NORMAL — Like many of her generation, Anne Wortham knows exactly where she was when she heard President John Kennedy had been shot.
But Wortham’s story is different than most: The associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University was serving in the Kennedy-created Peace Corps in Africa.
“It wasn’t just bad news, it was a gut punch,” said Wortham, looking back on that day.
She is part of a long line of people affiliated with the university who have ties to the Peace Corps. Some, like Wortham, joined the ISU faculty or staff after their service.
Others are returning volunteers seeking graduate degrees through the Peace Corps Fellows program at the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development, or Peace Corps volunteers working on their master’s degree through the center’s Master’s International program.
More than 508 ISU alumni have served as Peace Corps volunteers, according to official figures.
Beverly Beyer, associate director of the Stevenson Center and a former Peace Corps volunteer, said Kennedy’s call to service “is still very motivating.”
Although Peace Corps volunteers come from a wide age range, Kennedy’s initial call was aimed at college students. Beyer said many college students today have the same idealistic motivations of the Kennedy-era volunteers.
One of them is Rachelle Wilson, a Master’s International student who grew up in Georgia. She majored in economics at Georgia State University, and minored in Mideast studies.
“I wanted to be in the Peace Corps since high school,” Wilson said. “I was so idealistic in high school.”
Wortham was inspired to join the Peace Corps after participating in Operation Crossroads Africa and a desire to become a U.S. Foreign Service officer.
Through Operation Crossroads, she spent a summer in Ethiopia helping to build an addition to a school with college students from the United States, Canada and Africa. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she taught English in Tanganyika, which became Tanzania during her time there.
Wortham and her fellow volunteers bonded after sharing the Kennedy tragedy so far from home.
“We were shocked, like the country was. It’s so far from your imagination that it just hit you as impossible, but it was fact,” Wortham recalled. “We talked about the country. We talked about home. It knitted us together. We had a shared sense of mission.”
Wortham shares her experiences and teaches courses for students in the interdisciplinary Stevenson Center programs.
ISU is unique in having both a Peace Corps Fellows program for returning volunteers and a Master’s International program for volunteers heading to their first assignment.
The students take classes together and work on service projects. The center provides service to communities through such activities as economic impact analyses and forecasting, brownfields redevelopment, grant-writing training and geographic information systems analysis.
“I really hope that people will consider the great benefit of having these students in the community,” Beyer said. “These are amazing people who come and do amazing things.”
Among the first to recognize that benefit was political science professor Bob Hunt, who helped found the Stevenson Center in 1994 and retired in 2002.
Hunt said the returning volunteers have “created a climate of action and community commitment” that benefits the university as well as surrounding communities.
“It’s good to track it back to the Kennedy vision,” Hunt said. “It certainly motivates a lot of students.”