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Facing declining applications, Peace Corps rethinks how to reach a new generation

July 16, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
There are about 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 65 countries by teaching, promoting economic development and public health and experiencing other cultures. But fewer Americans are applying and wait times for acceptance have increased. Judy Woodruff talks to director Carrie Hessler-Radelet about changing the application process.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: enticing a new generation to join the Peace Corps.

Fifty-three years ago, President Kennedy created the all-volunteer corps, which has since sent more than 200,000 U.S. citizens to 139 countries. Today, there are about 7,000 volunteers serving in 65 countries, teaching, working in agriculture and economic development, and promoting nutrition and public health.

But the Peace Corps has been on the decline, as fewer people apply, and wait times for acceptance increase.

Yesterday, the Corps announced plans to reverse that trend.

Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet joins me now.

Welcome.

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET, Director, Peace Corps: Thank you. It’s a privilege to be here.

GWEN IFILL: So, tell me, 53 years — what are these changes you have announced designed to fix?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, you know, we actually started this four years ago as part of a planned reform to upgrade all aspects of our operations and really modernize the Peace Corps.

And so we focused our first four years on improving the support we provide to volunteers, so health, safety, and technical and program support, so they can do their jobs effectively. So we strengthen our base first, and now we’re ready to ramp up our application numbers.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about your application numbers. I read today that there were 30,000 incomplete applications made in nine months. Why were those applications not being completed?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, our former process was very cumbersome and long. It used to take eight hours to apply for the Peace Corps. And now with our…

GWEN IFILL: Eight hours.

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Eight hours. And if you printed them all out, it would be 60 pages.

And so now we have a process that takes less than one hour to complete. It’s much more user-friendly, it’s faster, it’s easier, and it’s much more personalized.

GWEN IFILL: So the desire to be an international volunteer still exists?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: Just the process needed to be fixed?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, I think the process needed to be fixed, yes, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: So, does it change where people get to go, does this process?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: So, the three changes that we have announced today are, first, the possibility of choice. Our volunteers have the opportunity to apply for a particular country and a particular program, and that’s a big change for us.

Previous to this, the volunteers…

GWEN IFILL: It was kind of a blind application before?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Yes, you applied to the Peace Corps, and we would send you where we need you. And you still have the option to choose. I will serve wherever I’m needed.

And, frankly, we’re finding that almost half of our all applicants, even since we have announced these changes, are still pushing that button, are still selecting that they are willing to go wherever they’re needed.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have a backup plan in case you don’t get — everybody wants to go to France?

(LAUGHTER)

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: We don’t serve in France.

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: But there are countries that are going to be more competitive, absolutely.

It’s a competitive process. It’s going to be like applying to university. — quote — that’s the first choice — the first difference. Now, the second is that we’re having the shorter application that we just talked about, much more streamlined.

And then the third is, now we have increased the transparency. So if you apply for a particular program, you will know when you will find out whether or not you have been accepted. And you will know what date you will depart. So it’s just like applying for a job or university. You are going to be able to have clarity around your dates and you will be able to plan around your Peace Corps service.

GWEN IFILL: You have said that the Peace Corps is a great brand. What is the brand? And who is still applying to go abroad?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: You know, our — our volunteers are of all ages. Our youngest volunteer is 21. Our oldest volunteer is 80.

And we represent the diversity of our country. And having a volunteer force that reflects the rich diversity of our country is a very important priority for the Peace Corps.

GWEN IFILL: Does it truly reflect the diversity of the country?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, it doesn’t completely reflect the diversity. About 24 percent of our volunteers self-report as minority. But it is a very high priority for us that we have a volunteer force that reflects the rich diversity of the American people.

GWEN IFILL: How do you go about doing that?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, we have partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-servings institutions, travel colleges and universities, AARP, because we also want diversity in age as well.

And then we have partnerships with organizations that really reach out to underserved populations.

GWEN IFILL: You have also had a change to respond to affect — to respond to the times. The Peace Corps came under some scrutiny for sexual assault in some locations. And you have also had to take into account the rise of same-sex couples who want to serve together.

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Exactly. Exactly. No, that’s right.

The whole issue of safety and security is a very high priority for me personally, as a mother, as a return Peace Corps volunteer myself, as a public health professional, and as a sexual assault survivor. It is an area that I feel very strongly about. And we have done so much over the last few years to improve the quality of our support to volunteers and the response that we provide. So…

GWEN IFILL: So, as a former volunteer yourself, when you look at the people who come and say they want to apply, and even when they were filling out 80 pages’ worth of applications to do it, how has the volunteer force changed?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: You know, I actually think that the volunteers themselves are not that different.

They are still people who are incredibly motivated by service. They are curious about the rest of the world. They want to make a difference. And that has not changed. What has changed is their level of comfort with technology. All of our volunteers now are fully savvy in the use of all technology. And they’re putting that to use in their development work, and it’s very exciting about what they’re doing.

GWEN IFILL: Have the demands made on the Peace Corps by the nations which are — have the greatest need, has that changed as well?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Yes. It’s changed with the times, absolutely.

For example, climate change is an area of great concern now to many nations, food security, HIV/AIDS. We’re working on some of the most important development challenges of our times. And our volunteer requests from our host countries reflect that.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, as you have begun to broadcast information about making it easier to get in, or at least know that you’re in, have you seen any kind of uptick in interest?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Absolutely.

We have had the — yesterday was our busiest day ever in the history of Peace Corps on our Web site. And we have had many new applications submitted since we announced our changes. We’re very excited.

GWEN IFILL: Is it because people had forgotten about the Peace Corps?

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Well, I think people are excited about the new possibilities. There’s always been a great demand for service. But I think that the new process, a more user-friendly process, is certainly generating interest.

GWEN IFILL: Carrie Hessler-Radelet of the Peace Corps, thank you so much.

CARRIE HESSLER-RADELET: Thank you so much.