or national government, you have many, many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers serving in leadership roles, either as elected officials or staff.

Right now, we have four Returned Peace Corps Volunteers serving as members of the U.S. Congress. Most recently, one famous Volunteer just stepped down; Senator Chris Dodd, who had a long, distinguished career in the Senate, is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Throughout the global health industry, whether it’s in consulting firms or research and development or health care providers, you will find a large number of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. They got their start and understanding of the issues that face the world in terms of global health through the Peace Corps.

The same thing continues in business. Many leading business figures are former Peace Corps Volunteers. For example, Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix, is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. [Hastings, who taught math in Swaziland 1983-85, credits part of his entrepreneurial spirit to his Peace Corps experience.]

Certainly in the field of international development the people who go to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and individuals who are at the forefront of working with the leading international non-governmental organizations in development, you’ll find large percentages of former Peace Corps Volunteers.

Director Williams with Alhaji umar N'jai (from Sierra Leone) and Linda Vakunta (from Cameroon), both hosts of the "Talking Peace Corps" Ceremony

The same thing goes for our diplomatic corps. It’s not unusual now when I travel to a country to see our program to find that our U.S. ambassador is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. When we went into Indonesia and Sierra Leone last year, two of our new countries, our ambassadors were instrumental in helping us. In both cases, they were Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

So I see on a broad scale, the impact that 200,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are having on American society.

Q: What do you tell individuals, who are considering the Peace Corps, about the longer-term benefits of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Williams: If you believe that it’s important to be a global citizen in the 21st century, the Peace Corps provides the perfect bridge to becoming a global citizen. It allows you to take a two-year period of time to learn about another society, about another culture, and to work shoulder to shoulder, side by side with people of different cultures, different societies, and different nations.

It allows you to learn a foreign language, to actually walk in the other person’s shoes in their own language. It gives you the ability—in many cases, at a very early age—to develop leadership skills that will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

It’s an investment in yourself. And what you receive in return is enormous.

Q: What is your vision for the future of the Peace Corps?

Williams: I would like to see another 50 years of strong Peace Corps growth. One of the ways that we will continue to do that is to build strong partnerships with organizations that are also global.

For example, we recently signed a partnership with the Special Olympics. That’s going to give us an opportunity to work closely with a global organization that makes a difference in the lives of young people around the world.

We are going to continue to look for partnerships with international organizations that are involved in development, and to enhance our partnerships with other U.S. agencies that are involved in development, such as USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and, obviously, the State Department.

We’re going to work with United Nations agencies to build up partnerships around the world, in the developing world.

And we are going to continue working with the private sector to provide additional training and good jobs for Peace Corps Volunteers, wherever they might serve.

[Williams mentioned later that the Peace Corps now trains Volunteers in-country. Before, Volunteers spent a couple of months on university campuses to prepare for their service.]

I think this is a win-win in terms of partnerships, because it will give Volunteers excellent training, excellent jobs, and opportunities to develop skills that will make a difference in their future careers and their future lives. While at the same time, during their service, they will focus on solving some of the tough problems that developing countries face.

And, of course, we need to partner with great universities, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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