UCLA Spotlight

Applauding Public Service

  • Published Jun 3, 2011 8:00 AM

Aaron S. Williams

This year’s UCLA College of Letters and Science commencement, on Friday, June 10, will highlight the spirit of public service in the global community. Keynote speaker will be Aaron S. Williams, director of the Peace Corps and a former Peace Corps volunteer. At the ceremony, Williams will receive the UCLA Medal, the highest honor the university bestows, in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to the development of assistance programs throughout the world.

Williams is returning to campus after being here in March for UCLA’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and UCLA’s early involvement in training Peace Corps volunteers for service in Africa and Latin America.

During the commencement ceremony at Drake Stadium, 139 graduating seniors will pay tribute to the Peace Corps by carrying flags representing each of the nations the organization has served.

UCLA ranks eighth among all universities in the nation in the number of Peace Corps volunteers. To date, more than 1,800 alumni have served; 92 alumni are currently serving in 46 countries; and 25 members of the class of 2011 have applied to serve.

The same spirit is manifest on campus, where about half of UCLA's undergraduates participate in some form of community service, from tutoring young people and combating poverty and homelessness to providing legal, social, medical and educational assistance to others. For example, the student speaker at Friday’s ceremony, Elisabeth Pettygrove, has participated in community outreach programs throughout her academic career. Pettygrove, who is receiving a B.A. in history, led health workshops for students from low-income high schools in Los Angeles, worked in homeless shelters and served as a literacy tutor. In 2008 she designed a conference where college students experienced the struggles of the poor and marginalized people around the world. After graduation, she will teach high school English and social studies in Mississippi as part of Teach for America.

Williams became Peace Corps director in August 2009 and is the fourth director in Peace Corps history to have served as a volunteer. During his service in the Dominican Republic, Williams, who is fluent in Spanish, helped to train rural school teachers. Following that service, he pursued a career in the development of worldwide assistance programs in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. As USAID mission director in South Africa, he led a foreign assistance program during the administration of President Nelson Mandela. He was awarded the USAID Distinguished Career Service Award and has twice received the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service.

At Friday’s ceremony, approximately 4,000 students will receive bachelor's degrees. About 10,000 family members and friends of the graduates are expected to attend.