Global Health Champions: From the Peace Corps to USAID
How public service has led hundreds from one agency to the other
Both USAID and the Peace Corps have been in the business of supporting countries on their journeys to self-reliance since 1961, when both were founded by President John F. Kennedy. To this day, both agencies continue to ensure that local partners have the skills and tools needed for resilience, long-term sustainability, and prosperity.
USAID’s bureaus seamlessly overlap with Peace Corps volunteers’ assignments in global health, agriculture and food security, economic growth, education and the environment. Together, the two agencies work in over 50 countries to help them meet the needs of their people.
USAID is proud to count more than 400 returned Peace Corps volunteers in its ranks — men and women who have spent over two years volunteering in the field, gaining invaluable practical experience while living like locals.
In February, USAID celebrates Peace Corps Week to champion all the ways that the Peace Corps makes a difference at home and abroad. The following stories from USAID staff members working to improve global health show how being a volunteer was just the beginning of a lifetime of service.
Susan Henderson, USAID Liaison for the President’s Malaria Initiative and Medical Officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo 1991–1993, Peace Corps Staff 2013–2018)
“My experience in the Peace Corps changed my life for the better and opened my eyes to the world and the role of public health in disease eradication. In Togo, I served as a guinea worm eradication volunteer, working alongside a nurse to train community health volunteers on surveillance and prevention. Before serving, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but by the end, I had focused my goals on going to medical school and becoming a public health physician.
“One of the important tenets of the Peace Corps is that you work with the community to support projects and goals that they want. As part of this grassroots approach, we established relationships — I learned the local language, ate meals with my host family, and fully integrated into the community.
“I now serve as the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] liaison to USAID as a medical officer on the President’s Malaria Initiative. I love traveling and working with people and have found a job that allowed me to do both at CDC/USAID.”
Penelope Smith, Neglected Tropical Diseases Adviser with USAID (Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan 2000–2001)
“I was assigned to the central medical school in Ashgabat as a public health instructor, delivering lessons on hygiene, diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and STI [sexually transmitted infection] prevention. When Turkmenistan received medical donations labeled in English or French, which students couldn’t understand, I teamed up with another volunteer and taught night classes on medical English and developed a legend so that drugs could be safely employed.
“I now work as a neglected tropical diseases adviser, supporting efforts to achieve global elimination of two diseases as a public health problem and control of five other diseases in 25 countries. I’ve formed strong relationships with colleagues and stakeholders because of a career-long application of lessons I learned in the Peace Corps. I’ve brought experience on the importance of drug quality verification, supply chain management, and responsible stewardship of donated materials to my work at USAID.”
Cudjoe Bennett, Senior Research and Knowledge Management Adviser in Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition with USAID (Peace Corps Volunteer in Timor Leste 2003–2005)
“My official title was rural health extension volunteer, which meant that I worked on anything from program planning and report writing to data analysis and budgeting. Most importantly, it meant a lot of listening, learning and being humble. A big part of being a volunteer is figuring out how and where you fit in. You may or may not have tangible skills to lend to a particular situation, but being open, flexible and willing to help is key to success.
“As one of the first volunteers in a post-conflict setting that had experienced hundreds of years of occupation and, by some accounts, genocide, Timor Leste was an emotional place to work.
“My service reminded me that I was no different from those in my adopted community, with the exception that I was born somewhere else, and by virtue of that, my life’s experiences and opportunities would likely forever be different. I will likely interpret the same situation differently from someone else; therefore, listening and being humble are always critical. Being a Peace Corps volunteer reinforced my belief in the human capacity to be resilient, and I’ve carried this conviction into my professional career and work at USAID. I [now] provide technical expertise in urban health, research design, and analysis and translation.
Lizzie Noonan, Immunization Adviser in Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition with USAID (Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia 2010–2012)
“Although I was recruited and sworn in as a community health volunteer, I was most needed and helpful teaching English. I spent most of my time working alongside my brilliant local partner and friend, Varduhi Ghazaryan, in a small town near the Iranian border.
“I grew up as a homebody in a small town in the middle of nowhere and never imagined a career like the one I have now. I credit the Peace Corps with opening my eyes to some of the challenges and opportunities facing communities around the world and helping to inform my views of smart, sustainable development assistance programs. The Peace Corps also strengthened my interpersonal skills and taught me how to simultaneously be persistent and patient.
“At USAID, I support the management of the U.S. Government’s contribution to and engagement with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. I liaise with partners and donors on policy and programmatic issues and work with USAID missions to ensure that our bilateral investments lead to equitable coverage of vaccines.”
Read more profiles of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers working at USAID.
About the Author
Catherine Korona served as an English education volunteer in Albania from 2015 to 2017. She now works as a communications analyst in USAID’s Office of Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition.