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The captivating power of instant communications, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or the 24-hour news cycle, creates the illusion that we are more “plugged in” than we really are. Jolting images of events taking place around the world awaken our sense of compassion and desire for justice. We wish there was something we could do.
Awareness and concern are good first steps. But to truly grapple with the harsh realities that too many people face today, we have to step into their place and literally see the view from their shoes. This is a Peace Corps Volunteer’s vantage point and strength. To “walk the walk” is more than helping to alleviate the painful effects of poverty, conflict, and social discrimination—it’s about advancing the sustaining power of culture and the uplifting complexity of the human spirit.
As a new college graduate, I felt completely primed and empowered to join the Peace Corps as a Volunteer in Iran in 1962. I didn’t realize that the greatest lesson of my life was just beginning. Two years teaching English in a remote area taught me more invaluable lessons than anything else that has happened afterwards. Daily life became transformative just by eating the same food, washing in the same water, and using the same transportation as the people I lived and worked with everyday.
I learned resourcefulness, resilience, and immense respect for a community that gradually learned to accept and trust me as well. The dean of the school where I taught had never worked with a female teacher before; he didn’t quite know how to deal with me at first. Over time I became less of an outsider and more of a valued contributor, and while all my ideas weren’t embraced, many were adapted to fit a distinctly local framework.
What can one person really do? More than you can imagine. Lasting change is best accomplished by small, meaningful steps that accrue and are reinforced over time. And change is never one-sided. By helping to improve the quality of life for others, we create a more meaningful life for ourselves.
I tell students that to really learn about the world, they need to be part of it. Service shapes our values, harnesses our passions, and, most definitely, makes a real difference.
As we celebrate 50 years of the Peace Corps Volunteers, I invite everyone who is ready to “walk the walk” and make a difference in others’ lives to step up and see the view from their shoes.
Donna Shalala served as the Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Clinton and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in June 2008. She is currently serving as the President of the University of Miami.