At 24, Carrie Hessler-Radelet arrived in Western Samoa as a Peace Corps volunteer, with an armful of books and a spirit of adventure. Never did she dream that 33 years later, after a long career in public health, she’d be sitting in the director’s chair, making sweeping changes in how volunteers are chosen—changes that should appeal to women with valuable job skills who are up for a game-changing experience but are unwilling to surrender control over where they go and the work they do. Here, Hessler-Radelet—only the fifth woman to serve as director of the agency since its founding in 1961—talks about how today's Peace Corps can create a new path for midlife women, and shares stories from her own volunteer days—as well as the deeply personal reason she’s put the safety of Peace Corps women at the forefront of her reform agenda.
MORE: You’ve just changed the Peace Corps application process in some interesting ways. Can you tell us about that?
CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: This week we’re unveiling some really historic changes to our recruitment, application and selection process to make applying to the Peace Corps simpler, faster and more personalized than ever before. The first is that on our updated PeaceCorps.gov website, applicants can explore the Peace Corps world and choose where they want to serve. And by explore, I mean that we have country websites where an applicant or potential applicant can really learn about each country’s program and can see in the words of volunteers what their experience is like. And then people can choose what specific programs they want to apply for. Applicants can choose a path that best fits their professional and personal goals.
The second big change is that the application is much shorter. What used to be more than 60 printed pages that took eight hours to complete is now an online application that takes just one hour or less to complete.
The third change is [that we’ve created an] Apply-By/Know-By deadline. This means that every potential applicant will know [all the relevant dates]. For example, if you know that the program you want to apply for is education in the Kyrgyz Republic, you will know that volunteers are going to leave the U.S. [for the host country] in January 2015 and you’ll know that you have to apply by July 15 and that you will find out [if you’re accepted] by October 30. I’m just making up those specific deadlines, but that’s the concept. [Ed note: Previously, there was no application deadline and applicants could wait a year or more to find out if they were accepted.]
MORE: Our readers are women who are not, for the most part, recent college graduates; they are adults who have a lot of work experience and who like to have a sense of control over their lives. How will these changes benefit them?
CHR: What prompted me to want to make these changes are [women] like your readers. I met a 45-year-old woman volunteer in Jordan right after I became deputy director of the Peace Corps [who] had spent her whole life in health care, including HIV work. She had told her recruiter that she didn’t care where she went, but that she wanted to do HIV work. She ended up in Jordan, a country that had no HIV program; she was doing special education instead. And she said to me, “You know, I’ve grown to love Jordan and I love my Peace Corps experience. But Peace Corps has a lot of HIV programs—why would you put me in a place where I could not use my experience?” There was no good answer to that question. So I think [these changes to the application process] will really meet the needs of [people who] have life experience that we need so much in Peace Corps. [These changes] will enable them to choose the experience they want to have. It’s going to give them much more control.
MORE: About 10 percent of current Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) are over age 40. Is the agency planning to recruit more people with work experience as volunteers?