The Peace Corps Inspiration
Remarks by Kul C Gautam at Induction of US Peace Corps Volunteers in Nepal: Kathmandu, 10 June 2016.
Madam Ambassador, members of the Peace Corps family, dear friends,
When I received the invitation to attend this ceremony and say a few words, I was genuinely super-thrilled.
I say that not as a polite courtesy, or out of diplomatic protocol, but truly from the bottom of my heart.
Because I happen to be one of the thousands of Nepalis, and perhaps millions of people around the world, whose lives have been touched and transformed by their association with the Peace Corps.
I understand that the Peace Corps volunteers who are being inducted today are: Nepal group number 203.
My association with PCVs goes all the way back to group number: Nepal-1 in 1962.
I was then a 7th grade student in Tansen, Palpa, which in those days was 3 days walk from my village in the neighboring district of Gulmi.
Soon after I was enrolled, we heard that two American Peace Corps teachers were going to join our school – Janata Vidyalaya.
We were thrilled. The whole town was curious and excited.
Until then, I had never met an American – or a European – in my life.
I had just started learning a few words of English but could not even put together a sentence.
My classmates and I felt a sense of mystery and joy when we learned that one of the Peace Corps teachers would teach English to our class.
To make a long story short, I became quite close to my Peace Corps teacher, Ken Martin, who came from Springfield, Illinois.
In due course, I became a pretty good student of English.
Outside school hours, I used to visit the PCVs at their residence to practice English, and learned to play some games like chess and Scrabble.
Indeed, to the surprise of my teachers and myself, I became so good at Scrabble that occasionally I would beat my American teachers.
Once, the Deputy American Ambassador to Nepal, Harry Barnes – who went on to become an illustrious Ambassador in several countries – came to visit the PCVs in Tansen.
I was introduced to him as the little boy who beat the American teachers in Scrabble. The Deputy Ambassador was duly impressed, and asked me to look him up if I ever came to Kathmandu.
I did, and he introduced me to Ambassador Henry Stebbins.
Right after completing my high school (SLC) in 1966, I was admitted with full scholarship to Dartmouth College.
But it took me two years to get my Nepali passport.
In those days getting a passport was a privilege reserved for members of the royal family or the Kathmandu elite. It was unimaginable for a poor village boy like me with no connections with the high and mighty.
The American Ambassador at that time, Carol Laisse, had heard of the story of a village boy who had gotten full scholarship to study at Dartmouth, but could not get a passport.
So, when I finally got my passport, the Ambassador invited me for dinner and to congratulate me right here at the Ambassador’s residence.
Alaina, it is an amazing coincidence that I was here exactly 48 years ago – on the 10th of June 1968.
My connections with the Peace Corps continued as I later became a trainer for Nepal-bound PCVs in California.
And at one point my boss at UNICEF was Carol Bellamy who had earlier been Director of the Peace Corps.
So, dear friends, my journey from Nepal to Dartmouth, then on to Princeton and the United Nations would not have happened had it not been for the Peace Corps.
And I know, mine is not a unique case.
Let me say to our newly minted Peace Corps Volunteers, you too are destined to make a transformational impact on the lives of many Nepalis, as have your 4,000+ predecessors.
And even if you do not make such an impact in Nepal, rest assured that Nepal will make a profound impact in your lives.
I was so sad to learn when the Peace Corps had to pull out of Nepal in 2004.
Thank God, the nightmare of the civil war that led to the Peace Corps exit is finally over, and you are back again in this country.
You maybe working in agriculture, food security or nutrition, but remember ultimately your mission is to contribute to building peace.
Without peace, democracy cannot flourish and development cannot happen in a durable manner.
The United States today is the world’s sole super-power, spending over a trillion dollars a year on military might.
But it is the less than half a billion dollars it spends on the Peace Corps that touches ordinary people’s hearts and helps build bridges of peace and friendship.
I recall that was precisely the vision of President John F Kennedy when he established the Peace Corps.
In a world so desperately lacking in such vision, you, dear Peace Corps friends, are the inheritors and embodiments of that noble vision.
And I can assure you that your work and friendship here in Nepal will make a meaningful impact in your lives; in the building of a peaceful, prosperous and more egalitarian Nepal; and in strengthening the people to people relationship between Nepal and the US.
Thank you, and good luck.