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Reflecting on service to others this holiday season
November / December 2019 | Volume 18, Number 6
Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass
In this time of giving, I find myself reflecting on the meaning of service for those of us in the field of global health. Working for the benefit of others is a most gratifying and humbling experience. I believe giving back is part of what makes us human and demonstrates we care for others, beyond our immediate families and communities, and that we strive to ensure everyone has an equal right to a long and healthy life.
I often say I’ve never worked a day in my life and it’s how I truly feel. The opportunity to spend my career trying to make a difference in the lives of others is a privilege I greatly enjoy.
I was recently reminded of President John F. Kennedy’s call to action, which made a lasting impression on me when I was a young adult, pondering my future. His historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country,” challenged all of us to contribute in some way to the greater public good.
One of Kennedy’s signature achievements was the Peace Corps, which was established in 1961. A few weeks ago, I was honored to host its director on the NIH campus for a fireside chat. Dr. Jody Olsen is an inspiration and the perfect embodiment of a public servant.
She encouraged the audience to consider taking time off to volunteer through the
Peace Corps Response program, designed for experienced, mid-career professionals to undertake short-term, high-impact service assignments in the country of their choice. A background in health research is especially useful. For example, one volunteer helped an HIV facility in South Africa dramatically reduce the time it took to locate patient files for clinic visits. Of course, it’s a mutually beneficial experience and can also help boost careers.
For the first year after returning to the U.S., returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) receive special hiring preference to help them enter the federal workforce. Hiring managers tell Olsen they prefer returned volunteers because of their adaptability and unique perspective. In addition, 120 graduate schools award $11 million each year through a fellowship program for RPCVs, with an emphasis on those working in health fields.
Since its inception, more than 235,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps and served in 141 countries. Olsen - who grew up in Utah - enrolled after she graduated from college in 1966. She said she’d always wanted to get on a plane and was intrigued by the idea of living in a strange place. Her experience volunteering in Tunisia was a great adventure that changed her life.
She said immersing herself in a culture that was so different from her own forced her to learn to listen and observe more intently, to learn to live and breathe the experience to comprehend it. That ability to understand has stayed with her, she said, and helped push her outward to try new things and to be more accepting of diversity.
I know that my own early-career experiences in Bangladesh and elsewhere helped me develop sensitivities that made me a better clinician back home.
And so in this season of giving, perhaps we can reflect on the Peace Corps motto - Work for the World - a concept that resonates with us all.
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