Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn speaks to Minnesotans on global engagement

By: - November 9, 2023 1:38 pm

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn (third from left,) poses with former Peace Corps volunteers at the 2023 Minn Summit

United States Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn said during a recent Minnesota visit that she’s focused on reinvigorating the Corps after operations were suspended as the pandemic unfolded in March of 2020, leading to the evacuation of over 7,000 volunteers across the world. 

Spahn now leads over 2,400 volunteers in 57 countries today, working on education and development issues in a world reeling from regional conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, emerging authoritarianism across democracies, and the increasingly evident impact of climate change. 

“We want to really raise energy and enthusiasm, particularly at this time in history. There is tremendous demand around the world for Peace Corps volunteers,” Spahn said in an interview with the Reformer.

Spahn was the keynote speaker at the recent Minnesota International NGO Network Summit. She was appointed by President Joe Biden as the 21st director of the Peace Corps in 2022. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania from 1994 to 1996. Since being appointed, she has prioritized a return to regular Peace Corps operations after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The annual MINN Summit hosts international NGOs like Books for Africa and Global Minnesota in a day-long conference at the University of Minnesota, where students and the community can participate in discussions and lectures on global engagement. A crowd of approximately 100 gathered at the Humphrey School Conference Center, where Spahn gave her keynote and later did a Q&A with other returned Peace Corps volunteers, as they discussed the benefits and struggles associated with volunteering in a foreign country. 

Minnesota has the 10th largest population of Peace Corps volunteers per capita, Spahn said. The University of Minnesota ranks 16th among volunteer-producing universities in the United States. 

“I came to Minnesota because it is an amazing state with a lot of strong dedication to service. Many people think about international NGOs being in San Francisco or New York or Washington. We are looking to engage with stakeholders across the country and to both hear from people and to let them know that the Peace Corps is here,” Spahn said. 

The Peace Corps is looking to diversify the age range of volunteers, seeing volunteerism as a way to engage with youth and older populations alike, Spahn said. The minimum age to apply to volunteer is 18, but there is no upper age limit. 

“I had a volunteer when I was a country director in Malawi who was 82 when she served, which is just incredible,” Spahn said.

Spahn’s visit comes fresh on the heels of a lawsuit filed against the Peace Corps in September alleging mental health discrimination. Former Peace Corps applicants allege that seeking treatment for common disorders like anxiety and depression resulted in their application being denied. 

Spahn said that Peace Corps host countries have uneven mental health care infrastructure. Many African countries have barriers to mental health support, and African countries make up 41% of Peace Corps volunteer locations. 

“Seeking mental health services is incredibly important. We all suffered trauma during COVID. Many, many people sought mental health support. That is normalized, it’s a good thing. We definitely want people to be seeking those services, and we want the Peace Corps to be a place where all people have the opportunity to serve and to serve safely, so long as we can provide for their needs,” Spahn said. 

Spahn told the Reformer that she can’t speak to the details of the ongoing lawsuit. 

Federal analysis of the Household Pulse Survey shows that 50% of adults aged 18-24 reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression between 2019 and 2021. 

Spahn said youth engagement is an important part of the Peace Corps’ post COVID-19 outreach plan. 

“The energy and passion that young people bring is tremendous, and I think that can be true of any age group. And I think that the spark happens when people connect across difference, every generation is helping to move us forward in unique ways and asking us to step up and engage and to question the status quo,” Spahn said. 

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Nafi Soumare
Nafi Soumare

Nafi is an intern reporting for the Minnesota Reformer. Her interests in reporting include social justice, reform, and issues in the Minnesota education system.