Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carrie Hessler-Radelet visited campus on Nov. 4 to inform and challenge students to apply to serve in the Peace Corps. A panel of alums, faculty and local residents who have volunteered in the program joined her in discussing the Peace Corps experience. While on campus, Hessler-Radelet also met with students more informally in the Community Service House and in Career Services.
While she was in Geneva, the Finger Lakes Times interviewed her for their “Conversations” segment. Hessler-Radelet spoke about her admiration for HWS’s “emphasis on service learning and community engagement. . . . It’s a perfect school for the Peace Corps.” She added, “It’s so impressive to me to see what an ethos of service there is right here in this little corner of the world. The students are really engaged in their community. They’re asking tough questions. They’re engaging in hard issues. They’re really committed.”
Hessler-Radelet is the third Peace Corps Director to visit HWS; Ron Tschetter came in 2007 and Gaddi Vasquez in 2004.
The full interview with Hessler-Radelet follows.
Finger Lakes Times
A CONVERSATION WITH: Carrie Hessler-Radelet, acting director of the Peace Corps
Mike Cutillo / Alan Brignall • Finger Lakes Times • November 12, 2012
Hometown: Frankfort, Mich.
Lives: Falls Church, Va.
Education: Boston University, bachelor of arts, 1979; Harvard School of Public Health, master’s in health policy and management, 1989.
Professional background: Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, 1981-83; Peace Corps/New England Recruiting Office public affairs specialist, 1984-86; Gambia Family Planning, 1986-88; vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office John Gambia Family Planning, 1986-88; vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office John Snow Inc., a global public health organization, 1990-2010; appointed Peace Corps deputy director, June 23, 2010; appointed Peace Corps acting director, Sept. 17, 2012.
Family: Husband, Steve; two grown children, Meghan and Samuel
Carrie Hessler-Radelet is the acting director of the Peace Corps.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, acting director of the Peace Corps, recently visited Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She also sat down with staff from the Finger Lakes Times for a Conversation.
FLT: How did Peace Corps become such a big part of your family lineage?
HESSLER-RADELET: My earliest memory of Peace Corps was when I was about 7 years old and I was getting postcards from my Aunt Ginny in Turkey. She worked in an orphanage, and I just thought it was the most glamorous thing I could imagine. She lived in a cave, actually. She sent me photos. I said, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’
So, as long as I can remember, I’ve really wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
My grandparents visited my aunt when she was a volunteer, and were so impressed with what they saw her doing than when they completed their careers, when they retired – my grandfather was a research chemist at General Motors and my grandmother was a guidance counselor at a high school – they joined Peace Corps and served in Malaysia.
FLT: What prompted you to become involved?
HESSLER-RADELET: I actually graduated from college and started working selling timeshare condominiums. In about six months or a year after I was doing that, my grandmother called me and said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ She took me out to coffee and said, ‘What are you going to do with your one life?’ The implication was selling timeshare condominiums was not sufficient.
I had been thinking about the Peace Corps. I had been dating my husband, Steve Radelet, who had never actually been on a plane before. Even though he was completely game for it, it was a rather foreign concept for him. Two weeks later we submitted our application and were assigned to Samoa. We got married just before we went.
That actually is different now. Now you have to be married a year before you go, which I think is a good thing.
For us, it was a real bonding experience. We taught in an all-girls Catholic school in Western Samoa. My sort of personal transformation took place in meeting my host family.
Every Peace Corps volunteers is assigned a host family. My host family was a mother and a father, Losa and Viane, and they had eight children. Losa was only 7 years older than me. She was 32 and I was 25 at the time she became pregnant with her ninth child. Going through that pregnancy with her, experiencing the difficulties she had, including the fact she had had no prenatal care ever in her life and she had delivered every one of her babies on the floor of that hut attended by her sister-in-law, helping her get prenatal care for the first time in her life, and working with her family to accept her having a hospital-based birth because she was at such high risk because it was her ninth child, and because her birth space was so short, going through that process, seeing what it’s like to be a woman in a traditional society where you have virtually no ability to make decisions related to your home health care, to have decisions made by your husband, really galvanized my interest in public health.
She ended up delivering her baby in a facility but then going into postpartum hemorrhage. She would have died if she hadn’t been at that facility. It just showed me how fragile life is and really made me want to pursue maternal and child health. That became my career.
