Peace Corps’ roots part of UTEP’s mission of service

By on June 15, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

Texas Western College (TWC) was selected in 1961 to host the first training of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers because it was desegregated, and it fit in with the campus’ legacy of service.

The Peace Corps was created by President John F. Kennedy March 1, 1961, to send skilled American volunteers to foreign countries to promote peace and mutual understanding. Volunteers would help schools, governments, and nonprofit and nongovernmental agencies in fields such as business, education, agriculture, the environment and information technology.

Peace Corps leaders intended to send the first cohort to The University of Texas at Austin, but an African-American member of an advance team was denied access to a UT Austin faculty lunchroom. As a result, Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps director, moved the training to TWC, now The University of Texas at El Paso, for its terrain, weather, strong geological foundation and because the campus had integrated in 1955.

The first group — 44 male surveyors, geologists and civil engineers from around the country — was trained to map and construct roads in the East African country of Tanganyika, now Tanzania. They reported to TWC in June and their training was coordinated by college faculty members.

These volunteers, whose median age was 26, spent six weeks in El Paso studying the language (Swahili), the culture and international politics, as well as laying out imaginary roads in the nearby hills. The volunteers averaged 66 hours of preparation per week.

City leaders and Peace Corps officials lauded the results.

“Its achievements impressed all of us in Washington (D.C.) and established policies which now guide us in training projects throughout the country,” wrote Tom Matthews, Peace Corps deputy director for public information, in a 1961 letter to The Prospector, TWC’s student newspaper.

In a letter to the college’s training coordinators, then-El Paso Mayor Ralph E. Seitsinger wrote: “We are indeed proud of the recognition this has brought to El Paso, and happy that our community had this part in contributing to a better understanding among the peoples of the world.”

Since that original class, more than 215,000 Peace Corps volunteers — including almost 150 UTEP alumni — have been sent to 139 countries.

Among them is Fernando Botello, an El Paso native who grew up in Juárez. He earned his bachelor’s degree in operations and supply chain management from UTEP in 2009, and is in the middle of a 27-month assignment in Costa Rica, where he is a community economic development volunteer.

Botello said he wanted to help the world and decided his best chance was with the Peace Corps. He began to build his resume as a freshman to enhance his chances of being accepted into the organization. The skills he developed at UTEP have helped him create lesson and business plans, and presentations that help him promote academics, social mobility and economic development.

“This is the toughest job you’ll ever love,” he said. “I’m living my dream.”

A group of UTEP’s returned Peace Corps volunteers — mostly faculty — recently established a campus Peace Corps office to raise the program’s visibility, improve recruiting and make students aware of the enhanced job prospects.

“The Peace Corps’ roots are at UTEP. It’s part of who UTEP is and we need to foster that and take advantage of it for our students,” said Gary Frankwick, Ph.D., associate dean in UTEP’s College of Business Administration and professor of marketing and management. He volunteered in the Philippines from 1977-78.

The call to volunteer, whether through the Peace Corps or some other community service, has been part of the University’s mission since it opened 100 years ago. It gives students, faculty and staff an outward perspective that will help them grow as individuals, Frankwick said.

That rationale is consistent with the criteria Washington Monthly magazine uses to rate institutions of higher education. UTEP ranked No. 7 in the publication’s 2013 college rankings.

The Peace Corps in May approved a UTEP proposal to begin a Peace Corps preparatory program made from courses that are global in scope to increase understanding of issues that impact developing countries such as trade, finance, government and the environment.

Daniel Perez is a senior writer with UTEP’s University Communications office.

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Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.