It Truly Is ‘the Best Job You’ll Ever Love’
Peace Corps: A Social Work Tradition
“Social workers have a variety of strong competencies — from networking to
problem solving to listening to community organizational skills and more.”
By Maren Dale, Special to the NASW News
|Credit: John Michael Yanson
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
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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From November 2011 NASW News. © 2011 National
Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved. NASW News
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