Global Identity

Terp Takes Over Peace Corps
by Liam Farrell | Photo courtesy of Jody Olsen

Jody Olsen Ph.D. ’79 had never been on an airplane before she flew to Tunisia for the Peace Corps.

It was 1966, and Olsen joined the 5-year-old organization after hearing about it at a University of Utah sorority dinner. Over the next two years, she was immersed in a new world, teaching English to 14-year-old boys and assisting with health programs for mothers and newborns.

“I had every sense of who I was challenged, in a good way,” Olsen says. “It’s that critical core lesson of who you are.”

Olsen is helping new generations of young people find out who they are as the 20th director of the Peace Corps. Sworn in last year, she leads volunteers placed in more than 60 countries to help with education, health, the environment and other development projects.

It has had a lifelong hold on her. Olsen, who earned a Ph.D. in human development from UMD’s College of Education, has worked for the Peace Corps in numerous capacities over 50 years, from country director in Togo to a stint as deputy director.

“It was really important to me to keep being that strong person,” she says. “Gentle but strong.”

The Peace Corps’ original mission—to train people around the globe and promote better understanding between Americans and those served—is still relevant, Olsen says. But the organization needs to “be more aggressive about our own stories” in social media and promote how Peace Corps alums go on to successful careers.

“We become a leadership development program,” she says.

Olsen says the Peace Corps will continue to reevaluate its responses to the safety, security and health of its volunteers, while giving them the space to mature in a unique environment.

She remembers how striking it was in the 1960s for the Peace Corps to send her, a married woman, letters with her own name on them.

“Peace Corps gave me my own identity as a married woman,” she says. “Take these opportunities to be different. Take these opportunities to take yourself to the outer edge.”


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