Half a century ago, after completing two years as a Peace Corp volunteer in Tunisia, where she taught English, learned how to make couscous and drank tea with merchants, Jody Olsen moved to another new place quite foreign to her.
But she soon got to know her neighbors, who shared dinners, the names of house painters and day care arrangements, and quickly felt at home in the village.
“Villages are villages,” Olsen said with a laugh.
Olsen considers those 10 years in Baltimore an important part of a journey that took her from a young college student who had never been on an airplane to now, at 75, the director of the Peace Corps.
It was 1969. She and her then-husband Bob Olsen, who had taken a job at the city’s Housing Department, settled into a rowhouse in the North Baltimore neighborhood that had only recently been named Charles Village, by a resident and copy editor at The Evening Sun, Grace Darin, who used it for a chatty local newsletter.
Jody Olsen, a native of Washington who grew up in Utah, said she “wanted to be part of the city of Baltimore.”
“I just loved what it offered, I loved the city-ness of it,” she said in her Washington office. “And there we were, sharing workers, sharing meals, sharing kids, and it was such a great beginning for me especially coming from Peace Corps, because I appreciated how you work across people’s lives, you work across cultures, you work across backgrounds to make a neighborhood work.”
After 10 years, during which Olsen had her second child, earned a master’s degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s School of Social Work and a Ph.D. in human development from the College Park campus, the Peace Corps beckoned again.
And except for a couple of stints at international education organizations, and, recently, a visiting professorship back at Maryland’s social work school, that’s where she has made her career, rising through its ranks to its top job. President Donald Trump nominated her director in January.
“I feel very, very, very lucky,” she said. “Peace Corps is a passion.”
Olsen, who now lives in Silver Spring, is devoted to the ideals of the goodwill agency that was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to send American volunteers to live and work in developing countries and to return home to share what they have learned and experienced.
“The Peace Corps’s mission is world peace and friendship — a mission we’re still working on,” Olsen said with a wry smile. “We’re not quite done.”
She was appointed to her post by a president who promotes “America First.” Trump ran on pledges to “Make America Great Again,” has pushed policies that would limit immigration, travel and free trade, and reportedly has used vulgar terms and stereotypes to describe some poorer countries.
Peace Corps director is a political appointment. But Olsen, a Republican, said the Peace Corps, an independent agency within the executive branch, has always been non-political.
A volunteer goes to a host country to “share who you are as an American. Not America,” Olsen said.
“If you represent America, if you represent a particular administration — uh uh,” she said with a shake of her head. “You’re there because you’re you. When you walk in the door, and it’s true for everyone, you have to leave the political biases there.”
Olsen’s appointment, and subsequent confirmation by the Senate, was met with a palpable sense of relief among those who feared that Trump would pick someone less committed to the Peace Corps’ global embrace.
Kevin F.F. Quigley, former president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit advocacy group composed of current and former volunteers and staff, lauded Olsen’s deep “institutional memory.”
“She’s all-star casting,” said Quigley, now president of Marlboro College in Vermont. “She has an extraordinary appreciation of the Peace Corps from every vantage point from five decades of experience.”
Another returned volunteer, as alums call themselves, has expressed concerns on the website Peace Corps Worldwide that Olsen might be too much of an insider for an agency that was meant to continually renew itself and its leadership.
John Coyne, a New York-based writer, cited Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver’s maxim that no one, including himself, should serve for more than five years at the agency.
“It keeps the agency consistently young,” Coyne told The Sun. “The idea is it’s fresh blood.”
Coyne acknowledges that he has exceeded the five-year maximum himself — after returning from a volunteer stint in Ethiopia in 1964, he joined the Peace Corps staff for three years, and again in 1995 for another five years.
He said he expects Olsen to maintain the “status quo” at the agency, which some feared might be weakened by Trump, who has proposed cutting its current $410 million budget by $12 million.
“I think everybody who is invested in Peace Corps, psychologically or emotionally, breathed a sigh of relief she got the job, and not some wacko he could have appointed,” Coyne said.
The investment that returned volunteers have in the Peace Corps is indeed intense, and perhaps expected, given the often life-transforming experience of their service, usually at a young age and in an exotic locale. Volunteers stay in touch with each other and those they worked with abroad, they advocate for the agency and can be counted on to preach and live one of the founding goals of the Peace Corps: To promote a better understanding of the world among their fellow Americans.
It’s that lifelong work, rather than the projects they contribute to while abroad, that some believe is the true product of the Peace Corps — and one that should be expanded.
The current number of volunteers — which along with trainees was 7,376 as of September — is less than half the agency’s peak of more than 15,000 in 1966, the year Olsen joined.
Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank devoted to reducing poverty and inequality, advocates changing the two-year service model into a more flexible one, such as a grant-making system akin to a Fulbright scholarship, and with shorter-term projects, which he believes would expand the applicant base.
