Federal News Service
October 14, 2004 Thursday
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB NEWSMAKER LUNCHEON WITH GADDI VASQUEZ, DIRECTOR,
TOPIC: PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS SERVING IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES
MODERATOR: SHEILA CHERRY, PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
LOCATION: THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MS. CHERRY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the National Press Club.
My name is Sheila Cherry, and I’m a reporter for the Bureau of
National Affairs and president of the National Press Club.
I’d like to welcome club members and their guests in the audience
today, as well as those of you watching on C-SPAN or listening to
this program on National Public Radio. I’d like to ask you to please
hold your applause during the speech so that we have as much time for
as many questions as possible.
And for our broadcast audience, I’d like to explain that if you do
hear applause, it may — I emphasize may — be from the guests and
members of the general public who attend our luncheons, and not
necessarily from the working press.
The video archive of today’s luncheon is provided by ConnectLive and
is available to members only through the National Press Club website
at For more information about joining the club, please
contact us at 202-662-7511. Press Club members also may access
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purchase transcripts, audio and video tapes by calling 1-888-343-
Before introducing our head table, I would like to remind our members
of some upcoming speakers. On Friday, October 15th, Ernest Borgnine,
the actor, will be our guest. On Friday, October — on Monday, I
believe that’s October 18th, Senator George Allen of Virginia, who is
chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Senator
Corzine of New Jersey, who is chair of the Democratic Senatorial
Campaign Committee, will be here to discuss the upcoming senatorial
elections. On Friday, October 22nd, Congressman Tom Reynolds of New
York, chair of the Republican Congressional Committee, and
Congressman Bob Matsui of California, chair of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, will discuss the upcoming
If you have questions for our speaker, please write them on the cards
provided at your table and pass them up to me. And I will ask as many
as time permits.
I’d now like to introduce our head table guests, and I’d like to ask
them to stand briefly when their names are called. Please hold your
applause until all of our head table guests have been introduced.
Raghubir Goyal of Asia Today International and India Globe; Valentine
Wilber, an NPC member and a returned Peace Corps volunteer —
(laughter); Dena Bunis, Washington bureau chief for the Orange
County, California, Register; Hoda Tawfik, foreign correspondent for
Al Ahram newspaper; Daniel Nassif, managing editor for Radio Sawa;
Bill McCarren, president of U.S. Newswire and chairman of the
National Press Club Speakers Committee. Skipping over our speaker
momentarily; Ken Dalecki, deputy managing editor of the Kiplinger
Washington Editors, and the Speakers Committee member who organized
today’s luncheon. Thank you, Ken. Myron Belkind (sp), a new member of
the National Press Club who just returned to the U.S. after working
abroad for 40 years for the Associated Press; Hanan El-Badry of
Egyptian Television; and Tobin Beck, executive editor of United Press
Our speaker today is the 16th director of the Peace Corps, an
organization admired not only at home, but also around the world. The
Senate unanimously confirmed Gaddi Vasquez in January 2002 after his
nomination by President Bush to be the first Hispanic American to
serve as Peace Corps director. Unlike some of this predecessors,
Director Vasquez is not one of the more than 170,000 Americans who
have been Peace Corps volunteers. But he has spent many years in
public service, beginning as a police officer in Orange County,
California. Director Vasquez was elected to the Orange County Board
of Supervisors and served from 1988 to 1995. He had the dubious
distinction of being chairman of the board when the county was forced
to declare bankruptcy.
We’re sure that’s not going to happen in your new — (laughter).
Prior to his appointment as Peace Corps director, he was a division
vice president for public affairs of the Southern California Edison
Company. Director Vasquez is a native of Carrizo Springs, Texas. He
is a graduate of the University of Redlands, and has been a trustee
professor at Chapman University.
The Peace Corps has come a long way from its relatively modest
beginnings under an executive order signed by President Kennedy in
1961. Today, more than 7,500 volunteers serve in more than 70
countries, from Mexico to the newly independent states of the former
In addition, volunteers face new cultural and security challenges,
particularly in the growing number of predominantly Muslim countries
being served by the Peace Corps. And that is one of the topics that
Director Vasquez will address today. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my
great honor to present to the National Press Club the director of the
Peace Corps, Gaddi Vasquez. (Applause.
MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you very much. Let me begin by expressing my deep
appreciation for the opportunity to be with you today, and I want to
thank Sheila for that kind introduction. I want to thank Ken for his
helping in — arrange and organizing this event. And I’ve come to
understand that he has very close and personal affiliation with the
Peace Corps, in that his wife served in the Peace Corps and is a
returned Peace Corps volunteer. And Bill, thank you very much for
your leadership as the chairman of the Speakers Committee.
I have a great honor and a great privilege of serving as director of
the Peace Corps at a very historic time. It is a time of growth, it
is a time of opportunity, and it is a time of change.
But I also want to point out that today is a special day in the
history of the Peace Corps, because exactly 44 years ago today, then-
Senator John F. Kennedy, while campaigning to become president of the
United States, stood on the student union building steps of the
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and he spoke out and shared a
vision for a new government agency. And he said the following, and I
quote: “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to
spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you
are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives
traveling around the world; on your willingness to do that, not
merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your
willingness to contribute part of your life to this country?”
