Write your legislators: On its 60th anniversary, our world needs Peace Corps volunteers

Michael K. O’Neill
Opinion Page Contributor

September 22 is the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the day that President John F. Kennedy signed into law legislation creating the agency. With one stroke of a pen, President Kennedy deepened our nation’s ability to live out key values — values like service, peace, sacrifice, commitment, and learning from those we hope to serve. 

I am proud to be one of the 2,285 Volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps from New Mexico, joining more than 240,000 nationwide over these last 60 years. 

I entered the Peace Corps in 1971 hoping to bring my skills and commitment to a small town in the northeast corner of Ghana. I served for one year as a secondary school science teacher bringing biology, chemistry, and general science to teenage Ghanaian students eager to enter a modern world unknown to previous generations.

In 1972, I transferred to northern Burkina Faso for something more concrete, literally. I spent another two years overseeing the construction of wide-bore water wells in remote Sahelian villages. 

After these vastly different assignments, I left enriched and grateful for what I had learned from those I had come to serve. I remember the Ghanaian students who would bolt to attention while fasting during Ramadhan fighting off hunger and fatigue in order to remain alert in class. 

FMN Dr Michael K O'Neill

In Burkina Faso, villagers would share their simple dinner of sorghum porridge during Harmattan windstorms, ensuring that I could continue with the concrete well projects especially anticipated by women spared the walk of up to 15 miles, each way, to draw water on a daily basis. 

My Peace Corps experience became the transformative foundation for a four-decade career in international agricultural research and development, mainly in Africa, and as an agricultural research scientist with New Mexico State University. 

For 10 years, I was the coordinator of the Peace Corps Paul D. Coverdell program in the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. 

While at the NMSU Agricultural Research Center – Farmington for nearly two decades, I returned to Kenya several times as an NMSU consulting faculty scientist, developed student exchange programs between New Mexico and Colombia, taught world food security at a Colombian university, and participated in USAID Farmer-to-Farmer programs in Colombia and Mali. 

But this anniversary is unlike any other. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the total evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers from all 61 countries where they were serving. 

As a result, we will observe the 60th anniversary with no Peace Corps Volunteers in the field. During this unprecedented withdrawal period, the National Peace Corps Association convened a series of nationwide conversations about the future of Peace Corps in a changed world.  

The community of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), including the New Mexico Peace Corps Association, an affiliated state chapter of the national organization, envisions an agency that 1) advances global peace and understanding, 2) seeks innovative solutions to shared global problems, and 3) responds to shifting expectations in the developing world. I embrace this vision and saw the best of it during my Peace Corps service/experience.

Over the last 60 years, nearly a quarter of a million American Peace Corps Volunteers have made a tremendous contribution to individuals and communities where they served, and to the world. The nations want Peace Corps Back! All 61 nations that had volunteers prior to the pandemic have indicated they look forward to having volunteers return. Additional countries are also requesting Peace Corps’ presence.

You can join in celebrating this 60th anniversary and ensure its resurgence by writing to thank Senators Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich as well as Congresswomen Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury for continuing to co-sponsor the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (HR 1456). This helps deepen our nation’s commitment to service, peace, sacrifice, compassion, and, yes, humility — learning from others whom we strive to serve. Peace Corps service is needed now more than ever. 

Dr. Michael K. O’Neill, PCV Ghana 1971-1972; Burkina Faso 1972-1974; NMSU Professor of Agronomy and José Fernández Memorial Chair in Crop ProductionEmeritus, NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Farmington 1999-2018.