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1983 Commencement Speech: Loret Ruppe, Director, Peace Corps

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Graduates of Marquette: You have been called: You bear a special mark, by graduating from this school with its value and philosophy.

Your lives must be a celebration of decency. Decency – Respect for Life – and the dignity of every human person – responsibility for the care and sharing of our world's resources.

For now on your shoulders rests the future of America and in some measure – as this great nation of ours, so blessed, is a world leader – the future of the world. Whether that future is going to be lived in a relative state of peace and prosperity or whether it is going to be surrounded by turmoil, and non-peace, perhaps even active war, these issues will be decided as our world approaches the year 2000 – just seventeen years away. By the year 2000 – you will be getting close to 40 years of age – mid-life – at that point, among you who are graduating today will be many of the leaders of the U.S. in industry, in education, 
in politics, in community and international affairs. At that time you and your fellow graduates of the 80s will face a world that has steadily been shrinking – for in these next twenty years most studies note that global interdependence will have become a reality and within that reality lie some harsh and sobering predictions.

If present trends continue, much of the developing world (in which 4/5 of the people on earth live now), by the year 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, employment, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead.

Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people in the majority of the world will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now – unless we the industrialized nations of the world restore our own economies and start acting decisively right now.

Why do I bring up such a serious subject just as you are feeling joyous – and you should feel great joy and accomplishment at this moment – you have successfully completed a course of study – you have plumbed the thoughts, ideas, and creativity of educators, technicians, theologians, philosophers, economists, mathematicians, scientists – some of their storehouse of knowledge now has been transferred – passed on – to you – through your own work and effort,
and that of the fine faculty here at Marquette. You have made friends, some of whom will be part of your life always – you have shared adventures. I remember a few adventurous places in the '50's besides the Union – and now in the '80's –
even in Washington, D.C. we've heard of the Gym-Bar and the Avalanche.

You have seen the change of seasons on your beautiful campus. You have taken part in sports, you have cheered at basketball games, all in all, it's been a great adventure – an adventure in growing up – today marks a stage in your development as a person, you are a college graduate. So do please sit there and feel proud – this is a big moment – this is your moment.

In my job, the Peace Corps, we mark the development of the world and its moment of graduation still lies ahead – how far ahead is a responsibility you, as graduates, must now share. You have reached
 a plateau of growth, now you must help your own country and the
 world grow.

The Peace Corps this year marked its 22nd year of existence – its 22nd birthday – many of you here today were born just a year after the Peace Corps was born. On a late October night in 1960 – 2:00 a.m. on the campus of the University of Michigan – when a candidate, John F. Kennedy, exhausted from just having experienced the pressure of one of the 1st televised Presidential debates – then flying from New York to Ann Arbor, Michigan – discovered a crowd of 10,000 students still waiting to listen to him – the soon to be President threw down a gauntlet of words of challenge – here is what he asked …

“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? (To each question he received an enthusiastic response.) 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 I think will depend the answer to whether we as a free society can compete.”

The Peace Corps was born in answer to that challenge and as we reach our 22nd year we look back on a solid record of accomplishment. But first, let me warn you, that accomplishment – that record of accomplishment is not measured in miles, but in inches, for changing the world, helping it graduate, is a slow process – even, as we see, at this point in our nation's history that economic changes come slowly and are often a painful process.

Just think … it took you 8 years to reach high school … 4 years to reach college and now 4 years (or more) to be sitting here as a graduate. If you, with a goodly I.Q., a desire to learn, and surrounded by teachers whole sole aim was to get enough knowledge into your head so you could leave school having grown, matured, and with a useful and marketable skill – took that time – think how difficult graduation for a country is!

When there is not enough food, not enough water, wood, energy, teachers, doctors – Peace Corps Volunteers by helping countries work on these problems prepare them for graduation.

How is Peace Corps doing this? At this very moment there are
 over 5,000 American volunteers, 175 of them from Wisconsin. These 5,000 American volunteers are working in 62 countries around the
world. They are teaching math, science, English as a foreign language, industrial arts, health or nutrition: agriculture, small business development – are involved in energy conservation, community service, in water supply and sanitation, forestry, or fisheries.

They are living up to the true and basic mandate of the Peace Corps Act – promoting world peace and friendship by sharing America's talents and skills, its trained person power, with countries who
 more and more are asking America for these Volunteers, and who need them more now in 1983 than in 1961 when the Peace Corps was born.

I come to you today, to tell of the work, the dedication and 
the commitment of over 100,000 Americans, who have served in Peace Corps in the past 22 years. 100,000 people, nearly 3,000 of them from Wisconsin young, old, in between, all races, all faiths, men and women from all walks of life. Some newly graduated (like you) from college – some with several years of work experience – some highly skilled from a lifetime of honing that skill in the marketplace.

Peace Corps has no upper age limit. In the countries where our Volunteers serve, where the average lifetime ends at 45, where experience is so highly treasured, our older Volunteers have special value. So you parents and faculty are not exempt from this call.

When you were asked to write a term paper (aren't you glad you're finished with that, for the time being anyway?) … but if you were asked to write a research paper and the topic was “why a Peace Corps in the 80's?” … who would you go to get a valid report? Wouldn't it be logical to ask Americans who have lived and worked overseas? I have now had meetings with countless ambassadors. Each one has told me that they consider our Peace Corps Volunteers and their work to be one of the most positive and appreciated American presences in the countries where they have served. The State Department confirms the same thing.