I came back, worked at Peace Corps, went to grad school and had a 20-year career in public health. I loved it, traveled all over the world doing the same kinds of things. West Africa for a couple of years, lived in Indonesia nearly five years, pretty much thought that’s what I’d be doing the rest of my life, and then I got a phone call from Harris Wofford, who was one of the original Peace Corps architects, worked closely with [John F.] Kennedy and with [R. Sargent] Shriver in designing the Peace Corps, became our first country director in Ethiopia. He called me and said, ‘Are you interested in working for Peace Corps in an appointed position?’ I had never thought about it, to be honest with you. We talked. By that time they had identified a director, Aaron Williams. I went to talk to Aaron and really enjoyed him, liked working with him. We had a very similar philosophy. He also had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. He also had made his career in development. We had a very similar worldview. I accepted the great honor – I mean, it was a huge honor – to be considered for deputy director.
FLT: From when you served in the 1980s until know, what are the biggest changes in how Peace Corps operates and serves around the world?
HESSLER-RADELET: You know, it’s interesting. We reflect on this all the time. Let me just say one sentence about what’s not different. There are a lot of the same issues: poverty, hunger, gender inequality, conflict. Our world is still plagued by some of those same issues, and yet the past 50 years, the same time that we’ve had Peace Corps, has been the period of time of the greatest development and progress in the history of the world. If you look at the statistics, the percentage of people living in poverty now, from the beginning of recorded history until now, you’ll see that in the last 10 years, especially, the number of people who are lifted out of poverty and the percentage of the population lifted out of poverty is rapidly, rapidly rising. There’s never been anything remotely like it.
The truth of the matter is we know what to do in terms of poverty eradication. The question is political will, resources, etc.
That said, we still have some of those same issues, but we have newer techniques, we have newer approaches, we have technology. We know what works. The question is getting that to the people that need it most, and that is usually people in the communities, these people at the last mile. That’s where Peace Corps volunteers work. What we’re doing differently now is we’re really focusing using evidence as much as we can to identify what areas are most needed by our communities, what we should really target our volunteers’ community service to focus on those project areas in improving development impact so we can be sure our volunteers are really, truly helping lift their communities out of poverty.
At the core of the volunteer experience is really the partnership. It’s not about volunteers going in and doing it for them. It’s all about volunteers working side-by-side on community priorities, bringing in new tools and approaches they know about because they come from the United States, really working together to lift a community out of poverty. It’s the tools and technologies that are really different. Virtually 99 percent of our volunteers have cell phones now. Two-thirds of them have access to Internet in their community. A little bit more than three-quarters have access to the Internet within one hour. Most of our community members, even in the most remote communities, people have cellphone access, technology as a tool to help people link farmers to markets and identify where they can get the best price for their commodity, helping young people access information about topics that are hard for them to address in communities. Topics related to sexually transmitted infections, gender-based violence or just relationships between men and women, things that are hard for young people raised in a traditional culture. They can use cell phone technology and texting to raise questions and then to be linked to services that are youth friendly in their area.
We’re using even simple technologies that we know to be most effective. For example, one thing that Peace Corps is promoting around the world is clean cook-stove technology, which, in many countries in the world, people still have indoor cooking fires which are usually wood-burning, so there’s a big problem with deforestation and an even bigger problem with indoor air pollution and acute respiratory infection. We’ve done a lot of research with experts from universities around the world, really, to identify different kinds of cook stoves that are appropriate for different kinds of environments. Peace Corps volunteers are constructing them with their communities and promoting their use.
Some of it is simple technology that’s appropriate, but making use of evidence is a big theme for us.
FLT: How often does Peace Corps visit colleges like Hobart and William Smith in an effort to recruit new volunteers?
HESSLER-RADELET: We have recruitment staff that do it as a full-time job. In fact, Dove Russo, who is our field-based recruiter from this area, is actually from Geneva and lives in Rochester. She’ll be here often.
