BU Alum Heads Peace Corps
For Hessler-Radelet, service is a family tradition
Carrie Hessler-Radelet applied to the Peace Corps in her early 20s after an inspirational conversation with her grandmother, one of many family members who served with the agency. Last month, after being nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the organization, she became the 19th director of the Peace Corps following a bipartisan vote of the US Senate confirming her appointment. Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79) and her husband taught in Western Samoa as Peace Corps volunteers from 1981 to 1983—an experience she describes as “life-changing.” After decades working in global public health, Hessler-Radelet returned to the agency—established by executive order of President John F. Kennedy—as deputy director in 2010.
“I’d like to thank President Obama and the US Senate for their confidence in me to be the next director of the Peace Corps. I am honored to have the opportunity to serve our volunteers—past and present—as their director,” said Hessler-Radelet after her confirmation. “Like so many Peace Corps volunteers, my service changed my life, shaped my passion for international development, and inspired my career. As director, I want to offer more Americans the life-defining experience of Peace Corps service and help them make a difference in the years ahead.”
Before joining Peace Corps leadership, Hessler-Radelet was vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of John Snow, Inc., a global public health organization, where she oversaw the management of public health programs in more than 85 countries. Hessler-Radelet was actively involved in the implementation of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and a founder in 1986 of the Special Olympics in The Gambia.
BU Today asked Hessler-Radelet about her priorities as director, how the Peace Corps has evolved since its creation in 1961, and BU’s special relationship with the agency as one of its top recruiting universities.
BU Today: What are your priorities as Peace Corps director?
Hessler-Radelet: At my Senate confirmation hearing, I laid out my vision for the future of the agency. I envision the Peace Corps as a dynamic, forward-leaning champion for international service. I see it as the place for Americans who are drawn to service abroad. And I envision a Peace Corps that is defined by its energy, innovation, and impact. As we move forward, our charge is to forge a 21st-century Peace Corps that bridges our founding ideals with the realities of our modern times.
Our gaze is set firmly on the horizon, and the future of the Peace Corps has never been brighter.
What are some of the reforms you’ve instituted at the Peace Corps as both deputy and, now, director?
Since returning to the Peace Corps as deputy director in 2010, I have spearheaded extensive, agency-wide reform to update and strengthen all aspects of the Peace Corps’ operations. Over the past four years, we have carried out the most extensive reform effort this agency has ever undertaken to modernize all aspects of our operations, with a focus on boosting support for our volunteers. Now, we are undertaking a sweeping effort to revamp our volunteer application and selection process, and to revitalize our recruitment and outreach so that every American knows about the Peace Corps.
We have dramatically improved the quality of support we provide to volunteers, particularly in the areas of health care and safety and security, which will always be our absolute highest priorities. We have instituted a country portfolio review process that guides agency decisions on where and how we place volunteers throughout the world. This process helps us strategically target the Peace Corps’ resources and country presence to maximize our impact, and uses data to guide our decision-making.
Using modern technology, innovative approaches, and improved business processes, we are streamlining the agency’s management and operations to create a culture of excellence. The agency is deepening its partnerships with host country governments, colleges and universities, nongovernmental organizations, and donors to increase the return on our development investments and ensure projects are implemented effectively, owned by the local community, monitored and evaluated, and sustained over time.
Can you comment on your role in expanding the Peace Corps’ commitment to global health and HIV prevention?
I have worked in public health for the past two decades, specializing in HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health. Prior to my confirmation as Peace Corps deputy director, I was vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of John Snow, Inc. (JSI), a global public health organization where I oversaw the management of public health programs in more than 85 countries. My Peace Corps service was a call to arms, and my career was set from that point on in maternal and child health—a career that led me directly back to the Peace Corps 25 years later.
Because our volunteers stay for two years and integrate into their communities, they specialize in delivering services at the last mile. They work in close collaboration with other development partners and have the training, skills, and relationships in the community to ensure that life-saving health interventions are delivered effectively, owned by the community, and sustained over time. Ownership by the host country is critical to any effective global health investment, which is why Peace Corps projects are developed in collaboration with local counterparts.
One great example is the Global Health Service Partnership. The Peace Corps partners with the nonprofit Seed Global Health, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR, and ministries of health in Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi to send US doctors and nurses to underserved communities to improve medical and nursing education and strengthen local health systems. By training the next generation of medical professionals and delivering hands-on care, our volunteers are bringing about sustainable change.
How has the Peace Corps evolved since your own service and do you think its mission needs to be updated?
Volunteers today still want to make a difference in their communities, forge strong relationships with their counterparts and neighbors, master the local language, represent our country well, and bring home a better understanding of the countries they serve—just as I did. The Peace Corps’ mission to promote world peace and friendship has remained the same for more than 50 years, and it continues to guide the work we do. But the world has changed significantly since President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps, and we have to adapt to remain relevant.
Technology has changed the way we communicate, and we have tremendous new opportunities to seize. Many volunteers now use technology to augment their projects and forge relationships that benefit their communities. Technology also tethers volunteers to the United States in ways that were not possible when I served 30 years ago.