He went on to say, “I think the answer will depend on whether a free
society can compete. I think it can, and I think Americans are
willing to contribute, but the effort must be far greater than we
have ever made in the past.”
And it was from these remarks that President — then-Senator Kennedy
and then President Kennedy articulated this vision further and issued
a call to Americans to serve in the Peace Corps. And on signing the
executive order on March 1 of 1961 — in March of 1961, President
Kennedy said and again I quote: “Life in the Peace Corps will not be
easy.” And I think there are returned Peace Corps volunteers in the
room right now who might be able to validate that, and I salute you
for your service.
But he went on to say, “There will be no salary, and allowances will
be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic
needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the
nationals of the country in which they are stationed, doing the same
work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”
And course some early skeptics doubted that this program would ever
really launch and that it would ever really take off.
Yet, ladies and gentlemen, through 43 years the Peace Corps has
become a way for the world to see Americans and for Americans to see
This idea, this vision that President Kennedy articulated, 43 years
later has produced over 170,000 volunteers who have served in 135
countries. Today the Peace Corps is one of the best known faces of
America for millions of people around the world. This is why former
Ambassador William C. Harrop, the ambassador to the Philippines,
said, “There is no — repeat no — U.S. overseas program that yields
as much return for the taxpayer’s dollar as the Peace Corps,” end
As director I’ve had the privilege of meeting with leaders of
different nations, and time and time again, I am reminded of the
experiences, the contributions and the meaningful impact that
volunteers have made throughout their service. The Peace Corps today
is experiencing a time of opportunity, and just as in President
Kennedy’s time Americans responded to his call to service, Americans
are responding today.
For it was President Bush who has been a strong supporter of the
Peace Corps, who during a State of the Union — or after the State of
the Union address, at Ohio State University commencement, reiterated
a call to service that he had made during the State of the Union. And
he said, and I quote, “A life of service isn’t always easy. It
involves sacrifices. And I understand many other things will lay
claim to your time and to your attention” — as he was speaking to
students. “In serving, however, you will give help and hope to
others.” You will — “your own life will gain greater purpose and
deeper meaning. You will show your love and allegiance to the United
States, which remains what it has always been, the citadel of
freedom, a land of mercy, the last best hope of men on Earth.”
Did Americans respond to that call? Well, I’m pleased to tell you
that they did. Because we saw shortly thereafter a 131 percent
increase in the inquiries that we had on our website. But more
importantly, applications increased significantly. And today I’m
pleased to tell you that the Peace Corps is enjoying the highest
level of volunteers in service in 28 years — over 7,500 Americans,
who have said, I’m willing to leave the United States and go overseas
to work in a host country for two years and engage in this noble and
incredible work that so many have experienced over the years.
Volunteers have left a powerful legacy in many countries. President
Toledo of Peru, who’s currently the president of that country, was
taught by Peace Corps volunteers as a young man, and he remained
friends with the volunteers who worked in his community. And they
assisted him to go on to college in California, and later he would be
elected president of his country. And one of the first things that he
did upon assuming the office of the presidency of his country was to
invite the Peace Corps to return to Peru after a 20- plus-year
absence from that country. And he has time and time again remarked on
how Peace Corps volunteers, Americans, made an impact on his life
that has lasted a lifetime.
Even as the Peace Corps goes forward, it adapts to the times. But its
foundation remains remarkably unchanged, and the principal mission of
the Peace Corps is to promote global peace and friendship. And I
would submit that if there was ever a time that we needed to advance
the ideal of peace and friendship, promote cross-cultural
understanding of people throughout the world, and promoting an
understanding of Americans, that time is now.
Volunteers of all walks of life have gone on to great careers after
Peace Corps service: members of Congress; governors like Governor Jim
Doyle of Wisconsin, Governor Robert Taft of Ohio; Senator Chris Dodd
of Connecticut; and House members Chris Shays, Congressman Thomas
Petri, Jim Walsh, Congressman Mike Honda and Congressman Sam Farr of
California. Currently returned Peace Corps volunteers serve as
ambassadors in countries ranging from Poland to South Africa to
Bolivia. And according to the Foreign Service Institute, returned
Peace Corps volunteers comprise 25 percent of U.S. Foreign Service
officers. So this is one of the dividends that perhaps is not
mentioned often, but is also a dividend for America because we have
produced some tremendously successful foreign service officers, and
men and women who are doing great work overseas. And of course, in
the ranks of journalists we have people like Chris Matthews, who
served in Swaziland; Alberto Ibarguen, who is the publisher of the
Miami Herald; Al Kamen of The Washington Post; Maureen Orth, who has
served in — as a volunteer in Colombia.
So, ladies and gentlemen, these are good times for the Peace Corps.
