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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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Peace Corps Director extols volunteering, shares life

Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen answered questions and shared her life story in the Honors College Commons. | Ian Everett/The Cougar

The Honors College hosted the Peace Corps director for an informational session on Oct. 8, encouraging students to sign up after graduation by sharing her initial experience with volunteering. 

Jody Olsen, the 20th director of the Peace Corps, spoke with Honors students about the benefits of joining the Peace Corps after college. Olsen, who got her start in the Corps in 1966 as a volunteer in Tunisia and was nominated to the director position in 2018, said the benefits went beyond building resumes. 

“From a professional development perspective, it’s one of the best decisions you can make,” Olsen said. “But personally, over that two year period, you change fundamentally in a way that makes you present in everything you want to do in your life.” 

Olsen has a long history with the Peace Corps — she has served in multiple leadership positions, including Acting Director, Deputy Director, and Chief of Staff. 

Prior to her return as the Peace Corps director in 2018, she served as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore School of Social Work and the director of the campus’s Center for Global Education Initiatives. 

But that’s now. Olsen’s talk began by walking back to the first time she ever heard about the Peace Corps and how the desire to join collided with her plans for a normal life. 

“I was a junior in college at the University of Utah, I was engaged, and I wanted to have a bunch of kids,” Olsen said. 

At a sorority dinner, a returned Peace Corps volunteer gave a small talk, and the next day Olsen told her fiance she wanted to join.  

“Why a 10 minute talk fundamentally changed me, I don’t know,” Olsen said. “Maybe it was that I always wanted to hop into a plane and go somewhere.” 

A year and a half after that dinner, Olsen found herself teaching English to a large class of teenage boys in Tunisia, a predominantly Islamic, primarily Arabic and French speaking country. 

Olsen told the audience how nervous she was to leave behind her husband and her life, but she didn’t want to quit.

“I thought it would be embarrassing if I gave up,” Olsen said. “And it was tough. I lost control of my class, and it felt like I didn’t succeed very often.” 

But as the two years progressed, things became easier for Olsen as she immersed herself in a place completely foreign to her. 

“After nine months, I started to learn the language and talk to the women, and something seeped in as I let go of who I was,” Olsen said. 

“I could hear differently, I could listen to other perspectives, I could understand situations that I never could have understood, and I could solve problems I never knew how to solve before,” Olsen said. 

Her class inspired her to continue her education after she returned from her volunteering. 

“The more I spent time with my students, the more I learned about them and their grandmothers; they became very important to me,” Olsen said. “That’s why I got a PhD, because I had so much respect for how those boys treated their grandmothers.” 

Though there was initial friction in their contrasting lives, Olsen said her experiences with her host family and students opened her eyes. 

“We had conversations every day about Islam and Mormonism, and why I ate and drank things they couldn’t, and why they ate and drank things I couldn’t,” Olsen said.

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