Volunteers today are also more anxious to see results from their efforts, and anticipate that they will be held accountable and receive feedback on their performance. Volunteers want the skills to make a difference, and they want to be able to gauge their impact. Most importantly, volunteers today expect a high level of safety, security, and medical support during their service, and we have spent the last several years improving the quality of our programs to enhance volunteer support.
Our volunteers continue to be motivated by a spirit of service, but they have the tools of the 21st century.
In what nations or parts of the world is volunteer activity the highest?
The Peace Corps is active in 66 countries around the world—in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. About 46 percent of volunteers serve in Africa across 24 nations, and 20 percent of volunteers serve in Latin America. Zambia and Senegal are two of our largest programs, each with more than 250 currently serving volunteers. Historically, the Philippines has hosted the most volunteers, with more than 8,700 volunteers serving there since 1961. Throughout the agency’s history, Peace Corps volunteers have served in 140 countries. Earlier this month, our first class of volunteers arrived in our newest country, Kosovo.
The Peace Corps is unique among service organizations because our volunteers live and work at the community level—they go the last mile where most development agencies, and even host governments, rarely reach.
In what ways is the Peace Corps becoming more diverse with regard to age and ethnicity of volunteers? Are you targeting any specific populations for recruitment?
The Peace Corps is committed to fielding a volunteer force that reflects the rich diversity of America and represents the beautiful multicultural nation that we are. We’re stepping up our efforts to recruit in underrepresented communities and expanding our recruitment staff; we’re embracing new platforms for telling our story and casting a wider net than ever before, so that every American knows about the Peace Corps.
Volunteers come from all different backgrounds, range in age from 18 to 85 and represent all 50 states. While an overwhelming majority of Peace Corps volunteers are under the age of 30, 8 percent of our volunteers currently in service are 50 years of age or older. Peace Corps service is a great way for members of the baby boomer generation to continue their careers in a nontraditional environment. Most of all, we’re looking for people who are interested in not just imagining a better world, but rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it.
Peace Corps volunteers often describe the experience as life changing. How did service change your life, and what is the value of the experience in an increasingly global economy and world?
My Peace Corps service in Samoa changed my life. It shaped my passion for international development and launched my career. My story is the story of so many Peace Corps volunteers who return to the United States forever changed by their experience overseas.
If our country is to remain a global leader, we must adapt to our new global environment. We need globally competent citizens who can speak other languages, understand other cultures, negotiate with people very different from ourselves, and find common ground. After spending two years immersed in another culture, returned Peace Corps volunteers are those people. When they return home, they bring their knowledge and experiences—and a global outlook—back to the United States. They continue to pass on the knowledge and skills they gained from their service for the rest of their lives.
Today, the Peace Corps is not only a chance for Americans to make a difference, but also a training ground and launching pad for a 21st-century career. Peace Corps volunteers work toward sustainable change in the farthest corners of the world and return home with cross-cultural, leadership, and language skills that strengthen international ties and increase our country’s global competitiveness.
Can you comment on BU’s special relationship with the Peace Corps, and how the University became such an active partner and major producer of graduates choosing to volunteer?
BU has always been a great supporter of the Peace Corps and is currently ranked as a Peace Corps Top College. With 35 undergraduate alumni currently volunteering worldwide, BU is number 25 among large schools for Peace Corps volunteers. Boston University alumni are currently serving in 23 countries, including Cameroon, Ghana, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Thailand, and working in agriculture, education, environment, health, and community economic development. Since 1961, more than 1,375 alumni from Boston University have traveled abroad to serve as Peace Corps volunteers.
Our Boston-based recruiter Kat Deutsch holds monthly office hours at the BU Center for Career Development, participates in career fairs, and hosts information sessions and class talks around campus. Our recruiters have received great support from the staff at the Center for Career Development as well as from local returned Peace Corps volunteers.
BU is also home to a Peace Corps Master’s International Program in the School of Public Health, which offers students the unique opportunity to integrate Peace Corps service with a graduate degree. Since the program was first established at BU in 1987, 43 students have successfully served in the Peace Corps and received their master’s degree in public health. Peace Corps’ partnerships with schools like BU are incredibly valuable in helping us fulfill our mission.
The Peace Corps is in your blood. Assuming you grew up hearing stories of your family members’ service, did you always know you’d volunteer, too?
Peace Corps service runs deep in my family. Four generations and six members of my family have served as Peace Corps volunteers, including my aunt, both of my grandparents, my husband, my nephew, and myself. In 1972, after successful careers, my grandparents retired and applied to the Peace Corps. They served as university professors in Malaysia. Even before they set off for Malaysia, my grandparents valued service—they were civil rights activists, managers of food kitchens for the homeless, and hosts for international students.
One day when I was in my early 20s, my grandmother sat down with me, and she asked me point blank: “What are you going to do with your one life?” She wanted to know how I was going to make a difference in the world.
Two weeks after that conversation, my then-fiancé, Steve Radelet, and I submitted our applications for the Peace Corps. We were invited to serve in Samoa, where I taught English, history, geography, social studies, and physical education, while Steve taught math and science. The rest is history.
- Author, Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org