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.”

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.”

Another way social workers have a strong effect is through their interpersonal skills-particularly when it comes to asking questions.

“Peace Corps social work volunteers know how to ask questions in very descriptive ways, and also in ways that allow people in need to maintain their dignity,” she says. “Then they know how to use the answers to get families the help they need.”

Olsen also says volunteer social workers can benefit from meaningful insights when they return home.

“For instance, in the U.S., social workers are increasingly working with diversified populations, many of them immigrants. There is a richness to the immigrant experience that is hard to know unless you have had some international experience yourself. But when you get it, you know the questions to ask and you know how to better explore what is there,” she says.

Pausing Midcareer to Serve

Although many choose to volunteer early in their career, and the average age of a volunteer is 28, around 7 percent of Peace Corps volunteers who make the 27-month commitment are 50 or older.

Darlene Grant, a one-time NASW Social Worker of the Year, is an associate professor of social work at the University of Texas-Austin School of Social Work where she has taught since 1994. In 2007, she assessed her career and personal situation — her children were grown and she had a secure position in academia that she could return to — and contemplated taking a leave of absence.

“I considered joining the Peace Corps as taking time to ‘retool,’ to get back to the roots of direct practice which so inspired my early career, and have a chance see my work through a different perspective,” she explains. “Getting a Fulbright Award or moving into a different academic setting would not have accomplished what I wanted. I wanted a break that simultaneously offered a chance to do some good in the world.”

She joined the Peace Corps and went to Cambodia, beginning her assignment Sept. 25, 2009, and completing it and returning home in July 2011. In Cambodia, Grant worked as an English teacher and collaborated with her fellow volunteers to design, plan and implement 2010 and 2011 day-long International Women’s Day Programs.

“In my opinion, the Peace Corps is a midcareer social worker’s dream opportunity,” she says. “I honed my professional skills and served others, but I also fulfilled some of my personal dreams and desires — like learning to ride a bike again and play the guitar. Also, I turned 50 while I was in the Peace Corps, and it gave me immense joy, satisfaction and a sense of beginning the second half of my life making an important contribution on behalf of my country and my profession.”

Grant also believes Peace Corps volunteer service is an excellent fit for a social worker, but says recent graduates should be aware that in Cambodia and some other developing countries, social work is not yet formally recognized as a profession, so some training opportunities are not available.

“Thus, the Peace Corps experience, as I see it at this point in time, is not often one where you can get LMSW supervision or specific ‘social work practice’ training,” she explains. “However, you can hone your understanding of a developing country, its history and people and the current-day issues that challenge people’s growth and development and the growth and development of organizations and government. Further, you gain insight into negotiating a totally foreign environment through cultural immersion.”

Challenges Into Opportunities

There can be challenges for social workers who join the Peace Corps, and for many seasoned social workers, language barriers are one of them. Although the Peace Corps offers three months of language training, it can be difficult for some. However, Olsen believes that disadvantage can sometimes transform into opportunity.

“Fifty percent of the way we communicate is nonverbal, through our eyes, face, hands and spirit, and even if you can’t speak the language, you can still make an enormous difference,” Olsen says. “I remember a 65-year-old volunteer in Thailand who only knew a few words of Thai. In her village there was a building with a glass front and inside was an exercise machine. She would get on it every day as a way to get to know people. She got to know the kids first, then worked her way into the families through these children.”

There are other challenges to overcome. Grant, who is of African-American descent, faced racism. Then there are the realities of living in a developing country, such as issues related to drinking water, insects and rodents, disease or any number of concerns. Social workers also have to adjust to limited resources in host countries, where it can be challenging to access what you need in order to help others.

Despite the many challenges, Grant speaks for many Peace Corps volunteers when she says it was an invaluable, life-changing experience.

“It truly is the ‘best job you’ll ever love,’” Grant says. “Once I made the commitment, I never looked back. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The Peace Corps is recruiting Americans with a commitment to service.

“We are placing both recent college graduates and those highly skilled with work experience. Volunteers can take their valuable leadership experience gained in the U.S. to help communities overseas,” says Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “Social workers have the leadership skills, creativity, and compassion to be successful Peace Corps volunteers.”

Peace Corps/Schools of Social Work Programs

For those seeking formal social work training in conjunction with a Peace Corps experience, there are two options to consider:

  • Peace Corps Master’s International Program: Current Peace Corps volunteers can earn academic credit for their Peace Corps service through the Master’s International Program. [program now closed]
  • Paul Coverdell Fellows Program: A graduate fellowship that offers financial assistance to returned Peace Corps volunteers and places them in degree-related, professional internships in underserved American communities. Participants receive reduced tuition, assistantships and stipends.