Upon graduating high school we all face the same challenging question: What do I want to do with my life? One path is to continue your education at a traditional four-year university, community college or technical school. Many enter the workforce in a wide range of jobs or family owned business. Still others feel the need to serve their country through military service. And a few simply set out to explore the world while they aren’t tied down to a career, marriage or family. In 1961, another opportunity arose for young people across the country.
Then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy wrapped up a day of campaigning and arrived on the campus of the University of Michigan at 2am. Though the press corps had all retired, 10,000 students were still assembled, waiting to hear from the candidate. From the steps of the Student Union Building, Kennedy issued a challenge to the assembled crowd; a challenge that would bring about a new path of service to the country once he was elected to the White House.
"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, I think will depend (upon) the answer to the question of 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.”
In March of 1961, President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, and in the 58 years since, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have answered his challenge to serve their country by utilizing their skills in the developing world.
Northwest resident Wayne Nishek was among the first batch to answer the president’s challenge. Wayne grew up on a farm but always wanted to see the world. He studied abroad in England in the late 1950s and was able to experience a different culture for the first time. He also recalls seeing the devastation from World War II still present in the likes of crumbled buildings and deep holes in the landscape where bombs had dropped.
“I wouldn’t say I was draft dodging, but I didn’t want to go to Vietnam like my three older brothers, but I still wanted to see the world and help people,” recalled Wayne, now 78.
Wayne was at a farming conference in Denver when he first heard of the Peace Corps, and it didn’t take much selling for him to sign up. Wayne and his girlfriend signed up to be part of the first team of Peace Corp volunteers to enter southern Bolivia, but first a whole lot of life needed to happen.
“We decided to get married before we left, so we scrambled and made it happen. We took a three-day honeymoon and then got on a plane to Miami to begin our training,” said Wayne.
Their stay in Miami was short lived however, as the night they arrived coincided with the Bay of Pigs Invasion that set the region under immense tension. The newlyweds were instead flown to Vermont for months of training that included the Spanish language and military-style survival courses.
“I remember them taking us out in a raft with our hands tied behind our back and pushing us out into the water,” said Wayne.