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Friday, June 14, 2024

Peace Corps director speaks at organization's 50th anniversary celebration

Members of the Madison community gathered at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday afternoon for ""Talking Peace Corps,"" a celebration of the organization that included a lecture by Peace Corps Director and UW-Madison alumnus Aaron Williams.

The event was the culmination of several days of programming organized by UW-Madison's African Studies Program to honor the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary and assess the organization's work on the African continent.

""I stand here as a testament to the Peace Corps volunteers who contributed immensely to my life,"" said Alhaji N'jai, a postdoctoral research scientist and the event's master of ceremonies.

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N'jai grew up in Sierra Leone and was taught by Peace Corps volunteers growing up, one of whom he credits with paving the way for his pursuit of higher education in America.

""I grew up in an Islamic household where the choice was between Islamic school or Western education, which was thought of as leading to a bad life full of alcohol and drinking,"" N'jai said. ""[The Peace Corps volunteer] was a big influence on my father letting me pursue education in America.""

Williams spoke about the duality of the Peace Corps' service.

""There is something special about being at the grassroots,"" he said. ""Being embraced by one small village can expand your horizons.""

Williams, who received his MBA from UW-Madison, volunteered in the Dominican Republic from 1967 until 1970.

Before his service, he was going to be a teacher in Chicago. Instead, Williams began a distinguished career in public service, which brought him to South Africa as Mission Director of the United States Agency for International Development during Nelson Mandela's presidency.

UW-Madison graduates make up the second largest contingent of volunteers at 2,997. Around 30 alumni are actively serving with the organization.

""The Peace Corps remains a group of men and woman dedicated to an idea, just as you all keep the ‘Wisconsin Idea' alive,"" Williams said. ""People have so much to learn, so much to teach and so much to share with each other.""

UW-Madison student Casey Hewes attended the event and said she hopes to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Africa.

""Today made me realize that I can go help people, see the world, and come back a better person because of it,"" Hewes said.

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