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Peace Corps and Federal Way woman go back 50 years
Created with Executive Order 10924 on March 1, 1961, by president John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
The Peace Corps was established to help promote world peace and friendship. For Federal Way resident Nancy Robertson, who joined in 1962, the call of adventure and service offered by the Peace Corps was too much to resist.
“I was from a small town in Wyoming, and I hadn’t been any place,” Robertson said. “My parents had both been volunteers all their life. I was interested in that aspect of it, and I was interested in the adventure aspect of it and living in another culture.”
Robertson would eventually be sent to the jungle-bound country of what was then called North Borneo. Before she could make the trip to the tiny island nation in the South Pacific, she said the government put its first groups of Peace Corps volunteers through intense training.
“It was a three-month training. They brought in native language speakers from Malaya. They brought in a lot of people from the State Department to teach us area studies,” she said. “We also had a tremendous amount of psychological screening. They had a psychiatrist there the whole time with us.”
Robertson said the presence of the State Department was because of the belief within the government that Peace Corps volunteers might be viewed as CIA agents in disguise, or as spies. Also, because the program was brand new, there was a palpable concern that Peace Corps volunteers could cause an international incident, she said.
Physically, the training was just as rigorous.
“We had to learn soccer because that was the country’s biggest sport,” she said. “Because it was a very undeveloped country with lots of rivers, they wanted to make sure we could survive in the water. So we had a huge amount of swimming we had to do. We had to swim two lengths of a pool underwater.”
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she added with a laugh.
Outside of State Department instruction and physical training, Robertson said the government sent their “men in suits” to prospective volunteers’ hometowns to find out all they could.
“They sent the FBI to investigate your background. They sent them to my hometown (of Worland), which is hysterical because it’s a little town in Wyoming. The FBI was going around asking all these questions, and (the people in my hometown) found that very entertaining,” she said.
After all that, Robertson finally made the trip to North Borneo. Robertson’s area of expertise was medical technology, so she spent time in the hospital in the capital city of Jesselton (now known as Kota Kinabalu). Her goal was to help bring hospital practices and equipment into the 20th century as much as possible, she said.
Robertson’s time in North Borneo coincided with the country’s transition from a British colony to becoming part of Malaysia. For a small town girl from Wyoming, it wasn’t the exotic mix of Chinese, Malay and Tamil Indian peoples that provided the most culture shock, but the colonial British.
“I had always been fascinated and read about colonies, but to actually see that in action was quite an amazing thing,” she said.
Robertson said the people of North Borneo were happy and receptive to the American presence they now found in their lives, but the British were less than enthusiastic.
“The British were not happy. At least, my perception was, they didn’t particularly like having the Peace Corps there. They saw Americans as the brash, young know-it-alls,” she said.
As the country transitioned from British rule to the Malaysian state, Robertson said another group made themselves known as the British let go of one of their last remaining colonies.
“The headhunters were active during that time,” she said.
As the Peace Corps gears up for celebrating its 50th anniversary, Robertson believes it’s more important than ever for American youth to serve in another culture.
“It’s really important for America, for young people to go overseas and spend time living in another culture,” she said. “It allows you to look at yourself differently, it allows you to look at your country differently. It gives you insight in to how other people live.”
Established to help promote world peace and friendship, the Peace Corps’ main goals are threefold:
1. Help the people of interested countries for meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
For more information on the Peace Corps and its 50th anniversary celebration, visit www.peacecorps.gov.