The Volunteer Who Became Peace Corps Director
By Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–65)
Ever since Carrie Hessler-Radelet was seven years old, she had wanted to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In an extensive interview with MSNBC’s ‘The Oath’, she traced this early childhood ambition to hearing about Peace Corps from her aunt who was a Volunteer in Turkey — being the 10,000th Volunteer to be sworn in worldwide. Actually, Carrie went on, “the one thing that is unique about my family is that it is a multi-generational Peace Corps family. Her grandparents served in Peace Corps/Malaysia after they retired, and a nephew served in Mozambique”. When Carrie joined with her husband in Peace Corps/Samoa, that rounded out the generational family linkage.
Carrie graduated from Boston College with a degree in Political Science and Economics, then joined Peace Corps as a Volunteer in Samoa, 1981-84. Her Peace Corps family was with a mother aged 32, named Losa along with her husband, Viane, and their eight children. All of Losa’s children had been delivered on the floor at her home. In her 9th pregnancy, Carrie had convinced her to deliver at a near-by health clinic. Most fortunately, on the night that Losa went into labor and delivered her 9th child, she went into post-partum hemorrhage. Losa surely would have died if she had tried to deliver that baby in her home. It was here, and with this family, that Carrie developed a life-long passion for public health.
After returning home, Carrie worked from 1984-86 as a Public Affairs Specialist in Peace Corps’ Boston Office, then went on to The Gambia in West Africa, working with the Gambia Family Planning Association. At this time, HIV/AIDS was just becoming an issue throughout Africa. So, Carrie worked with Traditional Midwives on how to counsel women and their families about this disease.
She also found time to be the Founder of the Special Olympics and serve as its Executive Director in the Republic of the Gambia from 1986-88. Carrie planned, developed and managed the country’s first National Special Olympic games. This was at a time when people with disabilities of any kind were shunned and ostracized. It held its first games in the national stadium with 10 athletes — and in the stands, the Vice President of the country, who had a daughter with a disability, was present to officially preside over the event. Today, Gambia’s Special Olympics continues as a viable organization.
Returning from the Gambian in 1990, Carrie earned a MS from Harvard’s School of Public Health, with a concentration in International Health. Now, her long-held ambition to work in public health was fully launched. From 1989-91, she served as Acting Director of the Boston International Group with John Snow. She served as Technical Advisor for its ‘Mother Care Project’ in Indonesia from 1991-94 and as an HIV/AIDS Advisor with the Health and Child Survival Fellows Program at USAID/Indonesia from 1994-95. Carrie was Director of John Snow’s International Group in Boston from 1996-2000. And, from 2000-2010, she was the VP and Director of John Snow for its Research and Training Institute in the Washington, D.C. area.
In 2009, then-president Barack Obama nominated Carrie to serve as the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps and she was appointed in June 2010. Then, in 2013, the President nominated her as the Director of the Peace Corps. She was confirmed in June 2014. In her subsequent tenure, she set in place an extensive organizational reform effort along with several parameters, all designed to enhance the health and safety of trainees and Volunteers. This included: the development of sexual assault risk reduction and response programs to improve the quality of Peace Corps’ technical training for Volunteers; to increase the impact and operational efficiency of Agency operations; to strengthen intercultural competence; to promote diversity and inclusion; to enhance the visibility and image of Peace Corps; to attract a record number of applicants, and expand and strengthen public-private partnerships to increase funding; and to enhance brand image and strengthen technical programming. In her 7.5 years as Director, the reforms she embarked the Agency on were the largest that it had ever undertaken.
There are two reforms that were remarkable in bringing Peace Corps into a new generation. In the first, she changed the application process because it requested far too much information and took 8 hours to complete. In 2009, finished applications were running at 15,000; four years later they dropped to 10,000. Carries changed it to a 45-minute process because of technology and e-mail, Peace Corps could continue to interact with prospective Volunteers throughout the application process. In the second reform, Carrie addressed the lack of diversity which was 14% of prospective Volunteers who reported ‘as diverse.’ By reaching out to groups like the AARP and similar service organizations that were mostly minority in nature, she increased self-reporting as diverse to 39%.
