Jody Olsen, PhD, MSW, who most recently served as acting director of the Peace Corps, has joined the School of Social Work as a visiting professor. She had been deputy director of the Peace Corps for the previous seven years after having begun her distinguished international career in 1966 as a volunteer in Tunisia.
Olsen's responsibilities will be "to assist in the development of international programs, public service initiatives, and to contribute to the teaching of management, international social work, and community practice courses as a resource and occasional lecturer," says Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, dean of the School.
Barth designated Olsen as coordinator of the School's response to the Haiti earthquake, which occurred only days before she arrived on campus for the spring semester. She is collaborating with other University leaders in overseeing the School's outreach efforts, starting with the Haitian community in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"This is the beginning of what can be a long reconstruction effort that will enrich our work here at the School and give desperately needed assistance to the people of Haiti, whether in their own country or here in our metropolitan neighborhoods," says Olsen.
Among her first accomplishments in her new position, Olsen joined Dick Cook, MSW, director of the School's Social Work Community Outreach Service, in leading a group of 15 students to El Salvador in early January. The group met with organizations and individuals who serve that country's most disadvantaged residents. It also met with people involved in a generation-long rebuilding process following the Civil War.
Olsen has traveled to more than 80 countries, including Haiti. As she ascended to the executive level during three separate stints in the Peace Corps, which mandates turnover to bring in fresh perspectives, Olsen says she relied on her MSW. "It prepared me as much as I think any degree could have prepared someone" for a career in public policy and for leadership, she says.
Olsen was drawn to social work as early as age 11, when she accompanied a relative to the office and saw what it was like to manage a social services agency. As a young adult she experienced another pivotal moment, which directed her toward a policy career. Assigned to the case of a woman in New York, Olsen recalls concluding: "She doesn't need counseling; she needs a Medicaid card."
As chief of staff of the Peace Corps in 1989, she took on the aftermath of two very different international events: the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. She went on to oversee the opening of the agency's first program in Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries, noting the cultural challenges during this period of signifant change.
During her travels, Olsen became a compelling storyteller. She can talk of helping farmers in Togo improve their techniques, and of listening to Mali's president praise the Peace Corps for helping to eradicate a parasitic disease known as river blindness.
On Tuesday, Feb. 23, Olsen will give a talk on campus about the Peace Corps and the importance of public service. Currently, there are 7,671 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 76 host countries, and applications increased 18 percent in 2009. For information on the event being held at UMB, go here.
Olsen has held executive positions at the University of Maryland Center on Aging, at the Academy for Educational Development, and at the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. The latter manages the Fulbright Senior Scholar Program.
A 1972 graduate of the SSW, Olsen earned a PhD from the University of Maryland College of Education and has served as president of the University of Maryland Alumni Association. The Utah native received her bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Utah. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.