Guest columnist Eileen Conoboy discusses the benefits of Peace Corps service in understanding other cultures in a globalizing society.

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WHEN John F. Kennedy called a generation to serve their country overseas in a newly created Peace Corps 50 years ago, he knew that “the logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.”

In our age of increasing global interconnectedness, going overseas and learning about the world outside our physical borders has never been more necessary. Peace Corps volunteers immerse themselves in the local languages and customs of the communities they serve — not for a few weeks or the odd year, but for a substantive 27-month period that affords real insight into other cultures while fulfilling requests for technical assistance from 77 host countries.

After working on a malnutrition and child-survival initiative in Mali, West Africa, I returned with a near-fluency in Bambara. I brought back a deep appreciation for Malians’ ease of laughter, and their close relationship with the natural world, and their unwavering respect for elders. Living and working alongside my newfound friends humbled me in countless ways and expanded my worldview — and helped me better understand my own country and culture.

Whether Peace Corps volunteers live in mud huts in Africa or high-rises in Eastern Europe, they return from their service as quintessential global citizens. They possess foreign-language skills, international perspectives, resourcefulness and a desire to make the world a better place — all of which translates to an unparalleled domestic dividend that enriches U.S. communities here at home.

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The world has changed vastly since 1961, but the Peace Corps mission to promote world peace, friendship and understanding has not. The pragmatic idealists who join the Peace Corps in 2010 are 21-year-old recent college graduates from Seattle and 80-year-old retirees from Olympia. They are farmers, English teachers, health educators, youth-development workers and environmentalists. They are Americans who heard the call to serve when Kennedy first announced the Peace Corps, and those who stumbled upon it by a tweet. They are patriotic citizens of all stripes, colors, ages and political persuasions who see a world without boundaries and a program that can help them pay it forward.

Peace Corps volunteers return to the job market with unparalleled cross-cultural competency and are highly sought after by international organizations, government agencies and nonprofits for their on-the-ground development experience and foreign-language proficiency. With one in three jobs in Washington state tied to international trade, the ability to compete on the global mat has never been more critical.

On the cusp of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, there are thousands of new openings in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Pacific islands. So do your country a favor … and leave.

Eileen Conoboy served as a volunteer in Mali, West Africa, and is the regional office manager of the Peace Corps Northwest Regional Office in Seattle.

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