There is a realization that the work of these American volunteers is truly helping developing countries. I have met several times with President Reagan. There, in the oval office, he told me of his deep interest in and commitment to the volunteer spirit of America. I told him of my trips abroad, to Central America, Africa (we are in
 24 countries in Sub-Sahara Africa) and Asia and the Pacific visiting volunteers, staff and government officials. I reported to him 
the gratitude and appreciation of these countries for the work of
 the volunteers.

With their teaching skills, their business skills, their practical skills, they help others help themselves. They build bridges in Nepal, help Filipino fishermen improve their catches, design water supply systems in Belize, develop fish ponds and agriculture in many African nations. They work with their hearts as well as their hands and their heads.

As a result, Volunteers leave behind far more than the wells dug or the schools and clinics built.

They leave behind creativity. They leave a better sense of how to make the most of finite resources. They leave techniques that will help the developing country shape itself long after they go back home.

At our 20th Anniversary conference two years ago, Prime Minister Seaga of Jamaica came to Washington specifically to address us. He is a Harvard-educated economist. Here is what he said:

In this world of ordinary problems and ordinary folk, helping to build a water tank, teaching farmers in the field, bringing literacy to the unschooled, are mightier messages of international friendship than the treaties and concords which resolve conflicts and hostilities between states.

Prime Minister Seaga calls us an “International perpetual motion friendship machine.” Mother Theresa, remembering the work of the Volunteers in India, calls them “Carriers of the Peace of Christ.”

How I would love to bring a film crew with me on my travels and bring back the scenes of appreciation, love and respect back to Americans via national television! It would be far more inspirational viewing than the “soaps''. I would like you to know that the television view of Americans most remembered abroad is “Dallas.” It has brought a view of Americans to millions of people overseas – hard-drinking, ill-motivated, uncaring stereotypes. Our Volunteer program overseas has worked. It has been a wise investment, bringing quite a different view, also to millions of people overseas – one by one. Hardworking Americans, dedicated, caring and sharing. But that's not all.

Did you know that developing countries have become the fastest growing customers of the U.S. now buying more than 40 percent of all our exports? In 1961, exports to developing countries equaled 
8 billion dollars – in 1982 – 100 billion dollars. Over two million American manufacturing jobs now depend on these exports!

One out of every three acres of American farmland produced food for export, much of it to the third world.

The United States is increasingly counting on third world countries for essential raw materials vital to our economy and security. Third World development means more trade and more jobs for 
more Americans. President Reagan has stated it wisely in his support of the Caribbean Basin Initiative – “In helping others develop we help ourselves grow.”

More trade means more jobs for Americans, by helping countries develop a viable economy, which in turn makes life more livable 
for its citizens. Then you are talking about a doubly wise investment – an economic investment and a peace investment. It has also brought back to America an incredible resource – 100,000 Returned PCVs who know a foreign language (this still in our country where our level of language training is at the level it was in 1915 … This 
in a world rapidly shrinking …) and who have a sensitivity and knowledge of the world beyond America, and are interested in serving
in it.

Graduates of Marquette, for these years ahead – start planning now on where you want to be and where you want your country and the world to be by the year 2000. I hope you will follow the path that our Peace Corps Volunteers have followed – be involved – be involved in your family – in
 your community, in your job – give it your all. Even as the Peace Corps Act mandates sharing America's talents and skills, with that
 big world out there – Please share your talents and skills with the world around you. Some of you might take the step of joining our work in helping the developing world, but all of you should help in development work in your own homes, churches and communities. There are so many needs to be met!

President Reagan has stated it: “We must tap … the stream of volunteerism that flows through our country like a mighty river”. Let us weave together a multi-colored, multifaceted tapestry of decency into the fabric of American life. Let me end with this. The entire question of Peace … that beautiful five-letter word which we all say we treasure and crave for … is up for grabs in the 80's. A question must be answered above and beyond this special forum: is peace simply the absence of war, or is it really the absence of conditions that bring on war? The conditions of hunger, disease, poverty, illiteracy, despair …

  • When 50 percent of the children in a village die before they are five…
  • When a child dies of dysentery or measles for lack of medical attention…
  • When a woman, for lack of a well, has to walk five miles to a stream for water and then search several hours for wood to cook with…
  • When a farmer or villager has no source of income…
  • When a village's youth and men flee to the cities which have no jobs for them…
  • When rain forests are stripped and no new planting done…
  • When millions of refugees languish homeless…
  • When 600,000,000 people on our earth today are called “marginal people” – waking up each morning, on the edge of survival…

Then let's face it, America, the world is not at peace.

Graduates of the class of 1983 – President Reagan and the Peace Corps are working on answers to these needs, but he and your country must have you to make it work – your involvement, your commitment.

I throw down a challenge to you, the challenge of peace, and from my vantage point as Director of the Peace Corps I say to you give of yourselves, be committed to the world out there and our world here as you travel through life toward the year 2000.

Join up, be a lifetime Volunteer for Peace.

Graduates, I salute you. Thank you.


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