Americans are working, and we are now in 71 countries today with over
7,500 volunteers. And to provide some basics, volunteers are young;
they are seniors. They are single; they are married. They are
technical school or college graduates. They are African- Americans,
Asian-Americans, Hispanic Americans. The opportunities abound, and
Americans are responding. We have seen an increase in the number of
African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic Americans who are
applying to service in the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps has evolved to new programs like information
technology, business development, community development, and one of
the most important programs that we have undertaken in many years,
HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. Places like Botswana and
Swaziland, where the work of the volunteers is dedicated entirely to
HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
And a historic moment was achieved just a few days ago when the Peace
Corps began its first program ever in Mexico. Interesting about
Mexico so that you understand that volunteers are not just young
people is that the average age of the volunteer going into Mexico in
the first group is 45 years of age. Degrees range from doctorates in
environmental science and engineering to MBAs to bachelor’s in civil
So the fact of the matter is is that the Peace Corps is diversifying,
it is changing, and we are being responsive to the conditions in the
world today. We have now expanded our efforts in new countries. We’ve
expanded in the areas of agriculture, in community development, in
girls’ youth groups and programs.
And this afternoon I’d like to very briefly share with you some of
the programs that we have embarked on in Muslim countries, programs
that have been expanded.
And I can point to Mohammed A. Shekaki (sp), a Muslim American
education volunteer, who served in the Muslim area of Cameroon from
2001 to 2002. And he said and I quote: “People in my community were
surprised to learn I am an American and a Muslim. Some people would
actually say, ‘No, really, where are you from? You’re not American.'”
“Some of the young Muslim boys there identified with me,” he said.
“And when I sat down and spoke to them, I could really see that they
listened. So that was something that I found pretty special, and I’m
glad that it worked out the way that it did.”
I had the personal experience in Casablanca, when I was visiting
Morocco, as I was leaving a mosque, and a young — Moroccan young man
stopped me, and he said, “Where are you from?”
I said, “I’m from the United States.”
And he said, “Tell me about life in the United States. What’s it like
in your country?”
I described our country and the life and housing, and he wanted to
know a lot of things. In mid-conversation, he stopped and he said to
me, “You don’t look like an American.” And I said, “What do you mean,
I don’t look like an American? Why do you say I don’t look like an
American?” He said, “The color of your skin. You don’t look like an
American.” And I said, “Well, my grandparents came from Mexico to the
United States, pursuing dreams and opportunities.”
And it gave me the opportunity to put a face on America that he did
not understand, because there is this perception — and I don’t want
to sound like I’m preaching to the choir, but there is a perception
that Americans look a certain way, and when they don’t look a certain
way, you probably are not an American.
But volunteers are changing that, because volunteers come from all
backgrounds, all ethnic origins. And I’m pleased to tell you that the
new group that went to Mexico recently includes a volunteer who was
born in Iran, who was born in Armenia, who was born in the Czech
Republic, and was born in India.
And I was fascinated with the idea that here are individuals who were
born in other countries, who are now American citizens, going
overseas to be Peace Corps volunteers, to put a face on America that
is unique and different in the 21st century.
People like Mohammed (sp), who I mentioned, eradicate and help
eradicate the ignorance that feeds negativity and has had such
profound implications. But the world needs to see the face of America
as it really is, and in my view, there is no better organization to
do that than the Peace Corps.
We’ve steadily increased volunteer numbers where Americans are
serving. Currently 18 of our 71 countries are — our programs are in
predominantly Muslim countries, and these programs account for about
20 percent of our volunteers.
Last year we opened a new program in Azerbaijan, and we returned to
Morocco, to Chad, Jordan and Albania, all predominantly Muslim
countries. These countries, I believe, want to better understand
America, and volunteers want to better understand their host
countries and the people of those host countries.
Volunteers in Islamic countries work in all six Peace Corps sectors,
implementing innovative ideas like showing farmers in Senegal how to
maximize their cashew yields, demonstrating computer skills to
students in Bangladesh, and creating after-school programs in the
Gambia that combine sports with information, and preventing also,
through education and prevention programs, the spread of HIV.
To provide a better picture of the importance of the Peace Corps, I’d
like to mention just a couple of profiles of volunteers.
Amy Petriss (sp), who is assigned to a mountainous area of Morocco.
She’s assisting her community with the planting of some 3,500 olive
trees, paid for with funds from USAID and the local High Atlas
Foundation. And the aim is to improve income generation and create
jobs within four to six years, to enhance natural environment as
trees prevent soil erosion and desertification, and to promote
In Uzbekistan, Daniel Ben (sp) helped the community of Ishtiksan (ph)
build a new school. And after submitting a grant proposal, the
community was awarded a grant in excess of $70,000 to build a new
school. The New Lyceum was opened on September 1, 2004, and compared
to the old school, the current school has increased capacity in many
things — heat, electricity, blackboards, large classrooms and enough
desks and chairs for all of the students.
The girls youth group program in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
Peace Corps volunteers, in collaboration with the Ministry of Womens
Affairs, have established girls mentoring centers where young
Mauritanian women and students come together to study for school and
discuss issues of interest. And each year, the Peace Corps hosts a
national annual girls education conference. The program not only
helps to build the young girls’ self-esteem, but also exposes these
young women to female Mauritanian role models working in government,
academia and other sectors. The approach to reaching out to young
women in a culturally appropriate manner has been well received.
Comments and feedback and opportunities remain very, very positive.
