Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Public Policy & Administration

First Advisor

Saltanat Liebert, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Sarah Raskin, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Richard Huff, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

G. Antonio Espinoza, Ph.D.


Beginning in the Summer of 1961, the United States government has deployed volunteer humanitarians around the world to serve the mission of U.S. Peace Corps and has since contributed to communities in 143 partner countries while enjoying widespread popularity. Its mission of promoting world peace and friendship is pursued through three operational goals: technical training, cultural exportation, and cultural importation. Since 2016, with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and continuing through the Covid-19 pandemic, which produced the first global service interruption in agency history, the value of the Peace Corps service model has been fundamentally challenged. As a key federal agency charged with pursuing cultural diplomacy and shaping foreign perception of the United States, Peace Corps depends on thousands of 1-on-1 grassroots relationships to accomplish its mission in a strict manifestation of street-level bureaucracy. By conducting a qualitative study of 26 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Ecuador, using first-person interviews with open-ended questioning, this research attempts to explain what makes volunteer relationships with host-country nationals valuable and how those relationships are a strategic asset to U.S. foreign policy. After analyzing the collected data iteratively and assigning emergent codes to developing themes, the subsequent findings explain that U.S. presence in foreign communities is beneficial when it is premised on developing authentic interpersonal relationships. This relationship dynamic and diplomatic approach supports the notion that building trust is requisite for sustainability, and that a variety of cultural and historical symbols have a sizeable role in how these relationships are interpreted. Acknowledging these symbols in an appropriate context are fundamental to successful cultural diplomacy. A consistent them throughout the research is the impact of wealth and light-colored skin on multicultural relationships. As a result of the perspectives and stories gathered, implications form around the need for diversity in Peace Corps volunteer recruitment, the importance of an enhanced focus on empathetic cultural competency for volunteers, the criticality of a bottom-up approach for good governance, and the pervasive influence of 3rd party mediums on cultural branding.


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Available for download on Sunday, December 14, 2025