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The Modern Peace Corps: Interview with Carrie Hessler-Radelet

Published 5/11/2015
Carrie Hessler-Radelet - Peace Corps
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Director of the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet is the fourth generation of her family to have served in the Peace Corps. Hessler-Radelet herself was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. Appointed Deputy Director in 2010, she became Acting Director in 2012 and was appointed Peace Corps Director in 2014.

Hessler-Radelet's experience and knowledge are very apparent in the profound changes she has made as the Director. She led the first comprehensive agency assessment since the founding of the Peace Corps. Results of the assessment have produced exciting results. What was once an 8-hour application process has been reduced to one hour. Potential Volunteers can now specify where they want to serve and apply to specific programs. In the past a prospective Volunteer was unaware of either where they would serve or in what capacity. The safety and health of Peace Corps Volunteers, one of Hessler-Radelet’s major concerns, has been addressed and improved with new initiatives. 

Hessler-Radelet's two decades of working in public health was instrumental in the creation of the Peace Corps Office of Global Health and HIV and the Global Health Service Partnership that sends physicians and nurses to teach in developing countries. 

Carrie Hessler-Radelet while volunteering
Carrie Hessler-Radelet in the field while serving in the Peace Corps.

The Director of the Peace Corps, Hessler-Radelet, very graciously responded to questions in the following interview from Transitions Abroad's Editor-in-Chief Greg Hubbs, and John Dwyer, Transitions Abroad's Contributing Editor for Senior Volunteer Service and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer himself who served in Guatemala in 1991-92 

Greg Hubbs: At a conference December 9, 2014 hosted by the White House ("The White House Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship") — where there was a concerted and clearly coordinated effort by the Administration to increase the quantity and diversity of young Americans going abroad for many reasons ranging from educational to humanitarian to diplomatic to economic and more... — you mentioned that the Peace Corps is one volunteer assignment where you can enter the force "broke" and walk away with a stipend after service. You also suggested that it is a great way to learn languages and gain cultural experience. The experience sounded so life-changing that we wished that we could join on the spot!

Since the prevailing view in the volunteer field is that the most effective volunteers are those who can bring some tangible skills to the table, what qualifications and personality characteristics do you look for in a Peace Corps candidate and how would any individual looking to sign up know that they are realistically a good candidate?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Peace Corps service is highly competitive, and we’re looking for applicants with a college degree and a commitment to serve others. Volunteers come from all walks of life and have a broad range of skill sets and career priorities. Some potential volunteers will be interested in a specific area of the world, others in a specific language, program, or sector area. Flexibility, an open mind and a willingness to learn are strong qualities that make successful volunteers.

Following historic changes to our application and selection process last summer, applicants can now view the required skills for each open volunteer position. So applicants can choose their country of service and apply to specific programs that meet their personal and professional goals. Potential applicants can also speak with a Peace Corps recruiter in their area or attend a local recruitment event to learn more.

G.H.: What sort of training do you provide?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: The Peace Corps provides volunteers with thorough and comprehensive training so they can have a safe and productive volunteer experience. Once invitees have accepted their Peace Corps assignment, we provide online training materials and country-specific information. When volunteers arrive in country, they participate in pre-service training, which includes about three months of intensive cultural, language, safety and technical training. Volunteers often stay with host families during this period to help them integrate into their communities. After being sworn into service and moving to permanent sites, volunteers continue to receive formal training and support from in-country Peace Corps staff throughout their service.

G.H.: You spoke at the conference about the importance now being placed on both diversity of destination and diversity of minority participation. You said that you were proud of the more than 60 countries, and growing, in which the Peace Corps operates and that 25% of volunteers are now minorities. We are pleased to hear about the amount of diversity in the program. How have you managed to achieve such progress?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: A diverse and inclusive environment is essential to achieving the Peace Corps mission. We are committed to ensuring the Peace Corps represents the rich diversity of the United States. We want every American to know about the Peace Corps, and we want to reflect the diversity of America in our volunteers abroad. Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity and National Outreach aims to recruit a diverse pool of volunteers and build an inclusive culture that welcomes applicants and volunteers from all backgrounds. Since the announcement of our recruitment reforms last July, we have hired dedicated diversity recruiters and are forming partnerships with diverse organizations, including Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We also host diversity focused recruitment events to give prospective applicants the opportunity to learn about the benefits of Peace Corps service and the value of global cross-cultural exchange.

