August 15, 2018 | ° F

Peace Corps alumnus looks back on time at U.

Photo by Ramon Dompor |

The first Peace Corps volunteers lived at Hegeman Hall on the College Avenue campus during their training session the summer of 1961.

Seventy-one-year-old Byron Hopewell first stepped on campus 49 years ago, but he did not arrive as a student or faculty member.

Instead, he came as one of many men in the summer of 1961 who were to take part in the first Peace Corps training session in the United States.

For 12 weeks, Hopewell's group, known as Colombia I, prepared themselves at the University for two years of service in Colombia by learning different aspects of the country's way of life as well as American government.

"We studied Latin American and Colombian history and culture, community organization and development, Spanish [and] American democracy, with one lecture on Communism," Hopewell said.

Various documents from Hopewell's notebooks that summer show lessons that covered topics such as the economic development of Colombia and the importance of coffee as an export, taught by former University economics Professor James Street.

His notes also show lessons on U.S. foreign policy as well as pragmatism in American culture.

Aside from these classes, the trainees also had a physical education program where they learned to play soccer, Hopewell said.

In addition to good health and academic knowledge, practical lessons were part of their curriculum.

"We were judged on our ability to adjust to new circumstances, learn enough Spanish to communicate effectively and demonstrate some degree of positive interpersonal relations," Hopewell said.

At the end of their three months at the University, the trainees spent several weeks in Colombia at an agricultural training institute followed by a week of leave.

"Our group was invited to the White House, where we met President [John F.] Kennedy and Vice President [Lyndon B.] Johnson the day before leaving from New York City for a flight to Bogota," Hopewell said.

The volunteers lived in Hegeman Hall on the College Avenue campus while they attended classes in a number of lecture halls, he said.

"We were an all-male group and found girlfriends among the summer students, drank at the local taverns, went into New York City on weekends," Hopewell said. "Some, if they lived fairly close, went home on those weekends that were free, often taking other volunteers with them."

Although Hopewell arrived in a group of more than 80 volunteers, not all of them were sent out, according to an Aug. 7, 1961 article of the Summer Times, an old summer session paper at the University.

"About 20 of those who arrived at the beginning were ‘deselected' during or at the end of training," Hopewell said.

Only 62 men were sent out to Colombia to work, said Nicole Pride, University Media Relations public relations specialist.

Those who met the Peace Corps selection committee's standards would be used in Washington, D.C., for service, according to the article.

Despite their curriculum, the volunteers had their own feedback about the program and decided to write a letter to then Director of the Peace Corps Robert Sargent Shriver that invited him to visit the group at the University.

"Keep in mind that we were being trained to be community organizers and activists and so it was quite natural that we, as a group, wanted to make certain that our training was relevant," Hopewell said. "When some of us determined that some changes needed to be made, we went to the top to get some action."

A committee was formed to discuss training issues with the training administration, which Hopewell served on as a clerk.

Though the trainees found the program reasonably good, they felt there was something missing.

"When the volunteers arrived at Rutgers, there was a general feeling of dedication, enthusiasm and challenge," according to a draft of the letter. "In the course of the program, much of this feeling has been lost."

They attributed this to a lack of stimulation throughout the program, according to the draft.

The system seemed to reward those who played by the rules or who competently carried out orders, according to the draft. While they acknowledge this can be effective, it does not foster individual initiative.

"[The Peace Corps'] aim is to foster dedication to an ideal which transcends any administrative setup; an aim which requires the individual to take initiative and to be creative," according to the draft.

They instead suggested that volunteers should be urged to take part in decision-making processes by making suggestions, according to the draft. They also suggested that the administration and faculty of the training program should try to achieve a unanimous decision with volunteers when possible.

"These volunteers are not just employees. If they are treated as such, they can be expected to respond as such," according to the draft.

At a vote of 23 to 15, the committee decided to send the letter on July 18, 1961, and they received a response back from journalist Bill Moyers, who was involved with the Peace Corps during its early days, Hopewell said.

The effects of their suggestions to the program are unknown.

Despite the criticisms found in the draft, Hopewell still has a very positive outlook on the organization and took many things away from his experience in Colombia.

"It is often said that the Peace Corps does more for the volunteer than it does for the country being helped and this is probably true," Hopewell said.

His group was assigned to work with the Colombian Community Action Agency, which was recently formed at the time to stimulate democratic action in rural areas by forming local committees, or juntas, that could legally contract or seek help from government and other agencies, Hopewell said.

They also worked with the National Federation of Coffee Growers, community action promoters and home extension agents to help organize the juntas that then carry out community projects like schools, roads or aqueducts, he said.

"The impact of our work on the overall economic development of a country, including Colombia, would be difficult to measure, but each one of us could point to several instances where we changed the lives of individual Colombians for the better — even in some cases saving a life by helping get a person to a hospital," Hopewell said.

More than half of Hopewell's colleagues are expected to visit the site of their former training program for a two-day celebration of the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary on Nov. 4 and 5 at the University, Pride said.

"Rutgers maintains its association with the Peace Corps," she said "According to Peace Corps Regional Manager Vinny Wickes, Rutgers students and alumni make up one of the largest groups of volunteers."

Since the start of the organization, 584 University alumni have served as volunteers, Pride said.

Fellow volunteer, John Pearson was a rural primary school teacher in Sarawak, Malaysia, from 1968 to 1969, and said he took a lot more away from his experience than he gave.

"To say it was an eye-opening life-changing experience … is sort of stating the obvious," Pearson said. "To live with people in a very different climate, a very different cultural context just makes you realize there's a big world out there and not everybody lives and works and thinks the way we do."

For a volunteer, the work with the Peace Corps was a life-changing or directing experience, Hopewell said. Many used their skills to help with their careers.

"In my own case, the [Peace Corps] experience no doubt led to my marrying a citizen of Mexico," he said.

Hopewell currently resides in Arlington, Va., and in December, will celebrate 45 years of marriage with his wife, Luz Hopewell, director for the Office of International Trade at the Small Business Administration. They have four children and five grandchildren.

He donated his notebook this past summer and other training materials from 1961 to the University's archives.

"We were all very ordinary Americans getting ready to do what many thought was an extraordinary job," Hopewell said.

Kristine Rosette Enerio

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Targum.