I’m often asked, “Are Americans willing to go overseas, given the
turbulent times in which we live?” And I can say with great
confidence that Americans are willing to serve. And today we have a
list of 27 countries that have requested Peace Corps programs where
programs do not exist today. So I like to say that I have supply and
I have demand in the Peace Corps world. What we hope for is
additional funding from Congress to be able to increase the number of
volunteers going forward in the 21st century.
But the reality, and perhaps one of the most important elements of
Peace Corps work is the ability and the opportunity to put a face on
America, to promote and build that cross-cultural understanding that
is so vital in our times. And Americans, young, middle-aged, retired,
older, couples, are prepared and willing to serve.
First Lady Laura Bush said on “The Today Show” in 2002, and I quote,
“I want to urge young people as they graduate from college, or older
people who are in mid-career, to think about joining the Peace Corps
and working in other countries to really help spread how important
all these values are, how important we think” — Americans think —
“the values of life and liberty and human rights are. And that’s
really what a Peace Corps volunteer does, besides helping educate
people,” she said.
As we embark on the 21st century and move forward, the vision of
President John Kennedy was the right one.
When I traveled for the first time as director of the Peace Corps, I
had the task of going to Afghanistan. And I had a meeting with the
Afghan deputy prime minister then and minister for women’s affairs,
Sima Samar, and I was going to talk about the Peace Corps and share
the concept, the vision, the mission of the Peace Corps. And again
mid-conversation she stopped me and she says, “Mr. Director, you
don’t have to tell me about the Peace Corps. It was the Peace Corps
volunteers who taught me English the last time the Peace Corps was
here in Afghanistan.”
This conversation happened just weeks after military action had come
to a halt in Kabul. And that moment reminded me, and I have reflected
on it many, many times, that the work that Peace Corps volunteers
have done over 43 years, both in Muslim and non-Muslim countries, is
a living and a lasting legacy as men and women who have been taught
by volunteers in their childhood, in their youth, have come to
understand Americans a little better, have established friendships,
stronger friendships and alliances, with some who have sustained them
for a lifetime as many volunteers return to their villages and
communities over decades after their service is complete.
So ladies and gentlemen, I will close my remarks by reporting to you
today that the Peace Corps is at a 28-year high in the number of
volunteers who are in service, and we have achieved that for one
reason and one principal reason alone, and that is that Americans
with strong spirits, with a determination and a desire to make a
difference in the world are stepping up and stepping out to put a
face on America.
Martin Luther King once said, and I quote, “Every man must decide
whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the
darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s
most persistent and most urgent question is `What are you doing for
Well, in our time many Americans are asking themselves that question,
and many are answering that question by volunteering to be Peace
Corps volunteers in the 21st century.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MS. CHERRY: The first question of Director Vasquez is, what is the
status of the Peace Corps operations in Russia?
MR. VASQUEZ: Just about two years ago, the program in Russia was
closed. The Russian government communicated its desire to end the
relationship between the government and Peace Corps. And the Peace
Corps — and those of you who have been volunteers and who have
worked at the staff level know that part of the Peace Corps history
has been that volunteers serve in countries where we are invited to
serve, and that countries have the option, as does the Peace Corps,
to cease programs or operations.
And we were requested to close the program, and we complied as per
our agreement with the Russian government.
MS. CHERRY: And this person asks you to tell us what the Peace Corps
is doing in India. Was there any government cooperation on your task?
And they point out that Mr. Carter (sp) was a great Peace Corps
MR. VASQUEZ: We do not have a program in India at the present time.
It is one of the countries that we are looking to, perhaps, in the
future. But at the present time, we do not have a program.
The program in India did have a very rich history in terms of the
numbers of volunteers, which literally numbered in the thousands, who
served in that country. And so we look forward to the possibility of
something in the future. But again, I go back to the issue of funding
as being the principal obstacle to responding to those countries that
have requested programs.
I might add that, of the 27 countries that have requested programs,
about 13 of those countries are Muslim countries. And so we continue
to have great interest across the board.
MS. CHERRY: And about that, this person asks, it seems like you are
saying that there are about 1,500 Peace Corps volunteers in Muslim
countries. What kind of funding increase would you need to triple
that, and how long would it take?
MR. VASQUEZ: We requested $401 million this year from Congress to be
able to embark on an expansion. President Bush a couple of years ago
proposed the doubling of the Peace Corps, from 7 (thousand) to
14,000. That proposal was made. We sought the funding from Congress.
We were not able to achieve full funding. So we have had not to
necessarily scale back, because we’ve increased the number of
volunteers, but we have not been able to grow at the pace or at the
levels that we would like to.
And I believe that Americans have demonstrated a willingness to serve
in the Peace Corps. Our recruiting and our applications, for example,
this year are up, so far this year, 16 percent over last year. So
Americans continue to apply in record numbers. Again, older Americans
are applying in record numbers, couples in the Peace Corps. People of
color are applying and serving in record numbers. And so we have a
very, very significant opportunity, but it has been dollars that have
stood in the way.
