Since President Obama took office, the Peace Corps has refashioned itself into an incubator for technocrats.
“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,” says Hessler-Radelet. “We are … utilizing technology like never before and providing in-depth technical training to all of our volunteers.”
Last year, the Peace Corps partnered with Random Hacks of Kindness—a joint project by Microsoft, Google, NASA, and others—to launch what Hessler-Radelet described as a “global hackathon,” during which legions of coders devised civic-minded apps.
Apart from the agency’s technological initiatives, it has worked to improve the health and safety of volunteers in the 76 countries where they are serving. Pursuant to a 2011 act of Congress, the Peace Corps has taken measures to protect volunteers from sexual assault and violent crime, as well as to improve the care available to victims.
For Hessler-Radelet, humanitarian work is a family affair. Her grandparents, Howard and Ruth Pearsall, joined the Peace Corps in 1972 after retiring as university professors. Her aunt, Ginny Kirkwood, was the 10,000th Peace Corps volunteer. Hessler-Radelet and her husband, Steve Radelet, were Peace Corps volunteers in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. (They were married just days before leaving for training.) And, finally, her nephew, Jimmy, recently served as a volunteer in Mozambique.
Before being named Peace Corps deputy director in 2010, Hessler-Radelet was vice president of John Snow Inc., where she oversaw public-health programs in more than 85 countries. During the George W. Bush administration, she was instrumental in developing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Earlier in her career, under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, she helped Indonesia devise a national strategy to combat AIDS.
Hessler-Radelet, a Wisconsin native, holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in health policy and management from Harvard University. The 56-year-old founded the Special Olympics in Gambia in 1986 and has lived and worked in more than 50 countries.