Carrie Hessler-Radelet on her March 2014 trip to Africa. Photo by: Peace Corps

This story is part of a series of exit interviews Devex is conducting with the leaders of Obama administration aid agencies.

The work of the Peace Corps matters as much today as it did when the agency was founded in 1961 — if you ask its 19th director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

The 56-year-old volunteer program seeks to reduce poverty, foster economic growth and build valuable relationships in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world — broad efforts that Hessler-Radelet says the U.S. must support now more than ever.

“In fact I think you could say that the stakes are even higher now than they were at our founding,” Hessler-Radelet told Devex, hinting at the uncertainty that many U.S. aid groups share over potential declining budgets and the “America first” slogan favored by the Trump administration.

Hessler-Radelet, sworn in to the agency’s top job in June 2014, relinquished her role on Jan. 20 to Acting Director Sheila Crowley as the new U.S. administration leadership transition continues. Trump will appoint the next Peace Corps director and deputy director — actions that the U.S. Senate must confirm.

During her tenure — first as deputy director in 2010, then acting director in 2012 before stepping in as director — Hessler-Radelet oversaw a sweeping effort to revamp the Peace Corps’ volunteer application and selection process and to revitalize recruitment and outreach. They’re some of the largest reforms in the agency’s history. Perhaps the most contentious was the allowance, as of 2014, for candidates to choose their preferred country in which to serve, as well as the program type and even the specific program — necessary changes, she said, to evolve and attract a new generation of talent. Under Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps also sent its first volunteers to Myanmar and signed a new partnership with Vietnam.

Among her proudest accomplishments are comprehensive programs to combat sexual assault and promote the diversity of staff and volunteers. But overall there are too many changes to name in the past seven years of ambitious transformation, Hessler-Radelet said, when trying to list to Devex all the reforms her team have overseen.

There are individual moments that stand out to her, too. Like meeting a young woman in Kyrgyzstan last year who credited her success as one of her nation’s leading cardiologists to the interaction and support she had at the age of 15 with a Peace Corps volunteer named Nicole.

“She keeps a photo of her 15-year-old self and Nicole in a frame on her desk to remind her of her obligation to nurture the dreams of other young women because she had been affected so greatly from Nicole’s belief in her,” Hessler-Radelet shared. “I think any intervention that can help people discover their own potential and achieve their own dreams is going to be an intervention that will yield fruit.”

There is business she’d like to see finished under the future director, and more opportunity than ever for the Peace Corps to act as a driving force for good under a new administration, she added. Devex caught up with Hessler-Radelet shortly after her last day as director. Here’s what she has to say about authentic leadership, the business of development and the future of the agency, edited for length and clarity.

What do you think is the biggest opportunity for Peace Corps in the new administration? What about the biggest challenge for the program under the Trump administration?

My hope for this administration is that they will continue to prioritize the Peace Corps.

We play a unique and very important role in the U.S. government. We are the last mile development workers, but we are also the last mile citizen diplomats of our nation. In this increasingly complex and interconnected world, our country really needs to have Americans who speak other languages, understand other perspectives and are able to find commonality with people of all nations. I deeply hope that this nation understands the importance of having good strong relationships not only with the leaders of nations around the world but also with the people of nations to ensure that they understand our priorities and want to partner with us, that they share our values, and that they’re committed to human rights and justice and dignity and development of their own people.

My hope and prayer is that this administration would continue to prioritize the values that Peace Corps brings not only to our nation, but to this world.

As director, you spearheaded one of the most extensive reform efforts the Peace Corps has ever seen. How has the Peace Corps changed, from your perspective, under your leadership?

We knew that in order for Peace Corps to remain a vital force for the future, we really needed to adapt to a changing global environment and to emerging trends. So we really went forward with a very aggressive effort, I would say an ambitious effort, to reform our agency. We have spent the last seven years adapting for even greater impact.

Today if you look at everything we do, there has been remarkable change in literally every aspect of our work. In my time at Peace Corps, we have launched a new digital platform with a new brand look, a new website, we have changed our application processes to be faster and more efficient, we have created public-private partnerships with a wide range of partners. We’ve worked very closely with the White House and the whole government on Let Girls Learn, and that has been a phenomenal campaign that I think has dramatically increased the visibility in our country of the importance of educating girls and young women, but also has provided important training and resources to our volunteers and their communities.

What is your proudest accomplishment as Peace Corps director?

What I’m really most proud of is our effort to better support our volunteers. We’ve dramatically improved our technical training program support and monitoring and evaluation that ensure our volunteers are working on those project initiatives with their communities that have proven through evidence to be most effective at achieving development impact. We’ve also created a new Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, a new office of victim advocacy and a new health care quality assurance unit, which is designed to make sure that our volunteers are receiving the best possible medical care.

