Serving in the Peace Corps

By Bernard Wong

 

On a late Tuesday afternoon, UC Irvine senior and history major Michael Martelle sips his hefeweizen as he loudly discusses the American labor movement from the late 1800s onwards. On his second pint, he shortly shifts towards the current state of affairs — loosely analyzing politics in the 21st century. After quickly consuming his final portions he momentarily shares a moment of uncertainty at the future of politics and economics.

“You’re telling me you’re going to cover airfare, room and board, and food plus stipend for 27 months in another country? Hell yes, I’ll take it!”

But it is not an act of desperation or rebellion. Born in Detroit, his family moved to Irvine at the age of six. The son of a journalist and a teacher, Michael Martelle easily recalls historical precedence and is convincing while doing so. He has devoted the latter half of his undergraduate career to studying warfare. He even devotes several hours a week practicing various martial arts. Although the previous description is common of stereotypical neck beard, “Soldier of Fortune” convention types, he is not to be taken lightly. He has decided to devote 27 months towards community service in a developing country through the Peace Corps.

In addition to having competed in lacrosse for the past nine years, he is also a talented musician. His passion for life is easily noticeable. He says, the opportunity to be in the Peace Corps is satisfying enough for him and expresses his acceptance of whatever role — defined as, by the Peace Corps, “generalist.”

Although he has not been properly assigned, he tells me, the Corps has recommended he undergo 30 hours of volunteer service in either English or basic health education.

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy as a means of ridding imperialist perceptions of Americans. It is in its 51st year and has provided over 200,000 volunteers for 139 countries.

But it does not come without its share of controversy. In 2011, “20/20” reported that there were over 1,000 reported incidents of sexual assault in the past 10 years including 115 in 2009. However, its main focus is not on the alarming number of assaults but the Peace Corps counselors’ responses — suggesting the women were acting lasciviously or having “personality disorders.”

Following an Inspector General Report in 2010, the Peace Corps has addressed and closed 25 of 28 of the Inspector General’s recommendations with the remainder ongoing. The Corps itself asserts that there is “a significant decline in the incidence of rape and major sexual assault among volunteers over the past 14 years” and that “between 1997 and 2009 there was a 27 percent decline in the incidence of rape and attempted rape and a 34 percent decline in the incidence of major sexual assault.”

The government investigator and the Peace Corps suggest that initial news reports improperly calculated the results when in actuality there have been only 221 rapes between 2000 and 2010 and 15 in 2009. However, it is noted by a congressional specialist that the Peace Corps “selectively interpreted” certain sets of data.

Safety concerns are not limited to only sexual assault. After 9/11, “volunteers have been evacuated from at least 27 countries” due to safety. Plus, in February 2012, the Peace Corps removed all volunteers from Honduras and have stopped future deployment to Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

In addition to personal safety, funding and membership has been significant in future implication of the Peace Corps. Despite a 2002 expansion initiative to double the amount of workers (14,000) in the Peace Corps, the Bush Administration only managed to see a 16 percent increase by 2009. As of September 2011, there are 9,095 volunteers — a 13 percent increase from 2010. Funding for the year 2012 saw no increases (down to $375.0 million from $405 million in 2010) thereby decreasing the number of potential volunteers between 6-19 percent. Small infrastructure projects by volunteers are also typically funded ad hoc by family and friends.

Regardless, Michael has put any controversy aside and sees it as a great opportunity to escape this suburban bubble — though it seems that he is especially eager to promote the Corps’ “Third Goal” (i.e. “helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”). He has further expressed a desire to be assigned to more rural destinations stating a strong desire for a change of scenery and is especially eager to travel during his off time. His youthfulness is evident as he talks about life after the Service. Like many, he is uncertain but he’s just happy to be able to contribute to such a worthy cause.

 

More information on the Peace Corps can be found at www.peacecorps.gov.