After the Peace Corps, I worked as a lawyer for about 11 years in Michigan, and for the past 31 years I have been a professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University – just retiring in May of this year. During my years at Boise State, I have also taught internationally four times through our USAC Studies Abroad program, spending a semester each in Spain (Basque Country), Chile, Italy and China.
Those experiences have reinforced my beliefs about the importance of an understanding and appreciation of different cultures, which I first learned in the Peace Corps.
The United States Peace Corps is a well-known and respected program, now in its 51st year, that places volunteers in sites around the world. Volunteers spend two years or more working in a wide variety of jobs to assist low-income people. There are currently some 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 76 countries, at the request of the governments of those nations, performing services under the general direction of the host countries. Over the past 50 years more than 200,000 people have served as Peace Corps volunteers, including more than 1,300 from Idaho.
What do Peace Corps volunteers do when they come home? Business today is global in scope. We may debate whether this is good or not, but globalization is here. It is difficult to name any type of business that is not affected by, or directly involved in, international commerce. During my 31 years of teaching business students at Boise State (both undergrads and MBAs) there has been a steady and continual increase in the importance of “international business.”
Being knowledgeable about the international nature of business means knowing something about international financial and economic issues and business trends, and employment and management and marketing practices. And it means appreciating and understanding important cultural and social aspects of different regions and nationalities. Speaking the language of another nation is a major added bonus in doing business. Returned Peace Corps volunteers have acquired all of these skills and attributes, and more.
Believe it or not, people all over the world—Asian, African, South American, European or American—care about the health and welfare of their children and parents, desire decent and rewarding jobs, and want to live in peace and harmony. At the same time, people around the world go about their daily life in vastly different ways, and have different views about the relationship of work and family, and the role of government and religion in their lives, as well as the duties of an individual toward the larger society and community, and expectations about the future.
Understanding these differences in values, beliefs and expectations affects every business enterprise that expects to operate in a global environment. There is no better way to appreciate these differences than living for several years at a local level in a foreign country – and that is what Peace Corps volunteers have done. Volunteers undertake a “regular” job in each country – perhaps working in a public health clinic, teaching in a community school, working to train preschool teachers at a “basic school,” or assisting a group of fishermen or farmers or small businesses in achieving more effective operating practices. Volunteers live like locals (often with a local family – not in a fancy “western” neighborhood), are trained to speak the language of the country where they are located, interact with local people in that language, and conduct their daily lives in accordance with the culture and principles of their location.
Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers have gone into a variety of jobs with private businesses as well as governmental and nongovernmental agencies upon their return to the U.S. They have found that the understanding of different languages, cultures and values gained in the Peace Corps has given them a great advantage when they are asked to assist in “global” enterprises. Instead of just saying “well, that’s how we do it in the United States,” the returned volunteers are able to adapt the best practices of U.S. firms to the different conditions, expectations and mores of the country in which they are operating.
The Peace Corps experience not only allowed them to help improve the lives of low-income people in a foreign nation, but it also gave them the understanding and tools to be a more effective businessperson upon their return to the United States – a double benefit.
Michael Bixby retired this year after 31 years as a professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University.