We also have an incredible new Intercultural Competence Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. This is basically Peace Corps’ commitment to ensuring that our volunteers and staff reflect the diversity of our beautiful multicultural nation. We feel strongly that, because we are a U.S. government agency, we want to mirror who we are as a people. But we also do it because we know and all the research has shown that diverse organizations are stronger and more productive. And so we have made a lot of effort to recruit a more diverse volunteer base and support that with a more diverse workforce.

So that is what our diversity initiative is really about — to help us as an agency to recognize, support and appreciate the amazing diversity and then to make sure we are supporting our volunteers of color who have a very different experience, or our LGBTQ volunteers, who may have a very different experience in their communities, so recognizing that and then providing the support around that. So the initiative is something I’m really proud of, something I very much hope continues on into the future, and I expect it will because it’s so much a part of who we are.

One of your other notable initiatives includes new policies and processes aimed at reducing the risk of sexual assault and violent crime. What has that program achieved, and what would you like to see next?

I’m really proud of the work we accomplished to establish our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response Program as a vehicle to implement the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act and to recognize the terrible problem of sexual assault not only in our own country, but as a societal problem that exists in every country around the world.

Our program is really cutting edge and we have done it in collaboration and support with some our nation’s leading experts in the field of sexual assault. I’m proud of it because it is based in evidence and it is victim-centered and trauma-informed. It has reached well beyond the safety and security and medical aspects of our work, and it has involved over 30 policy changes and extensive training for virtually every staff person and every volunteer with even more training for first responders.

Peace Corps cannot eliminate every risk that volunteers face, but we are very committed to providing world class training, guidance and support to every volunteer so they can remain safe, healthy and productive throughout their service. This is our commitment to our volunteers. We have made significant progress and we continue to work toward full compliance of the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act. We are very firm in our commitment in this area, and also proud of the fact that we are, I think, considered one our nation’s leading organizations in this area now.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned as Peace Corps director? Any words of wisdom for the incoming leader?

It there’s one leadership principle that I believe in and really try to model, it’s authenticity.

I believe that we are all best when we act as the authentic leaders that we are. If I’m in a leadership role, if you are in a leadership role, we have certain strengths and experiences that bring us to that place, and I really believe it’s important to be the leader that I was destined to be, not the leader someone else wanted me to be. There’s a great quote, something like “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” I really think that’s true.

Despite our titles, we’re all fully human with all our flaws and foibles, I have made some mistakes, of course. We’re not great despite our failings, but because of them, they make us who we are. Great leaders like President [Barack] Obama and Nelson Mandela, they showed me that authenticity is important because they are authentic leaders with the emotional intelligence to know who they are. I try to address my weaknesses but also play to my strengths, and I think that’s what an authentic leader does.

You come from a four-generation Peace Corps family and served as a Peace Corps volunteer yourself in Western Samoa in the early ‘80s. Do you think the person best positioned to lead the volunteer program is someone who has served as a volunteer themselves?

I think that the most important thing is that the director loves the mission and loves the volunteers. It’s really all about that, it’s about the mission, about accomplishing the three goals, and really understanding that this is about the volunteers. As long as that is what is foremost in that person’s mind, I don’t actually think it matters that much if they’re a returned volunteer.

I think having been a RPCV is helpful because you really understand the Peace Corps experience. But we’ve had some fabulous directors who are not returned volunteers, and we’ve had some fabulous directors who are returned volunteers. I think it has more to do with personal qualities than it does whether or not they served as a volunteer. But in the measure, in the balance, having had volunteer experience is always a plus.

What’s one thing you weren’t able to accomplish during your tenure that you’d like to see happen under future leadership?

I would like to see us really fully implement our Intercultural Competence Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. We have made a lot of progress, but we’re not completely done, we still have work to do … a lot of work to do. That work, like our sexual assault work, is going to be ongoing for a long time. I’d really like that to be continued to be prioritized.

I also want to make sure that our program in Vietnam gets up and running. We signed our country agreement, we’re just about to complete our implementing agreement, and I’d love to see that program running with volunteers on the ground, so I’m very hopeful that that will happen in the next few years.

If you could change one thing about the way the business of development functions, what would you change?

If I have learned anything at Peace Corps, it’s the importance of building individual capacity. I think the most important part of development is helping individuals to be able to discover the unique potential within each person, and I’m especially excited about all the work we’ve been doing to empower girls and young women because we all know that the research shows that investment in girls’ education is one of the best investments we can make — and what that’s really about is helping girls to tap into their potential and to dream big dreams and accomplish those dreams.

At the end of the day, what we’re really trying to do through development is unleash the incredible power that each person has to contribute to this world.

What’s next for you?

A few months of vacation and then we’ll see. I’m going to take time to relax and reflect on this amazing experience I’ve had at Peace Corps and figure out what I want to do next.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.