February 17, 2011
It was a two-year service commitment in the Dominican Republic that brought Aaron Williams aboard an airplane for the first time.
A recent Chicago State University graduate at the time, Williams said he was first inspired to volunteer with the Peace Corps in 1967 after listening to a speech by Sargent Shriver, the organization’s director at the time.
“I was amazed that a young person could go overseas and serve people from other countries and learn to speak a foreign language,” Williams said. “It was an incredibly marvelous opportunity, and I was inspired by that.”
Williams will be giving the keynote address at UCLA’s service-themed commencement in June. He will recognize and encourage volunteerism among UCLA students and alumni.
Although he originally wanted to be a high school teacher in his hometown, Williams said his experience with the Peace Corps brought him to love public service, eventually propelling him to Shriver’s position 50 years later.
In the Dominican Republic, Williams trained rural teachers and later extended his stay for an additional year to work as a professor of teaching methods at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra in Santiago de los Caballeros.
While volunteering there, Williams met his wife Rosa. From there, he went on to pursue his master’s degree in business administration at the University of Wisconsin and manage the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Africa, along with other global assistance programs.
“That experience opened doors that I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “It led me on the path to be a foreign service officer.”
Williams said his decision to temporarily remove himself from the United States completely transformed his life, teaching him many valuable skills and widening his perspective of the world.
“When I came back to grad school, I was pretty much a changed person,” he said. “I saw the need today to bridge the gap between our society and the world today, person to person, community to community.”
In his keynote address, Williams plans to emphasize the value of continual service, illustrating his point with experiences from former Peace Corps volunteers.
“I want to inspire UCLA graduates to embark on a life of service, because I know UCLA students will be leaders in their communities,” he said. “I want to show real-life examples of how recent grads are improving lives of people in every region of the world, from prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS to combating malaria in Africa to teaching English as a second language in the Ukraine.”
Recent college graduates are at the perfect age for performing overseas volunteer work, said Larry Grobel, an English lecturer at UCLA who taught journalism in Ghana for three years through the Peace Corps.
“Students today are so engaged in trying to find a job and graduate and go right into work, but I think it’s a mistake – you have your whole life to work,” Grobel said. “You’ll get experiences that your friends won’t ever have. Once you get a job and a health plan, you’re afraid of losing your benefits, but you’re actually losing your youth.”
As the world becomes more connected with globalization, it is more important for students to serve other cultures and to understand their views and ways of life, said Robert Ericksen, director of the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, who taught English in Iran in the early 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer.
“My students got to know me through my eyes, as opposed to media or propaganda,” Ericksen said. “When you’ve experienced it yourself and seen yourself through the eyes of a native of another country, (the world) takes on another dimension. Human compassion and service and simply caring for other people is something that transcends all cultures.”