Many newlyweds celebrate their nuptials by snorkeling in the Virgin Islands or skiing in the Alps. Two weeks after getting married, Carrie Hessler-Radelet and her husband, Steve Radelet, were shipped off to a Polynesian island thousands of miles from the mainland. He had never been on a plane before.
Then a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, Hessler-Radelet taught at a girl's Catholic school in Western Samoa and lived in a thatched hut with her host parents and their eight children. Now 56, the acting director of the Peace Corps has said that accompanying her host mother, who was pregnant at the time, to monthly appointments at a nearby clinic was a transformative experience.
"Seeing what it's like to be a woman in a [patriarchal] society, where you have virtually no ability to make decisions related to your home health care … really galvanized my interest in public health," she told a local newspaper in Geneva, N.Y., last November.
Last month, President Obama nominated Hessler-Radelet to be permanent director of the Peace Corps. Since arriving at the agency three years ago, she has helped radically remake the Peace Corps as its deputy director.
"There has never been a time in the history of the agency, apart from its first five years, when there has been so much innovation and change in such a short period of time," Hessler-Radelet said in a recent interview with National Journal Daily. "We are … utilizing technology like never before and providing in-depth technical training to all of our volunteers."
The Peace Corps is in Hessler-Radelet's DNA. Her grandparents, aunt, and nephew have all served as volunteers, and Hessler-Radelet's commitment to the agency "has been instrumental in recruiting and training thousands of Peace Corps volunteers," Obama said in a statement with her nomination.
A native of Frankfort, Mich., Hessler-Radelet received a bachelor's degree from Boston University and worked briefly for a time-share condominium company before "my grandmother called me and said, 'I need to talk to you,' " she told the New York newspaper. "She took me out to coffee and said, 'What are you going to do with your one life?' The implication was selling time-share condominiums was not sufficient."
Hessler-Radelet signed up for the Peace Corps and persuaded her then-boyfriend to do the same. Upon returning from Western Samoa, she served as a public-affairs manager at the Peace Corps regional office in Boston and later established the Special Olympics in Gambia.
From 1994 to 1995, Hessler-Radelet was a U.S. Agency for International Development-sponsored HIV/AIDS adviser in Indonesia, where she helped set up the country's first national strategy to combat the disease. Before returning to the Peace Corps in 2010, she was the vice president of John Snow Inc., a public-health consultancy.
Hessler-Radelet holds a master's degree in health policy and management from Harvard University. She has two grown children and lives in Falls Church, Va.