We evaluate our resources on a country-by-country basis, and so for
us the opportunity to grow programs in-country is based principally
on program opportunities, the quality of the experience for the
volunteer — and this is for countries across the board — and third
is of course the safety and security component, to ensure that
countries that serve as Peace Corps countries are places where
volunteers can do their work safely and securely and have the
fulfillment of a quality experience.
MS. CHERRY: A high percentage of volunteers in difficult venues, such
as West Africa, fail to complete their training or their two-year
tours. Can’t the Peace Corps do a better job of training to weed out
those who lack the strong commitment needed to serve?
MR. VASQUEZ: The process of selection — the selection process for
Peace Corps volunteers is a very diligent and very thorough process.
It is one that can require — nowadays we strive for about a
six-month window from the time that someone applies to the time that
they’re invited to serve. Volunteers — as opposed to the old
process, which some of you may remember in the audience who served,
where training used to occur here in the United States, that training
is now done in-country overseas so that the trainee has the
opportunity to start experiencing the culture, the language, making
the adjustments. And we strive then to ensure that the volunteer has
the training, the understanding of projects and programming so that
we keep our termination or our early termination rates, as we call
them, to an absolute minimum.
But the fact of the matter is, and to be candid here, is that I tell
trainees and nominees and interested people that the Peace Corps is
an opportunity that requires physical and mental and social agility.
That is to say that if you are an applicant and you are looking for a
cookie-cutter job that’s nicely packaged in a nice box with a little
bow wrapped around it and is waiting for you in your host country,
the Peace Corps is probably not for you, because there are challenges
and there are difficulties. And we do as much as we can to establish
quality programming, quality training, but once you are in the field,
and those who have served know what I’m talking about, you have to
become somewhat self-reliant; you have to be a self-starter; you have
to be willing to take on responsibilities that you may have been
unaccustomed to. But I will tell you that many volunteers have told
me that some of the highest and most significant gratification comes
from some of the toughest countries in the Peace Corps. And
volunteers enjoy that experience and the tough challenges. So it is
an ongoing opportunity that we face of improving our programs and
obviously improving our retention rate.
MS. CHERRY: The Peace Corps has been in some countries for more than
40 years where volunteers still work on providing very basic health
and other services. Is there any feel of frustration at not having
made more progress in overcoming such basic needs in poor countries?
MR. VASQUEZ: I think the Peace Corps volunteer recognizes that once
they have an opportunity to complete their training, they have an
understanding of the country, they have an understanding of (where ?)
the country evolves. And I think that — I sense very little
frustration in the context of the longer look at a country where
we’ve been in for 40 years. I think what volunteers look at is the
immediate opportunity to make an impact, to leave a lasting legacy in
a community, to make a community independent, self-reliant. And
that’s what we strive for is that programs that we undertake are
programs that have sustainability, so once a volunteer completes his
or her service, there is an opportunity for a community to continue
that which was established. And we’ve had great success in that
And we face challenges, but new opportunities. Countries evolve. The
information technology, the evolution of technology has presented new
opportunities for Peace Corps in countries where we’ve been for 40
years, but technology has now evolved to the level in — as an
example, Mauritania, where I witnessed a program that volunteers are
involved in where training — computer training and technology
training is made available to a community that would not have had it
otherwise. And that’s an evolution, notwithstanding the fact that
we’ve been in that country for some time.
MS. CHERRY: What is the Peace Corps doing in the country of Armenia,
which is a Christian country surrounded by Muslim countries?
MR. VASQUEZ: The program in Armenia has been incredibly successful.
It is a program where the country has extended great hospitality.
Volunteers are having great effects in the area of education, in the
area of health education, community development, youth development.
One of the most moving moments that I’ve had as director of the Peace
Corps was visiting a rural radio and television station in the second
largest city in Armenia. And as we were getting ready to leave, the
owner of the station said to — first invited me to stay and have
some refreshments. I was late on schedule but, you know, he was
persistent, and I’m glad he was. And so I sat down and had
refreshments. And he said to me, “When I get enough money, I am going
to build a bust in front of my building in honor of Eric Pacific
“Well, who’s Eric Pacific (sp)?”
He said, “Eric Pacific (sp) is the Peace Corps volunteer who helped
me build this radio and television station. And this station is now
used for education and information for the Armenian people.
And during some of the great earthquakes that have occurred in
Armenia, that have devastated the country, radio has become a vital
way of communicating public information and education.” And he said,
“And it was Eric who helped me put this station together, a bit
primitive, but it worked and it served a positive purpose in the
country and in the community.”
And that is an example of what I talk about legacy, leaving
sustainable development in country, and it has now probably resulted
in perhaps saving lives, enhancing the level of understanding and
education in that country, and Armenia has been a very successful
program for the Peace Corps.
MS. CHERRY: Do Muslim countries that receive Peace Corps assistance
allow Peace Corps staff to wear Western clothing, like shorts, or
jewelry, like crosses if they are Christian, or have Christian or
MR. VASQUEZ: Those are measured on a country-by-country basis. We
rely on our country staff, our country director, to provide guidance
to the volunteers as to the appropriate attire, conduct. But one of
the things that is most important, and it’s fundamental to the Peace
Corps, is that volunteers are encouraged and are tasked with the
following, and that is to respect, to appreciate the culture, the
traditions and the values of the host country.
