2007.10.14: October 14, 2007: Headlines: Headquarters: Staff: Chief of Staff : Chattanooga Times Free Press: An Interview with Chief of Staff David Liner about the Peace Corps

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An Interview with Chief of Staff David Liner about the Peace Corps

An Interview with Chief of Staff David Liner about the Peace Corps

"The Peace Corps is in great shape. It’s very, very healthy. I guess the one thing that we need to be diligent towards is maintaining the health and safety of our volunteers. There aren’t major things that need to be fixed, but all systems always need tweaking."

An Interview with Chief of Staff David Liner about the Peace Corps

Complete Q&A with David Liner about the Peace Corps
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Q: Talk about the mission of the Peace Corps, which was created by President John Kennedy. Has that mission changed at all, and is it still relevant today?

A: It is very, very relevant. There are three goals for the Peace Corps as outlined by President Kennedy. Those have not changed at all. One is to bring assistance to countries that want us and help them in their needs. Two is to bring America to those countries, the face of America. Three, to bring something of those cultures back to the United States for better cross-cultural understanding both ways.

Those goals have not changed at all. In fact, I would say they’re as important today as ever. That’s why I believe I have the best job in Washington. We have a little over 8,000 volunteers out there, and I consider each of them unofficial ambassadors, doing this great wonderful work all over the world at the community level and really putting the best face on America in 73 countries.

Q: Have you found it challenging, especially in this day and age, with American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan polarizing some of the world against our actions, to spread that message of good will?

A: I don’t think it is for our volunteers. The reception is actually wonderful. Our applications are up. We have more countries that want us than we’re able to provide volunteers to, just because of budget considerations. We work in a lot of predominantly Muslim countries and are very well received in those countries.

Q: Which countries are you looking to expand the Peace Corps to?

A: I’m not ready to make any announcements. We have done assessments, and of course, if we do an assessment, we hope to enter those countries. We’ve done assessments in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Rwanda. We’re not to the point of announcing those.

Q: You recently returned from a trip to Africa. What did you do there?

A: I traveled with the director to Burkina Faso and Niger, predominantly Muslim countries. We had a fantastic time (and were) very well received. Every community we went to just welcomed us, and it was clear how much they appreciated America’s presence and how much they appreciated our visit.

Q: The Peace Corps has a new initiative to recruit volunteers who are 50 years old and up. What are your goals with that program?

A: It’s one of the director’s major initiatives for the Peace Corps. We just think they bring so much wisdom to a program (and) maturity. We talk to a number of volunteers in the field, and the younger ones particularly say how much they appreciate the 50-plus volunteers and how much they look up to them.
One of the things that makes Peace Corps so strong is that we have a peer support network where the volunteers support each other, and I think having the more mature, experienced volunteers helps with that.

Q: What percentage of your volunteers is straight out of college?

A: Almost all of our volunteers have at least an undergraduate degree. Some just have associate degrees, and we’re working to increase that number.

Demographics, we have 59 percent female to 41 percent male. Our average age is 27 years old, almost 28, so it’s a little more mature than you would think. It’s not all just (volunteers) out of school.
Our oldest serving volunteer is 81 years old, serving in Thailand.

Ninety three percent have at least an undergrad degree, and 12 percent have grad degrees.

Q: For those who are unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, how does the Peace Corps work?

A: The (application) process takes generally eight or nine months. We take about a third of our applications, so it shows we very much believe we’re able to draw the best and the brightest volunteers, and we’re proud of that. They put in an application, and probably the biggest thing is, you match their skill set with what country needs what, and you try to make placements that make sense.

There’s also a stringent medical clearance process. Peace Corps takes care of all aspects of medical care for volunteers, so we have to be very concerned that they’re healthy when they go in, and if they have medical issues, that they’re placed in a country where those issues can be dealt with by local medical staff.

Q: Then after the screening process, it’s a two-year commitment, right?

A: It’s 27 months total. We have what’s called staging, which is two days of training, and then they get on the plane as a group and go to the country as a class. They arrive in the country (and) do three months of training prior to swearing in as a volunteer, and then they do two years.

Q: Now that you’ve been with the Peace Corps for a little over two years, are there changes down the line that you’d like to make to the program?

A: The Peace Corps is in great shape. It’s very, very healthy. I guess the one thing that we need to be diligent towards is maintaining the health and safety of our volunteers. There aren’t major things that need to be fixed, but all systems always need tweaking.

The 50-plus initiative and trying to make sure we’re ready to place appropriately 50-plus people and train them (are) showing areas of improvement that will affect all volunteers. In uplifting the 50-plus volunteers, we will increase the entire volunteer experience, and that’s exciting.

Q: Do you get back to Chattanooga often?

A: I do. I try to get back at least once a year.

Q: Do you have any favorite hangouts in Chattanooga? Places that you like to go back to?

A: It’s all pretty new since I left. The whole area down by the river now by the (Tennessee) Aquarium is all wonderful.

Q: How much is D.C. different from Chattanooga?

A: Much more congested (laughs). Washington is a bit like a small southern town in many ways. It seems like a small town to me, even though it’s so much bigger. It does have a small-town mentality. Certainly there’s more international people here between embassies and more immigration here.
I guess they’re both home, but Chattanooga will always be the No. 1 home. You’re always from where you’re from.

E-mail Herman Wang at hwang@timesfreepress.com

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