G.H.: Is there diversity in the age of those who enter to serve as well given that the "boomer" generation has demonstrated such a strong desire to volunteer, as have so-called Millennials?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: There is! The Peace Corps is a life-defining experience for Americans of all ages. While the average age of our volunteers is 28, Peace Corps volunteers range in age from 18-80. In fact, 7 percent of currently serving volunteers are over the age of 50. Volunteers age 50 and over bring unique life skills and professional experiences with them that allow them to make an instant impact in the communities they serve around the world. They play a valuable role as mentors and resources for our younger volunteers.

G.H.: Applicants have many new options with recent changes in the Peace Corps, including being able to choose both the destination and the type of volunteer work to perform. How do you manage matching applicants' desires with available spots so that very "desirable" locations and types of work are not in competition and there is a balance of assignments versus applicants?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: With these changes in place, we are better positioned to offer applicants assignments where they have the most interest in serving and are able to make the greatest contribution. As part of the application process, applicants can apply to up to 3 specific programs at a time, including the option to say, “send me where I’m needed.” Since our reforms were implemented, we’ve seen that about 54 percent of applicants have selected the option to serve anywhere they’re needed, and 49 percent have selected the option to serve in any of Peace Corps’ six work sectors. We also have a waiting list system in place to ensure all posts receive the volunteers they need.

John Dwyer: How does the Peace Corps determine what type of volunteer skills are needed in the host countries?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Our volunteers serve at the invitation of our host countries, and our staff works with host country governments to identify their needs and goals, and that guides the types of volunteer assignments we offer in each Peace Corps country.  

G.H.: As many relatively young people are volunteers in the Peace Corps, how do you assure parents that such a long-term commitment is in their young son's or daughter's best interest?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: The Peace Corps is a rewarding and challenging opportunity, and we recognize that the support of friends and family is tremendously important for volunteers as they embark on their service. We have an entire section on our website dedicated to the friends and family of volunteers, and our recruiters often host friends and family events so they can learn more about the Peace Corps experience. Our Peace Corps’ Family and Friends Guide helps answer some of the most frequently asked questions, and our Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services has a Peace Corps Family and Friends Facebook group to connect family members and friends of currently serving and returned Peace Corps volunteers. I’ve heard from so many volunteers that their service changed their life and helped them find their passion, as it did for me. Hearing from returned volunteers firsthand has a big impact.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet with local family
Carrie Hessler-Radelet with another volunteer and community members in the field while serving in the Peace Corps.

Gregory Hubbs: Do you reach out to the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to spread the word to others and perhaps to their own children and relatives?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Peace Corps’ Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services supports our alumni network of nearly 220,000 returned volunteers and provides career, education, and transition assistance. We publish online job announcements, graduate school information, and career-related articles and advice; sponsors career events throughout the year across the country; and help returned volunteers translate their field experience for prospective employers. Returned volunteers often participate in Peace Corps recruitment events to share their experiences, and we also work closely with the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit alumni organization for returned volunteers.

J.D.:  In the past, there have been some concerns about the safety of volunteers at their Peace Corps sites. What steps have been taken to bolster both personal safety training and security procedures?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Volunteers’ health, safety and security are our absolute highest priorities, and we are deeply committed to providing volunteers with world-class training, guidance and support so they remain healthy, safe and productive throughout their service. As a mother, as a woman, as a returned Peace Corps volunteer, there is no issue I care about more – or one that I spend more time on. Over the last few years, working with nationally recognized experts, we have implemented extensive new policies and practices that reduce risks for volunteers and ensure effective and compassionate support when crime does occur. As a result, our volunteers are better informed, better trained, and better supported. There has been nothing short of a broad culture shift at the Peace Corps, and our approach is volunteer-centered every step of the way.

J.D.: You have streamlined both the application packet and the application process. How long, on average, is the waiting period before an applicant knows whether they have been accepted as a volunteer?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: One of the key changes to our application process is that every Peace Corps position now has “apply by” and “know by” deadlines, so applicants know when to expect an invitation. These deadlines give applicants more certainty than ever and help them plan for their future. We are working to take every potential volunteer from application to invitation in three months — no more waiting six, nine, 12 months or more to hear whether you were selected to serve. If you apply on time, you’ll know if you were selected on time — just like applying to college or for a job. Anyone who wants to make a difference can explore available service opportunities and learn more at PeaceCorps.gov/openings.

J.D.: What is the percentage of volunteers over the age of 50 and how does the Peace Corps reach out to recruit such volunteers?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: About 7 percent of volunteers currently in service are age 50 and over. Peace Corps service is a great way for older Americans to continue their careers and use their life experiences in a non-traditional environment.

The Peace Corps has partnered with AARP since 2011 to connect older people with more service opportunities in the United States and abroad. The agency continues to collaborate with AARP and frequently attends AARP’s annual “Life @ 50+” conventions. In 2013, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet published an op-ed in The Journal, AARP’s premier international publication, and last year, Peace Corps honored AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins with the Franklin H. Williams Director’s Award for her continued support of the Peace Corps mission and her steadfast commitment to the cause of peace and civic involvement.