We really like colleges like Hobart and William Smith, just their emphasis on service learning and community engagement. It’s incredible. It’s a perfect school for Peace Corps. We also recruit at massively large schools as well, the SUNYs, Penn States and what have you. In many ways, the small, liberal-arts schools are also fantastic because it attracts a certain kind of student, especially this school, where the students are committed to making good in the world. I love their tagline: Live a life of consequence. That pretty much says it all. This is my first visit here, but I think because of President [Mark] Gearan, nearly all of the Peace Corps directors have come here. This is the first school I’ve been to since I took over as director, so there we go.
FLT: How do you sell Peace Corps to prospective volunteers?
HESSLER-RADELET: What I usually emphasize right now is career, especially with the economy. Peace Corps is a great launching pad for a career, both a career in international work and for a career domestically.
Yesterday I was meeting with a group of students at the Community House, a service house which is an intentional community really focused on community service. One young woman asked what I thought was a really good question, which was, ‘Why international experience? Why not just domestic experience?’ I think both are important. I think what’s really important is your service, no matter if you do it in Peace Corps or some other area. I would argue that international volunteer experience is critical to our country because we live in an ever more interconnected world. The fate of our country, the future of our country, the economic stability of our country is linked inextricably with countries around the world. Unless we can learn to engage with those other countries, unless we can learn to speak their languages, understand their worldview, be able to find commonalities with our own, we will not be successful at leading the world in the future.
I really believe that our very future depends on our ability to be able to engage with a global world in a way that we have never before experienced. It has been sufficient for us for many, many hundreds of years to more or less be focused inward because we are a big country. We’re a great country. People wanted to come to us. Now, the world is changing. You’ve heard the books by Tom Friedman, “The World Is Flat,” or “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” It’s a different environment out there. If we want to retain our position in the world and our economic strength in this world today, we need people who can navigate that world. We need leaders who have those skills. In addition, if you are someone who cares about community service, you have to admit that some of the most obvious human need mostly exists outside our borders. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas of extreme need inside our country – there are – but much of the world’s poverty exists outside our borders. If you really care about going to places of greatest need, then Peace Corps is a good place for you.
FLT: What do you say to a prospective volunteer who may be concerned about things like personal safety?
HESSLER-RADELET: Safety and security is absolutely our No. 1 priority, without question. We spend a lot of time, both structuring the way we support volunteers in terms of our staff, and we have a whole office of safety and security. We train our own staff to make safety and security everybody’s business. More than that, it’s really a partnership with our volunteers.
A huge part of our training is about how to live in your environment. Every environment is unique, to be able to stay safe. One of the tricks of the trade, so to speak, just like living in Geneva, you’d have to know different things than if you lived in Harlem. Every country is different. We need to have an approach to safety and security that both builds on best practices, maintaining safety, understanding risks, surveying your environment, always going with a friend. Bystander intervention is a technique that’s taught in most universities around the country.
It’s basically a principle of looking out for each other, never leaving one person behind, that if you go somewhere as a group you leave as a group. If you see somebody who looks like they’re entering a risky situation, you intervene. We use that to train our volunteers to really look out for each other. It’s a partnership between Peace Corps and our volunteers, and it’s very localized to the context of where they live because it has to be.
FLT: On average, how long does it take to train a single volunteer for Peace Corps service?
HESSLER-RADELET: First of all, we say that once you’re a Peace Corps volunteer, you’re always a Peace Corps volunteer. We don’t say ex-Peace Corps volunteer. Likewise, we sort of feel like training takes place throughout your whole life.
In terms of actual training, we have three-month training up front, which is intensive language, cross-cultural and technical training. And then that’s supplemented with periodic, in-service trainings that might be focused on a language refresher, or it may be around a particular technical topic. Each country tailors their training to their needs.
Increasingly, we’re doing pre-service online training. For example, if you’re going to a French- or Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking country, we can do online language training before you go. We have a one-hour pre-departure online training in safety and security because we want people, even before they leave the country, to understand principles of safety. We also have some technical training. Our HIV volunteers have a pretty intense HIV 101 that they take online. We now have technologies that now enable us to quite a lot of training … even when volunteers are in their site, because they have access through their cell phones and through the Internet, we have communities of learning, linking volunteers and staff and external experts that really network the world, so to speak. We’re just starting to do that as part of our new reformat around beefing up our technical component.
We’re creating communities of practice and communities of learning that are linked using Google Docs and Facebook, things that all volunteers are very savvy about using.