“If you look at the Peace Corps returned volunteers, they are an incredibly active community, and they tend to remain deeply interested in development,” Kenny said in an interview. “That is fantastic. I want more of them. But most people don’t want to spend two years in what is often a rural environment.
“I spent five months in Zimbabwe 30 years ago as a volunteer, and that experience has stayed with me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it for two years.”
As the world has changed and become more interconnected, Kenny said, a longer stay doesn’t necessarily mean much more benefit. When he talks to college students, he said, they are more interested in other ways of reaching across boundaries, such as through social entrepreneurship or creating apps, than “the two-year model of being a junior government bureaucrat.”
Olsen said the Peace Corps model is unique in that volunteers live and work in what often are remote locales beyond the reach of other organizations.
“They go the last mile where most development agencies, and even host governments, rarely reach,” she said.
Additionally, as it’s currently structured, the Peace Corps gets assistance from other parts of the government and from private institutions, she said, boosting its work abroad in important areas such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and infant mortality.
“The agency has long recognized that public-private and intergovernmental collaborations increase the impact of Peace Corps volunteers,” Olsen said.
In Olsen’s telling, her five decades with the Peace Corps began quite by happenstance. She was attending the University of Utah when a Peace Corps volunteer gave a short talk at her sorority house. Olsen said she instantly knew it was something she wanted to do herself.
She graduated in 1965. The following year, she and her then-husband went to Tunisia as volunteers. She was sent to Sousse, the country’s third largest city, to teach English. Bob, an architect, was assigned to a town five kilometers away, where he helped choose a site for a tourist hotel, renovated a mosque and taught.
They returned after the usual two years and, after living briefly in New York, landed in Baltimore. After their decade in Charles Village, they both found their way back in the global sphere, Bob with the United States Agency for International Development and Jody as Peace Corps country director in Togo. (The couple divorced about 25 years ago; Jody Olsen said they remain “each other’s best friend.”)
From 1981 to 1984, Olsen was the regional director for North Africa, the Near East, Asia and the Pacific, based in Washington. She was chief of staff from 1989 to 1992.
It was a tumultuous time. Communism fell across Eastern Europe, and countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania were suddenly open to Peace Corps volunteers.
“Their eagerness for Peace Corps at that time [was] in part because they were interested in English and small business,” Olsen said, “so they were very supportive of the Peace Corps for a while.”
But times change, and so too do the countries that welcome American volunteers. There are currently more than 7,000 volunteers in 64 countries.
“There have been times when we’ve been dis-invited,” she said. Sometimes that comes with a change in government, she said, but more often the Peace Corps withdraws for security concerns. Volunteers worked in Afghanistan, for example, until 1979, when the U.S. ambassador, Adolph Dubs, was assassinated and the Soviet Union invaded.
The safety of volunteers has long been a concern. Kate Puzey, a volunteer in Benin who had reported a local agency employee was raping students, was killed in 2009. Four men accused in her death, including the agency employee, were acquitted of murder in 2017. Nick Castle died in 2013 after receiving inadequate medical care while serving in China.
Both deaths inspired legislation to strengthen safety and security measures. A bill named after Castle to improve medical care and enhance safety was introduced this year; it has passed the Senate and is under consideration in the House.
At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, Olsen told senators she remains “heartbroken” for Puzey, and in her honor would continue to work to protect volunteers. Olsen said she supports the Castle bill as well, and that the safety and security of volunteers is the agency’s top priority.
Olsen was confirmed on March 22 and sworn in March 30 as the Peace Corps’ 20th director. It was her second time in the office: she was acting director for the first eight months of President Obama’s first term.
On Wednesday, she joined Trump at the White House to honor the 2018 Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia. (Manning took the opportunity to hand Trump a stack of letters her immigrant and refugee students had written to him.)
“While Peace Corps volunteers work on projects in many different sectors — from health to community economic development — education is our largest program area,” Olsen said during the program. “During her two years of Peace Corps service, Mandy gained a global perspective that informs her work today.
“She likes to joke that she thought her teaching career would end after her Peace Corps service. My goodness, aren’t we all glad she was wrong?”
Over the course of her career, Olsen told The Sun, she has seen how profoundly the Peace Corps experience changes volunteers — as it did her.
“You get in, you go way beyond where you think you’re going to go, you take risks,” Olsen said. “And you learn to be humble.”
Olsen said she always wants to expand the number of countries in which volunteers serve. Even after it’s “disinvited” from a country, she said, the agency tries to maintain ties in case the political or security situation changes. Political instability led to volunteers leaving Sri Lanka in 1998, for example, but Olsen said this spring they’ll return “with great pleasure and joy.”
As someone whose Peace Corps career has spanned the Cold War and the War on Terror and any number of global quakes in between, Olsen never gives up on any country opening its doors to the agency.
“I’m an optimist,” she said. “I always think there will be a time that we get to be in places that we’re not now in, and I always want to make that happen as much as possible.”