11/19/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Kennedy Legacy: Thinking of Where and Who You Are

As we approach the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the usual stories abound of where you were when you first heard of the president's death. I was a nursing student in Louisiana, less than a year away from graduation.

A group of us were in our psychiatric affiliation at the Southeast Louisiana State Hospital in Mandeville, Louisiana. That weekend we were determined to head back to New Orleans. Classes were during the week and the weekends were pretty eventless. However, as we started out, one of the students who planned to go home instead and had gone to check the mail before leaving, stopped our car to tell us the president had been shot. We turned back.

For the next several days we sat in the student cottage in what would become a marathon of tears as we watched the events unfold on our small television set.

Like so many Americans, life became more unpredictable, sad, and mysterious.

I had only seen President Kennedy once from a roadside. Our first year was primarily spent taking pre-nursing college courses at Tulane University. That was how I came to be standing by the side of the road when his motorcade passed on its way to the Trade Mart in 1961.

As an idealist, this young, charismatic president called to me, as he did to so many other people my age. And his few short years in office left their legacy in a number of ways. Mostly it was the Vietnam war and civil rights that would have an enormous impact on my life and that of my family.

My youngest brother, and my husband, would both serve in the Vietnam conflict, while I was strongly opposed to our involvement. Civil rights for all was at the heart of the value system of our family, which made us different from others in our small Texas town.

But it was one program in particular that would change the course of my life, and that of hundreds of thousands of others. It was the creation of the Peace Corps. It gave those of us who had a calling for public service as first entry point.

Today students have the opportunity to study abroad for a semester. What an incredible way to see the world and understand other cultures. It was Peace Corps in the 1961 that opened the door for an in-depth experience of living and working with people in developing countries. It was Peace Corps that either furthered the experience or gave you a new experience of what community activism could mean for local people. It was Peace Corps that really crossed gender boundaries and said that women could contribute as meaningfully as men in societal change.

Here we are over 50 years later once again talking about where we were when John Kennedy died. Rather than that, why don't we change the discussion? Who are you as a result of those few brief visionary years when John Kennedy was president?