Former President Mejia of the Dominican Republican once said to me,
“What I really love about the Peace Corps volunteer is that the Peace
Corps volunteers respect my people. They respect our country, our
values and our traditions.” And that is something that we have
observed, sustained, encouraged volunteers to do, because it’s the
right thing to do. It is a positive relationship, it’s a
collaboration, and part of that is the mutual respect that needs to
MS. CHERRY: Two questions. The first is, is the Peace Corps doing
enough to ensure the safety and security of volunteers, and is there
any more that can be done? And also, if a prospective volunteer is
worried about terrorism, can they decline to go to a particular
MR. VASQUEZ: We have undertaken some major reforms in the way that we
manage safety and security at the Peace Corps. I suspect that those
of you who served some years ago, if you came back to serve in the
Peace Corps today, you would note the difference. It’s substantial.
It’s significant. But we do so because we believe it is important to
maintain the vigilance of safety and security, whether it’s Guatemala
or it is Belize or it is the Philippines. We have systems, processes
and programs in place and encourage the volunteers to put into
practice a conduct, behavior, personal habits and things in place
where they live, where they work, to ensure that they achieve a safe
and secure experience.
So we do everything that is within our capacity to create optimum
conditions for a volunteer to have a safe and secure experience. And
I think the record of the Peace Corps is quite remarkable when you
consider the number of volunteers who have served over 43 years, the
countries in which they have served. And frankly, I’ve had many a
volunteer who has said to me, “You know, I feel safer in my village
in my country than I do back home in the United States.” And that’s
quite a commentary about the hospitality, but also the environment
and the quality of the host families and countries in which they
We work with placing volunteers so that it is a safe and fulfilling
experience. We work with them when it comes to placement, where their
interests, our interests, our needs, and we try to create — in terms
of the second question about volunteers worried about terrorism, can
they go to a particular country — our placement folks at Peace Corps
work with the applicant to try to find a suitable placement for the
volunteer where issues are raised.
MS. CHERRY: The Peace Corps used to send volunteers to South Korea,
but that country has become so prosperous that they are no longer
needed. How many other countries once served by the Peace Corps are
deemed to no longer require its assistance?
MR. VASQUEZ: It is on a country-by-country basis that we evaluate a
country, both the program effectiveness, the safety and security, the
ability of volunteers to do productive and meaningful work. So we
evaluate countries from time to time to see and put a qualitative
analysis on programs, and then make determinations of where programs
should be sustained, where countries have advanced economically and
otherwise, resulting in perhaps the shifting of resources from one
country to another. That is a process that the Peace Corps has
engineered and has worked with for a number of years, but it’s an
ongoing process. If I understand the question correctly.
And so we continue to evaluate, but we also look at countries, as we
expand, on the basis of where can we be effective. People ask, “Well,
how do you prioritize the countries that request programs?” We look
at a number of areas: program, safety, security, access to health
facilities, support, and infrastructure for the volunteers are all
key components of countries where we work and countries where we
contemplate or consider establishing programs.
MS. CHERRY: This questioner says, “I was an older volunteer,
beginning my service at age 44. I was struck by the youth of many
staff members and felt that this resulted from the five-year rule;
one can only, with some exceptions, work for Peace Corps for that
time period. Does this rule still apply? And what is your opinion of
MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you for that question. (Laughter.) The rule still
does apply. The Peace Corps is unique as a federal agency in that it
has a five-year rule. Your term of service — and there is
opportunity for extensions — but principally, it is five years of
service as a Peace Corps staff person. And it still does apply.
There is increasing discussion, both on the Hill, and I have some
concerns about the five-year rule in that there are upsides and there
are downsides. Perhaps the greatest downside is the loss of
institutional memory and continuity that occurs when you have term
limits, so to speak, on staffers and their tenure at Peace Corps. And
so we are evaluating — and in fact, Congress has authorized the
director of the Peace Corps to grant exemptions from the five-year
rule to positions within the Peace Corps that relate to safety and
security. And the purpose of that and the spirit of that
authorization and that legislation is to give the director of the
Peace Corps the latitude to develop and to retain essential personnel
or positions that are involved in safety and security. So we are
moving to evaluate, to better understand how the five-year rule
serves a positive and sometimes serves in a negative, and we want to
look at that and continue looking at it and expanding some horizons
in that regard.
But the five-year rule still remains, but it’s under study.
MS. CHERRY: What percentage of return Peace Corps volunteers become
teachers? With a growing need for more teachers, isn’t this a key
social benefit for your program?
MR. VASQUEZ: I don’t have a specific percentage or number of return
Peace Corps volunteers who come back and become teachers. With
135,000 — I’m told about 135,000 return Peace Corps volunteers who
are living, we try to do as much as we can to track careers and what
they’re doing in life. But I will tell you that there are states
where having been a Peace Corps teacher counts as experience when
applying for a teaching position. I know in the state of California,
for example, the two years of service as a teacher in Peace Corps
count when you compete for a position out in California. I know
because I sign the letters that validate the service of a teacher in
the Peace Corps.