FLT: You kind of touched on meeting with Hobart and William Smith students. How did it go and what were your impressions?
HESSLER-RADELET: They’re wonderful. It’s so impressive to me to see what an ethos of service there is right here in this little corner of the world. The students are really engaged in their community. They’re asking tough questions. They’re engaging in hard issues. They’re really committed.
The Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning is absolutely stellar. It’s just stellar. I’ve gone to a lot of colleges in the last couple years when I was deputy director. I don’t remember any school where I’ve seen so much of a focus on community engagement and service learning. It’s really impressive.
And, the students I met were wonderful. They’re engaged. They’re diverse. They’re thoughtful. I kind of wish I knew about this school before my kids went to school.
FLT: How many countries does Peace Corps serve in right now?
HESSLER-RADELET: It’s a little bit fluid because we go in and go out of some countries. Right now, we’re in 76 countries.
FLT: Are there any places Peace Corps is serving that might surprise the average person?
HESSLER-RADELET: One that I was surprised about was Ukraine. It’s one of our largest countries. There’s some real need there that I think most people aren’t aware of. A lot of what we do there is teaching English and community economic development. There’s huge disparity between the rich and the poor in Ukraine. We’ve really worked with the poorest segments of that population.
There are a number of countries in eastern Europe where we still work, countries not in the EU (European Union). We work in a lot of countries that people probably haven’t even heard of before, frankly, and we’re always on the lookout. We’re constantly surveying the environment to see what kind of change is happening.
We’re just reentering Tunisia. We’re doing it carefully because the Middle East is a little volatile right now. We have staff there, but we don’t have volunteers there yet. We’re doing a lot of careful planning, but we intend to enter in June.
We have volunteers in Jordan; that might surprise people. Volunteers serve very safely and very successfully. There are really loved in their community and they’ve done a wonderful job of being ambassadors of the United States in a part of the world that is traditionally very suspicious of Americans. Same in Morocco. We’ve had a very long and successful history in Morocco. And we want to have more countries that are in the Middle East.
We are in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Islamic country, a very new program actually. We worked in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, and then were out for 40 years. We went back a couple years ago. I’m personally very excited about that since I spent nearly five years in Indonesia. I love that country.
Haiti is a country we hope to go back to soon. We left that country for awhile because of the politicial situation, but it’s certainly a country of great need. We want to be sure when we go back that we can provide adequate safety and security and medical care to our volunteers. We’re working closely with the U.S. government and the Haitian government, and I suspect that there will be a Peace Corps program in Haiti in the not-too-distant future.
FLT: Had you met Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan before today?
HESSLER-RADELET: I had. In fact, I first met him in 1995 in Belmont, Mass., when he was a new director and I had just returned from Indonesia, having just lived there for five years. I moved back to the Boston area and was invited to an event. I heard him speak to a small group, and he was so impressive. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.
FLT: Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011. Is is possible that 50 years from now there could be peace on earth and not as pressing a need for Peace Corps?
HESSLER-RADELET: Being a realist, that’s probably too optimistic of a timetable. Our mission is world peace and friendship, which is very lofty.
We have three goals. The first goal is a development goal, to help our host countries meet their need for trained men and women. The development part of it, there may be a time when all countries are lifted out of poverty. It’s going to be a long time. The second and third goals are promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served and promoting a better understanding of other countries on the part of Americans. It’s a cross-cultural goal. I can’t imagine that a need for that is going to ever stop. I just think the more we know and understand each other ways and worldviews and perspectives, open ourselves up a little and be willing to consider other alternatives, there’s a need for that. I can’t ever imagine us as human beings ever not needing more reaching out to other peoples. We’ll see.
I’d really actually like to see the Peace Corps grow because I think we’re fantastic ambassadors to the rest of the world. That’s pretty much what I hear from every trip I ever take, from both our host countries and even our own embassy staff, is that our Peace Corps volunteers are our country’s best ambassadors. They go with no agenda except to help communities meet their own needs. They bring the best of America to our countries. They are the face of our country in the small villages around the world, and because of that, we have friends in every corner of the world. It’s really remarkable what these volunteers do. It’s so inspiring. I mean, I’m inspired every time I go out there.
– Interviewed by Alan Brignall