Peace Corps: A Social Work Tradition

Nov 22, 2011

Since its inception, the Peace Corps has had more than 200,000 volunteers serve in 139 nations. Social workers have played, and continue to play, a vital role in the organization’s success.

The organization has three primary goals: help people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people who are served; and help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

This year, the Peace Corps, an agency of the federal government whose mission is to promote world peace and friendship, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Social Workers Offer the Best. Jody Olsen has held a series of leadership roles in the Peace Corps, including chief of staff, deputy director and acting director. Her involvement with the organization began in 1966 when she served as a volunteer in Tunisia the first year out of college. Currently, she is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore, which joins five other U.S. schools of social work in offering the Master’s International Fellows program, allowing students to earn academic credit for their Peace Corps service.

Olsen believes strongly that social workers are not only well-suited for the Peace Corps, she believes they offer the best. “Social workers have a variety of strong competencies — from networking to problem solving to listening to community organizational skills and more,” she says. “That puts them at a real advantage to adapt and be effective as volunteers. I believe they can offer the most.”

Robin Contino is the Haiti adviser for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, Md. Previously, she was employed by the Peace Corps as a special services officer in Washington. In this role, she responded to emergencies and provided counseling and support to volunteers and country programs all over the world. Later, she served as the country director in Sri Lanka for the Peace Corps’ Crisis Corps response to the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Like Olsen, Contino says she believes social workers are an excellent fit for Peace Corps service.

“The ethics and values of social work are in line with those of the mission of the Peace Corps — recognizing the individual differences and uniqueness of others, identifying and playing to strengths, embracing cultural diversity, solidarity, confronting social injustice and empowering others by offering them the tools, knowledge, skills and attitudes to help themselves,” she says. “Education, experience and intrinsic interest in the true spirit of social work lends itself to a productive and successful Peace Corps experience.”

Model New Behaviors, Ask the Right Questions. The majority of Peace Corps volunteers go to Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe/Central Asia, although the Peace Corps serves in 76 countries worldwide. While most assignments are in education or health and HIV/AIDS, many other volunteers, including social workers, serve in business development, environmental projects, agriculture, youth development and other areas.

In addition to contributing through their work, Olsen says social workers — particularly those with advocacy and community organization backgrounds — contribute by modeling new behaviors.

“In developing countries, for instance, disabled or deaf children are often shunned and kept at home. Social workers who are Peace Corps volunteers have given them needed attention, bringing them out and setting up programs for them. They are particularly skilled at understanding the subtleties involved in situations like this and know how to be effective,” Olsen says. “In doing this, they not only bring more opportunity for these children, but their families as well.”

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