Teachers have become great recruiters for Peace Corps. There are
many, many school teachers — professors, high school, middle school,
elementary — who talk about their Peace Corps experience, share the
experience in the classroom. And I know because when I travel, and
I’ve been to 35 countries during my tenure, I’ve asked volunteers,
where did you get the Peace Corps bug? And time and time again, the
most frequently mentioned contact is a school teacher in high school
or elementary school who shared the Peace Corps experience — planted
that seed in that child, that young man, young woman’s mind, and once
they completed college resurrected that interest and pursued Peace
Corps service. So teachers are a tremendous asset to our recruitment
MS. CHERRY: Which state or cities produce the most Peace Corp
MR. VASQUEZ: Well, Dena, historically, the state of California. In
fact, I think it’s 23,000 over 43 years. I just was looking at the
chart just a couple of days ago, and California, Texas, New York —
for obvious reasons, states with large populations. But there are
unique places like Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota — small
states that have produced large percentages of Peace Corps
volunteers. And I think the University of Wisconsin continues to be
the number one campus — large campus in the Peace Corps world that
produces the largest number of volunteers. And so they continue to be
the number one campus.
But I will tell you that amongst university and college campuses, it
has become very competitive, because the big schools want to be in
that top 25. Every year we recognize the top 25 big schools who
produce volunteers in the United States, and then the small mid-size
colleges and universities. And the top 25 big schools and
universities have become very, very competitive.
Q This person says, when I applied for Peace Corps in 1988 my
application was held up for quite a few months due to my father’s 36-
year career in the CIA. Do you support such scrutiny, and if so, why?
MR. VASQUEZ: We have always ensured that the Peace Corps maintain its
independence, that we protect any perception or view that the Peace
Corps is involved in any other activities because it is important for
us to maintain the independence of the volunteer and the Peace Corps,
to ensure that our processes are very diligent in evaluating the
suitability, the background, the history, the knowledge of
individuals, men and women who apply for service in the Peace Corps.
It is very, very important for us to do that, and sometimes the
delays can be for a variety of reasons, everything from background to
the inability or tardiness of applicants to provide medical records.
As I look at our medical director here, many, many times volunteers
or applicants complain that “my process is taking too long. Why are
you questioning my background?” Because at the end of the day we want
to have the best and the brightest serving as volunteers in the Peace
Corps, and it requires us to be very, very deliberate, very diligent
in what we do.
But let me just be real clear about something, and that is that the
Peace Corps volunteers who serve in the Peace Corps are there in-
country to train men and women in their host countries, to promote
cross-cultural understanding, to put a face on America, and to learn
about their host country and bring that experience home. That is the
limit, that is the purpose, and that is the scope of Peace Corps
service. That is entirely the scope of Peace Corps service.
MS. CHERRY: Some volunteers have served in very hazardous conditions,
even in war zones. Do you think those who have given such service
deserve special recognition, perhaps a service medal of some kind?
MR. VASQUEZ: That’s an interesting question. It’s interesting because
I would find it very difficult to try to render judgment on an — on
establishing an index of difficulty, and based on some form of an
index determine that one volunteer deserves recognition over another.
Let me tell you that we have volunteers who serve in the Peace Corps
who have disabilities, who have physical challenges, who exert great
energy and great effort to serve in the Peace Corps. And there are
others who live in areas where the environmental conditions are
challenging and are difficult. But I don’t think you can put a
measure on one volunteer having a greater hardship over another
because every volunteer faces challenges and difficulties. Everything
from environmental issues in terms of climate, in terms of housing,
in terms of remoteness to contracting infections and some of the
illnesses that volunteers contract during their service.
So there’s all kinds of elements of difficulty, and I think that
every volunteer — every volunteer in the Peace Corps is unique and
special in my view. And I like to say that the reason we don’t pay a
salary to Peace Corps volunteers is because they are priceless.
MS. CHERRY: In October 2003, you announced that you would resign as
Peace Corps director, but you changed your mind. Can you explain?
MR. VASQUEZ: When I expressed a desire to make a change, it came
about as a result of a — of a family health situation that emerged
within my immediate family that today continues to be a formidable
challenge for a member of my family. And in further discussions with
family and coupled with the deep passion that I have for this work —
and I will tell you that I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great
jobs in my career and I’ve had some really great jobs, but this is
the best job that I’ve ever had in my life.
It is fulfilling, it is gratifying.
My father always taught me that before you could become a leader, you
needed to know how to be a servant. And the Peace Crops has helped me
understand that on a much grander scale. And so the opportunity,
then, to be able to stay here and to continue the service to my
country, to serve the president of the United States, was compelling,
persuasive, and I’m delighted that I did, because since that time, we
have been able to achieve some new milestones, some historic highs in
advancing the mission and the purpose of the Peace Corps. Because the
beauty of serving as director of the Peace Corps is that it’s not
about the director, it really isn’t, it’s about the Peace Corps. It’s
about what you leave as a legacy not for yourself, but what you leave
for the world and what you leave for America, for the United States.
And for all those who have served, I must tell you that I consider it
a high privilege, because I have met some of the best, some of the
brightest and some of the finest Americans I have ever known in Peace
Corps service, and I count it a high honor to continue my service
alongside with the volunteers.
