U-M's role in Peace Corps History

On October 14, 1960, at approximately 2:00 a.m., Senator John F. Kennedy addressed more than 5,000 students from the steps of the Michigan Union in an unprepared campaign speech. He challenged them to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. In the speech's aftermath, hundreds of U-M students signed a petition saying they would volunteer. About two weeks later, in one of his final campaign speeches (delivered in San Francisco), Kennedy formally proposed "a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country…for three years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service."

On November 6, two days before the presidential election, three carloads of U-M students drove down to Toledo, Ohio, to show Senator Kennedy the signed petitions. One graduate student asked: "Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?" "Until Tuesday we'll worry about this nation," Kennedy replied. "After Tuesday, the world." Two days later, Kennedy won the presidency and on March 1, 1961, he signed an Executive Order that officially established the Peace Corps.

"It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty," wrote Sargent Shriver, JFK's brother-in-law and the Peace Corps' first director. "Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion."

Since the establishment of the Peace Corps, nearly 2,200 U-M graduates have volunteered—the fourth largest number of any university. They have lived and served in more than 44 countries, putting their education and experiences to work in health, training, business, information technology, education, agriculture, the environment, and other areas. To learn more about Peace Corps history at U-M, explore the following sections:

More about the Role of U-M Faculty/Students in Peace Corps History:


Colby Schneider Halloran, U-M Alum: "My father photographed Kennedy that night. He was photographing a democratic candidate, Tom Paine (who appears next to Kennedy in many photographs.) He went to Willow Run airport to meet Kennedy's plane. When Kennedy came out of the plane he was met by a crushing crowd on the tarmac. My father, who was taking publicity photos for Paine, was meant to escort Kennedy back to a nearby hotel for photographs before coming to AA. He called "Jack!" and recalled how Kennedy went straight to him, took his hand and my father led him to the car waiting for them. In the crowd, my father's glasses were knocked off. He had to photograph him that night (4x5 Speed Graphic camera) without his glasses (nightmare for a photographer). Later he went back to the tarmac and found his glasses unbroken which he forever associated with Kennedy magic. The day JFK was assassinated we heard this story at home, having never heard it before. My father was Samuel F. Schneider."

Darryl R. Cochrane (U-M BA, MBA, and JD): "I got to the steps of the Union and waited 10 hours to see and hear JFK. By 2:00 am, when he spoke, there were thousands of students. I was probably 5 yards from him. As he stood on the Union steps I was to his left. I was so crowded that I couldn't move my arms. I saw a girl pass out near me, maybe 2 feet away, and she couldn't fall down. Her head just rolled around freely. I have no doubt that if she had fallen she would have been trampled. I heard the speech but I was so concerned about safety I didn't realize the full import of what he said until later."