We also talk with interested applicants who have more experience about our Peace Corps Response and Global Health Service Partnership programs. Peace Corps Response offers short-term, high-impact overseas assignments for returned Peace Corps volunteers or professionals with at least 10 years of work experience. And our Global Health Service Partnership is an innovative public-private partnership program with the U.S. Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Seed Global Health that places qualified nurses, physicians and other health professionals as adjunct faculty in medical or nursing schools overseas.

G.H.: We know that Returned Volunteers seem to have had disproportionate success in their careers. What do you think are the primary qualities carried forth from the volunteer experience that have enabled so many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to become successful freelancers, entrepreneurs, and great leaders?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Peace Corps volunteers return home as global citizens with new perspectives. They have cross-cultural, leadership, language, teaching and community development skills that give them a competitive edge for advanced education and job opportunities in today’s global economy. They also develop vital life skills, such as perseverance and flexibility, and get hands-on program management experience. In our interconnected world, these are vital skills that employers are looking for now more than ever. The unique Peace Corps experience helps returned volunteers find success across a number of fields and industries, and many continue their service in their local communities.

G.H.: You told a moving story at the conference at the White House about Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi. Can you share it and some of the lessons offered?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Sure. There are so many great stories of the work of our Peace Corps volunteers. In Malawi, Peace Corps volunteer Dwayne Matthews works as a community health advisor. Dwayne reports that his most effective activity is Project METHOD, which stands for Malawian Empowerment Through Hip Hop & Organization Development. He mobilizes youth throughout local villages to use the hip hop culture of rap, breakdancing and graffiti art as a tool to talk about unsafe cultural practices, HIV/AIDS, gender empowerment, safe sex, and behavior change. Through Project METHOD, youth learn to express themselves creatively while also becoming change agents within their community.

Dwayne says, “One of the great opportunities I have had, being an African American in the Peace Corps, is being able to share with Malawians the rich history and contributions African Americans have made to the United States. But most important to me, as an African American volunteer, is understanding the complexities and dynamics of my heritage and having a newfound appreciation of my race and culture, with the intention to encourage more African American presence on a global level.”

G.H.: What are your long-term goals for the Peace Corps in terms of membership and growth?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: The demand for Peace Corps is great, and we hope to increase our volunteers in the field in the coming years. We have been absolutely thrilled to see such an enthusiastic response to the reforms we announced last summer. We know that Americans today want to make a difference, and we’ve seen that when we offer a simpler, clearer process for service, Americans will raise their hands to serve in record numbers. So while we hope to grow our volunteer footprint, we can only support the number of volunteers that our resources allow for.

G.H.: You are from a very inspiring family where four generations have worked in the Peace Corps. What percentage of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers continue in related fields, such as becoming aid workers or a life of service related to volunteering?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: What I can tell you is that many of our Peace Corps volunteers pursue job opportunities in development after their service, and employers seek out Peace Corps volunteers because they know how valuable they are as employees. Hundreds of employers across nonprofit organizations and government participate in our career development events each year to network with and hire returned volunteers, including the U.S. Department of State, Doctors Without Borders, and John Snow, Inc. And we know that no matter what our volunteers do after their service, the great majority of them continue to serve their communities here at home.

* * *

Transitions Abroad wishes to express our appreciation to Carrie Hessler-Radelet for the time she found to answer our questions with regard to the Peace Corps. Clearly, in her role as Director she has and is making progressive changes to an already stellar and visionary program that promises to increase future participation by Americans — from the current 25% of volunteers who are minorities and volunteers of all ages — in locations where there are communities in need across the world. We strongly recommend that you look at the program seriously as an opportunity to not only provide much-needed volunteer work, gain deeper intercultural experience, and enhance the likelihood of success in your endeavors after service — as have so many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the past.

Please visit the excellent Peace Corps website, and rich social media homes on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, PInterest, Youtube, Tumbler, and Instagram for much more information and resources.

In addition, Transitions Abroad has noted that over our history since we were founded in 1977 that some of the finest submissions from participants and professional travel writers alike are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We strongly encourage current and future members to share their own experiences for publication on our website (on a paid basis for your time) as a continuation of your invaluable service and as yet another way to spread the word about your own unique experience and perspective.

 More by John Dwyer, Contributing Editor on Senior Volunteer Service Abroad
Interview of Nicholas D. Kristof on his book "A Path Appears" and Volunteering
International Volunteering Over 50
Professional Services Volunteering Over 50
International Disaster Volunteering Over 50

 
 
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