MS. CHERRY: What do you see as the greatest challenge in the future
for the Peace Corps? Will it ever be so successful that it is no
MR. VASQUEZ: I hope and pray for a day when the service of the Peace
Corps would no longer be needed; that the world would achieve the
total eradication, elimination of HIV/AIDS, poverty, disease, and all
that goes on in the world today. But until that time, we have a
tremendous window of opportunity to make an impact, to make a
difference in people’s lives.
I was in Botswana just a few weeks ago, and I had one of the most
remarkable experiences I think any Peace Corps director could have. I
met Peace Corps volunteers who were born in Russia, Israel, Cape
Verde, Liberia, and Nigeria. These are American citizens who were
born in another country, who came to the United States, became U.S.
citizens and are now Peace Corps volunteers serving overseas in the
United States Peace Corps. And I will tell you, it took my breath
away to meet these young volunteers and to think this is what is
amazing about the Peace Corps, that people who are born elsewhere
would come to the United States and then go overseas to put a unique
face on America; to be able to talk about being born in Russia, and
then coming to the United States, and then going overseas to a
country like Botswana. Tremendous, tremendous impact.
So, there will be great opportunities for the Peace Corps in the
future. And as the world evolves, we will also evolve. And I believe
that’s why the Peace Corps is uniquely positioned in the 21st
century, because if there was ever a time that we needed to promote
peace, understanding and friendship between our country and countries
of the world, the time is now.
MS. CHERRY: That said, who do you think benefits more from Peace
Corps service, the host country or the United States?
MR. VASQUEZ: First, I think the volunteer does. I think the volunteer
gains a priceless experience and an opportunity to understand a
foreign country, the culture, the values, the traditions of that
country, and then be able to bring it home. And we say you’re a Peace
Corps volunteer for two years, but you’re a return Peace Corps
volunteer for a lifetime, because after that volunteer serves, he or
she is in a unique position to put a face on Mauritania and be able
to share with American audiences what life is like in Mauritania or
Costa Rica or Guatemala or Paraguay, and to be able to share that
with communities and colleges and universities and students, and so
on, is a unique opportunity.
As to the benefit to the United States and the host country, it is a
mutual benefit, because at the end of the day, if we can promote
better understanding, everyone wins.
I saw a large poster as I was traveling not long ago. It was a
picture of the Earth taken from a space shuttle, I believe it was, or
a satellite, and it was just the Earth, and beneath, the caption
said, “Our Home Address.”
I thought, you know, that’s the kind of reminder that we need on a
daily basis. We all live here and we all need to strive and work to
make the world a better place, because it is our home address.
MS. CHERRY: Director Vasquez, I’d like to thank you for coming today.
And I’d like to do so by presenting to you this Certificate of
Appreciation for coming and sharing your vision of this agency with
us here today.
MR. VASQUEZ: Thank you very much.
MS. CHERRY: And in a peace offering, I would like to present you with
the coveted National Press Club mug. Thank you very much
MR. VASQUEZ: Well, thank you very much. (Applause.)
MS. CHERRY: And for our last question. We’ve been told that your
education was your mother’s top priority and she had a unique way of
encouraging you to study. Could you please elaborate?
MR. VASQUEZ: I don’t know if I should put her on the spot, but I
will. My mother who is a tremendously strong woman and who is a major
influence in my life. I am the first college graduate in the history
of my family. And I really appreciate the form that my mother used to
raise us, because we have a 25-year-old son who’s graduated from
college, and we use modern-day techniques. We use persuasion,
dollars, gifts, a little mediation, arbitration, intervention, self-
help books, tapes, everything that — you know, parenting, the whole
nine yards. We use those techniques.
But my mother, who never graduated from high school but had a
determined sense that we were going to achieve something good in
life, and the way we were going to do it was to get an education, she
was not into self-help books or tapes or psychology. She was not even
into negotiation or arbitration or mediation. When we didn’t want to
do homework, she just simply — and they were migrant farm workers, I
might add — she just went out into the yard and broke a branch off
of a tree and took the leaves off and came at us.
And someone said, “It sounds to me like you were an abused child.”
And I said, “No, I was a highly motivated child.” (Laughter.) My
mother’s priorities were my instant priorities.
So you can imagine her pride and joy when I became the first in my
family to graduate from college, and even more so to go on to become
the director of the Peace Corps. My grandparents came to this country
from Mexico. And I suspect that if they were alive today, they would
just be astounded — proud, I suspect, but astounded at the thought
that their grandson is director of the Peace Corps. But that’s what
makes this nation a great nation, because there is opportunity for
all of us who wish to pursue and realize our dreams.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MS. CHERRY: Director Vasquez, thank you so much for coming here
today. And I have to confess that many members of MY family were
raised on the “twig method” of educational motivation as well.
I’d also like to thank National Press Club staff members Melinda
Cooke, Pat Nelson, Jo Anne Booze, Melanie Abdow and Howard Rothman
for organizing today’s lunch. And thanks to the National Press Club
Library for their research.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we are adjourned. (Applause.)