Fifty-four years ago, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, then presidential candidate, held an impromptu election speech on the steps of the Michigan Union, where he proposed to more than 5,000 students the idea of the Peace Corps, a volunteer organization to help impoverished nations.
One year after Kennedy’s speech, the Peace Corps was established through an executive order. Since the establishment of the program, the University has supplied the fourth most volunteers to the organization, with 2,556 graduates serving in the Peace Corps.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, acting director of the Peace Corps, spoke at the Ford School of Public Policy Wednesday, discussing the future of the organization. The talk was part of a series of policy talks held at the Ford School this year.
Recently, Hessler-Radelet has focused on improving efficiency and safety within the organization. The Peace Corps experienced scandal prior to Hessler-Radelet’s tenure due to allegations of covering up sexual assaults of volunteers while they were abroad. Hessler-Radelet implemented the standards of the 2011 Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which are meant to train and protect volunteers.
Hessler-Radelet has served as acting director since July 2013. Before serving with the Peace Corps, Hessler-Radelet worked with Johns Hopkins University to develop Indonesia’s first comprehensive AIDs management program. Since taking the reins at the organization, Hessler-Radelet has created advocacy and support groups for volunteers who were victims of violence while abroad.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is volunteer safety,” Hessler-Radelet said.
Earlier Wednesday, the Peace Corps announced a new partnership program with the University’s School of Information. The Peace Corps aims to tackle problems in public health, climate change and entrepreneurship, all while creating a rewarding experience for volunteers.
Hessler-Radelet spoke about improving the diversity of volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. To achieve diversity, the organization shortened the application process from eight hours to one hour as well as provided scholarships for volunteers who want to return to college. Additionally, each regional recruiting office plans to hire one diversity recruiter.
The organization is also working to streamline the application process, with the goal of sending applicants abroad within six to nine months of their application. Hessler-Radelet hopes to double the number of applicants with the new process.
Fifty years after the launch of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Union, Hessler-Radelet believes the organization is still relevant. She said at least 12 presidents of African nations credit the Peace Corps for providing services that allowed them to achieve their current success.
Even though the organization has been successful, Hessler-Radelet said there are issues she still wants to address, namely continuing to ensure volunteer safety.
However, she added that research has found that a Peace Corps volunteer is at no greater risk serving abroad than someone living in the United States.
Another issue that worries Hessler-Radelet is funding. The organization, which draws funding from the federal government and private donations, currently receives $1 from every tax-paying American. Despite being constrained by funding, the Peace Corps has spread to 139 countries and trained close to a quarter-million volunteers.
Even with the problems facing the Peace Corps, there was a strong turnout from former Peace Corps volunteers at Wednesday’s meeting.
“It looks like there’s progress for the Peace Corps, whereas before it felt like the Peace Corps was staying as it was,” Rackham student Geraldine Montesinos, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, said.
Hessler-Radelet announced other new ventures including collaborations between universities in the United States and those in host countries, as well as non-governmental organizations. She is also using data to focus on allocating resources to make the most meaningful and cost effective changes to the organization.
At one point in her speech, Hessler-Radelet asked the returned volunteers to stand up. This was her way of demonstrating the tangible impact the program makes.
“Sometimes it’s a mayor, a minister, a mom,” she said. “All who feel like their life was transformed by a Peace Corps volunteer.”