One of the groups that Carrie brought into the fold was via the Rotary-Peace Corps Alliance in 2010. The Rotarian quoted her as saying: “There are 12 presidents in Africa who credit a Peace Corps Volunteer with starting them on the path to the presidency”.
In Carrie’s official capacity, she found time for a return visit to her Peace Corps site in Samoa. Although Losa, as the mother of 9 children had only a primary school education, and her husband, Viane was illiterate, Carrie was surprised to learn about the educational achievements of the family she had lived with for two years while a Volunteer. All of these children had gone through secondary schools and most of them had gone on to a university education. And one, Rosela, who was nine years old when Carrie lived with her family, had gone on to a scholarship at the University of Auckland where she was the Valedictorian of her class. Then, she returned to Samoa as one of its first female lawyer — and to become a Judge, perhaps the first in her country.
Carrie asked her what it meant to be who she was from her upbringing? Rosela answered in this manner: two things, one it came from that time when we used to read together in English and that helped me to excel in school. Secondly, my father, who had never been to school a day in his life, would put me to bed every night, saying “Rosela, you are smart, talented, and you are capable of great things. So study hard, and do your best in school, so that you can help your family and your community and your nation.”
After her directorship of Peace Corps, Carrie went on in 2017 to be the President and CEO of Project Concern International, a San Diego-based international development organization.
Most certainly, Carrie Hessler-Radelet’s exemplary professional career in which she implemented Peace Corps’ 3rd goal by bringing the world back home, merits a distinctive Profile in Citizenship.
8 CommentsLeave a comment
Lovely tribute to a wonderful Peace Corps director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet! Thank you for posting!
I wondered as I read this how many other multigenerational families had served as Peace Corps Volunteers. In my family both of my brothers also served, Bill Donovan was the first and I’m pretty sure his poultry group was the first bunch of volunteers to serve in India. I too went to India after my Navy enlistment and, at the end of my service, stopped in Hawaii to visit my younger brother Tom in training for Samoa. Years later my daughter Katrina joined and spent three years in Bolivia.
It would be interesting to know if Peace Corps tracks families who have had more than one volunteer serving. Does anyone know ?
Stephen, indeed your brother Bill was part of the first Peace Corps group-India I-to serve in India, in 1963 I was a PCV in India 3 and Bill was my Peace Corps “mentor”. After his Volunteer service Bill went on to the PC/India staff and played a key role in developing programs for additional groups coming to India. In 1966-67 Bill and I worked together in PC/Washington as India Operations officers. Bill was a very dedicated international development worker and a fun guy.
Cheers for Carrie Hessler-Radalet. What a terrific life story she has lived, serving the world her entire career. I did not know of the many changes she made in the administration of the PC during her tenure in the Director’s suite, and I was delighted to note all of the progress she pushed through. Her legacy at Peace Corps is one to be forever part of its history. Congratulations Director Carrie, my hat is off to you!!!!
Thank you, Jeremiah Norris, for laying out Carrie’s background and bio that led to her being one of the agency’s most hands-on and volunteer-focused Directors. Of many recollections, I remember that Carrie wished to herself lead the annual Memorial Day wreath-laying at JFK’s gravesite. A highlight of the last on-site Peace Corps Connect was Carrie and Jodie Olson discussing on stage their rich histories of Peace Corps service.
A very interesting and full profile of Carrie. There can’t be but a few multi-generational Peace Corps families.
Your piece is very well written, as always. You are a Chronicler of Peace Corps tales. It’s good we have you to tell these stories.
So nice to hear such good news. Thanks to Jerry for sending this my way and thanks to Carrie and her family for their excellent example.
A great story. Peace Corps touched the lives of many and opened the eyes of Peace Corps volunteers to the beauty we find in all cultures.