Working for world peace was not the main reason Dave Owens signed up for the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
"The thing that was on my mind was Vietnam," he said. "I could have been drafted. The Peace Corps was a better alternative for me."
A biology major, he worked with fishermen in Fiji from 1968 to 1971, then returned to school. Now he's an environmental studies professor at the College of Charleston.
Owens was one of thousands of young
Americans -- and some older ones, as well -- who spent two years of their lives in the Peace Corps. The agency is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A new study that evaluates the effectiveness of its mission was released last week.
The study, "A Call to Peace," was based on surveys of 11,138 former Peace Corps volunteers. More than 90 percent said they believed their service helped the people they served understand Americans better.
The agency was founded on the premise that cross-cultural understanding promotes world peace. The mission costs some money, but it's cheaper than war, the reasoning goes.
"That (the peace mission) was definitely one thing that was in our minds," Owens said. "Definitely idealism has to play into it, because you are not going to be very comfortable for two years."
He served before Internet and cellphones. He made $27 a month, and a three-minute phone call cost $50.
Now Owens oversees a master's program that includes service in the Peace Corps. He calls it a smart career move.
"It's a great way to get started in international fields," he said. "It's a huge plus if you're interested in international business or finance."
Several studies show that Peace Corps volunteers earn 20 percent to 30 percent more than their peers 10 years after their service, he said.
"You take a dip in your pay, but 10 years out, you've passed your colleagues," he said.
Charleston attorney Lindsey Cooper Jr. served in the Peace Corps after graduating from The University of the South, an Episcopal school in Sewanee, Tenn. He taught English in Kazakhstan from 1995 to 1997.
"It was how I chose to serve my country," he said. "You go into the military and do your service or do something else like the Peace Corps. At the time, I thought it would be better to serve the country in the Peace Corps."
He saw the influence an American could have on a local culture when a television reporter asked him why he had big sideburns like Elvis Presley. He told the reporter in jest that's how all young American men looked. Pretty soon, he noticed a lot of young local men growing Elvis chops.
President John F. Kennedy envisioned 100,000 young Americans serving in the Peace Corps each year, coming back home connected with the rest of the world. Congress appropriated $40 million for the new agency Sept. 22, 1961.
The Peace Corps' current budget is $400 million. That pays for about 8,600 volunteers in 76 countries that invite American aid. The number of volunteers is limited by the budget, not the number of willing volunteers, according to Ken Ayers, regional manager of the Peace Corps' Atlanta office.
The study, which was done by Civic Enterprises and the National Peace Corps Association, called for increasing the number of Peace Corps workers to 15,000 by 2015. But it also noted some areas for improvement.
For example, almost all the volunteers were happy with their cultural mission, but less than a third said they were confident they had accomplished their practical work goals. Only a fourth said their assignment was clear and they were adequately trained for it.
The study also called for more concern over the safety of female volunteers. The document noted the 2009 murder of Kate Puzey of Atlanta in Benin, West Africa. She was found with her throat slit after she complained that a contractor working for the Peace Corps at the school where she was volunteering had raped students.
"The details of the Puzey tragedy shined a spotlight on the Peace Corps' inadequate handling of the case," the report notes. "After the tragedy, more Peace Corps volunteers who had been victims of assault during their service came forward to draw attention to what they saw as Peace Corps' uneven and inadequate handling of safety issues and a culture they described as 'blame the victim.'"
This May, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and outlined an agenda for safety reform.
At a time when Congress is looking for ways to trim billions from the federal budget, some conservatives are asking whether the Peace Corps has served its purpose. The Charleston Tea Party put out this statement when asked whether the agency should be funded with taxpayer dollars:
"It's not clear that the federal government is empowered by the Constitution to spend our tax dollars in this way. Therefore, I think it's fair to say that, while they do great work, we would view the Peace Corps as an example of secular missionary work that would be most appropriately funded privately."
Owens, the College of Charleston professor, cringes at that sentiment.
"If we want to isolate ourselves, that's very shortsighted," Owens said. "I would think the Peace Corps is a heck of a bargain for us in terms of international relations."