Texas Western College and the Peace Corps: Part I

By on May 31, 2012

A photograph of the Peace Corps volunteers during a training day at Texas Western College, July 1961.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy initiated the Peace Corps program which challenged college students to serve their country in the name of peace by working and living in some of the world’s developing countries. That same year, Texas Western College (now UTEP) became the first institution in the nation to graduate students from the Peace Corps training program. Being among the first Peace Corps units created, Texas Western’s Peace Corps volunteers were selected and assigned to go and work in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in East Africa. However, before the 44 man unit could be formed, a rigorous selection process occurred during the spring of 1961. The volunteers from Texas Western College were selected for interviews in late May of that year. President Kennedy had agreed to fulfill the Tanganyika government’s request to the Peace Corps for the sending of surveyors, civil engineers, and geologists to meet their shortages and develop roads in rural places. With the college’s geological foundation, students of Texas Western seemed a good fit for the Tanganyika project which some Peace Corps officials considered “the most difficult of all Peace Corps projects.”

Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver came to the Texas Western campus to attend the commencement exercises of the first graduating Peace Corps class on August 21, 1961. Shriver spoke of the accomplishments of Texas Western stating “A fine job has been done here for the time allotted. By the time they have finished the three phases of training…they will be better prepared for overseas work than any group ever has been.” The first of the “three phases of training” took place on the Texas Western campus. Special faculty members were in charge of training the corpsman in a variety of fields. Texas Western’s Dr. Clyde E. Kelsey Jr. who was an associate professor of psychology at the time was the project coordinator. He was assisted by the history department’s Dr. William H. Timmons and Dr. William S. Strain from the geology department, who both took part in instructing the volunteers. The second phase of their training involved a “stint” in the mountains of Puerto Rico. This training for the Texas Western unit was designed to acclimatize the corpsman to jungle life and improve physical stamina before heading to Africa. Tanganyika was to be the setting for the final training period. The Peace Corps volunteers would spend seven weeks on the high slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro learning about local customs and environments. After the volunteers’ final training phase they were put into groups of two or three and assigned quarters in different cities throughout the country. From there, volunteers would travel “into the jungle to plan the needed roads” for “the isolated native villages” as described by the Prospector.

Texas Western College played an important role in the Peace Corps’ objective of assisting the developing world. The volunteers stayed in Africa for two years doing their much needed developmental work. In a letter written to the Prospector, Mr. Tom Matthews, who was Deputy Director for Public Information at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington D.C., had only positive things to say about the college’s cooperation in the Peace Corps program. He stated, “TWC’s participation in the Peace Corps has a historic significance beyond the excellent work it did in training volunteers for Tanganyika. It was one of the first schools to undertake a training program and…Its achievements impressed all of us in Washington and established policies which now guide us in training projects throughout the country.”

The Texas Western College Training Program for the Tanganyika Project

[Sources: The Prospector, May 13; September 11; and September 30, 1961.]

Bryan Winter is an assistant in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. He earned a BS in Geography from New Mexico State University, and is currently in his final year as an MA student in History at UTEP.

  1. Linda Curton Besnette
    November 15, 2012

    Bryan, I am a little behind in my NEW YORKERS. A 2010 article about the Peace Corps gives all the credit to the program for Ghana being the FIRST one. I worked with Dr. Kelsey and group as the “girl Friday” for the Tanganyika project. At the 35th anniversary at UTEP I attended–Dr. Kelsey gave me the title of “assistant director.” (sort of jokingly). I spoke of my experiences at that gathering. I worked all my years at TWC/UTEP for and with Dr. Kelsey, and we are still friends–he comes to our home from time to time.

    TWC was the first. The Washington part of the program was ahead of the “program on the ground” so to speak, as things happened so fast and furiously that we were making up/making do much of the time, what with the media/personalities, etc. which stopped in daily to check us out. I had elephant guns in my closet–whatever happened to them I do not know. The auditors came–wanting to know why we spent money on swimming caps (so to distinguish between the water polo teams). Etc. Etc. Etc.

    I was also good friends with Dr. Sonnichsen–left some papers/letters/etc. to the UTEP library collection.

    I guess it is too late to notify the author in the NY article. Wish I had read it sooner!!! Linda Curton Besnette (1961)