Problems and Limits of Peace Corps Training

In an assessment of the early years of the Peace Corps training, one account (p. 32) described the initial efforts as "characterized by ... administrative chaos and frequent failure." Over time, Peace Corps attempted to structure training to prepare PCVs (technically, physically, intellectually, socially, and psychologically) for specific job assignments. However, many job assignments were extremely vague (community development, teaching assistant, nutrition specialist) and there was rarely a precise definition of the day-to-day work and skills needed. Herein lies the dilemma of Peace Corps training--how do you train someone--in only 12 weeks--when success as a Volunteer is not so much what someone actually does, but how they do it. 

Peace Corps training certainly contributed to the effectiveness of Volunteers, but probably not in the ways that administrators expected.  


The Peace Corps ideal--a mix of idealism, ingenuity, flexibility,    

The evolution of training programs during the 1960s sparked a considerable thought and discussion on how best to train and select Peace Corps Volunteers, the relationship between the host institution (usually a university) and short-term training programs, the right balance between training of specific skills and the abilities to be culturally sensitive, adaptive, and resourceful. These goals often competed with each other even with a 60-to-70-hour per week schedule. In the early programs, there was also an emphasis on physical fitness, for example, charting trainee progress in doing in doing pushups and pull ups (see North Borneo/Sarawak Training Book). One of distinctive features of the Hilo training projects was one or two weeks in Waipio Valley, which emphasized roughing it (strenuous hikes and river bathing), slaughtering farm animals, cultural immersion, and psychological introspection. Hovering over the entire training process was the evaluation by psychologists and psychiatrists to select trainees thought to be qualified for Peace Corps service. With voluntary and involuntary exits (labeled "deselection") of around 20 to 25 percent of Peace Corps trainees, there was considerable anxiety in addition to the exhilaration and exhaustion in Peace Corps training.   

Although there was considerable turnover of the training staff, especially of RPCVs who were employed for one or two projects, the sheer number of training programs and accompanying budgets made it possible for a number of U of Hawaii administrative and support staff to worked year-round on multiple projects and also a larger number who returned to Hilo every few months to give lectures, participate in psychological assessment of trainees (selection), or to provide specific cultural, linguistic, and technical training. Reading even a small number of the final reports and training project syllabi for individual projects (many are available as linked documents on the main Training Groups page of the website) provides a vivid picture of both the daily miracles and chaos that characterized Peace Corps Training in Hilo. 

Most training programs had to put together in matter of weeks, sometimes days, when staff arrived shortly before the trainees did. This limited the degree of cumulative learning from prior projects--lessons learned about what worked and what didn't. Fortunately, most of the training staff were exceptionally creative and often experimented with different models of teaching, living arrangements, and shared leadership. In general, the short-term nature of training and the adaptability of most trainees meant that there were few major crises. Trainees generally learned to expect the unexpected and roll with it. They may have grumbled from time to time, but most were highly motivated to try to succeed at any and all challenges. They also shared a high degree of comradery with their fellow trainees who generally shared their idealism and commitment.  

Perhaps the most important and successful part of training was language instruction--about 4 hours a day using the aural-oral method of pattern practice drills taught by native language speakers. Three months of intensive language training was insufficient to attain fluency but allowed most new PCVs to communicate at an elementary level. Many went on to acquire near fluency during their Peace Corps service.

Also see:

"Peace Corps Training and the American University" by David L. Englund, (Deputy Director of Hilo Peace Corps Training Center in the early 1960s). International Review of Education (11, 2:209-217 1965). Reflecting the experience of the Hilo Peace Corp Training Center from 1962-1964, the author states that university-based Peace Corps training is ineffective and posits 12 principles of more effective training of Peace Corps Volunteers.

"The Peace Corps and Hawaii: A Discussion Paper" by John Stalker (Director of Interational Programs, University of Hawaii in 1966) and longtime leader of Hilo Peace Corps Training Center. This discussion paper was circulated in 1966 to the UH administration to urge support for closer Intergration of Peace Corps training with the mission of the University of Hawaii.

Many of the valuable publications/reference documents produced for specific training projects (including pictures and bio sketches of trainees, syllabi, final reports) are listed on the main Training Groups page under the training group number. Some are quite extraordinary documents and deserve additional mention.

Malaysia XIV: A Collection of Training Materials Used in the A/AP Program. Mimeographed bound volume (~2'') with 21 tabbed sections produced by the U of Hawaii Peace Corps Training Center Hilo (December 1966).  Over the years, the socio/cultural/political aspects of training evolved through a series of labels: WACAS (World Affairs, Communism, and Asian Studies--or "WACK-ASS"), A/AP (Asia-American Program), to Cross Cultural Program). The dual objectives of this program were to make PCVs knowledgeable about Malaysia (historical, geographical, political facts) and also prepare to be effective and culturally sensitive participants in a complex multicultural society. Over time, the program shifted from lectures by area studies specialists to small group discussions and role playing led by RPCVs. This volume includes an extraordinary set of briefing papers, bibliographical guides, and discussion topics, largely prepared by Peace Corps staff and PCVs in Malaysia, Peace Corps Washington, and the A/AP staff for the Malaysia XIV training staff. Since most Peace Corps training programs were created de novo, with little continuity of staff or training materials, there was little continuity or cumulation from one program to the next. These reference materials might have been the high-water mark of Peace Corps training programs for Malaysia. 

Reprinted (mimeograph) collection of publications on Sarawak and Sabah for Peace Corps Trainees at the Hilo Training Center circa 1965. 402 pp. This collection includes classic research papers, newspaper articles, and virtually all that was known about Sabah and Sarawak in the early 1960s.

One important legacy of this period was trends--a quarterly publication authored by Hilo Training Center staff. Each issue contained one lengthy article focused on an important aspect related to Peace Corps training and/or cross-cultural issues. Here are a sample of notable issues:

Edward T. Fitzgerald. "The Integration of Training, Assessment, and Research in a Peace Corps Training Project."  trends. Vol. 1 (3), December 1968. 

James F. Downs. "Fables, Fancies, and Failures in Cross Cultural Training." trends. Vol. 2 (3), December 1969. 

Emmanuel Voulgaropoulos. "Reflections on Peace Corps Health Programming. trends." Vol 2(4), March 1970.

Jesse G. Harris Jr. "Prediction of Success on a Lonely Pacific Island: Peace Corps Style." trends. Vol 3(1), June 1970.

George Bracher, M.D. "Reflections on Peace Corps Training: A Medical Viewpoint." trends. Vol 3(3), December 1970.

Kenneth H. David. "Intercultural Adjustment and Applications of Reinforcement Theory to Problems of 'Culture Shock'."  trends. Vol 4(3), January 1972.