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Peace Corps Director Honors Teachers College and Columbia

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Peace Corps Director Honors Teachers College and Columbia

Jody K. Olsen, the Acting Director of the Peace Corps, President Susan Fuhrma and Provost Thomas James

Peace Corps Director Honors Teachers College and Columbia

Jody K. Olsen, the Acting Director of the Peace Corps

For Jody K. Olsen, the Acting Director of the Peace Corps, it’s hard to believe the program for returning Peace Corps volunteers she helped create at Teachers College is now almost 25 years old.
“There were five of us around a wooden table—I remember it very well—in one small room here somewhere (at Teachers College) and we were thinking, ‘We should be creating this very special  program at Teachers College,’” recalled Olsen, who at the time was head of the Peace Corps office that set up the program. “The excitement here at Teachers College made it a natural and very normal thing to do. It was the very first fellows program for the Peace Corps. It is today the largest. It is really the flagship that says to other universities across the country: ‘Yes, we can do this and we can do it very well.’”
 
Olsen was back in a room at TC on March 2, this time to honor the College and Columbia University for their efforts in support of the Peace Corps over the years. Since 1961, Columbia has produced more than 1,600 Peace Corps volunteers, the eighth highest number of any university. TC, meanwhile, has trained 695 returning Peace Corps volunteers since 1985 through the Peace Corps Fellows Program, which fast-tracks volunteers into teaching jobs in high-need New York City public schools.
 
As part of the program, the former Peace Corps volunteers receive 15 weeks of summer training, and spend at least 50 hours observing effective teaching in NYC schools. In the fall, they begin teaching in schools fulltime while pursuing a master’s degree at TC in the evening. Fellows commit to teaching for a minimum of three years and receive scholarship assistance through a fund set up by TC Trustee Elliot Jaffe.
 
At the ceremony, Olsen presented President Susan Fuhrman, Provost Thomas James and Kavita Sharma, Dean of the Center for Career Education at Columbia, with certificates of appreciation and lauded both institutions for their longstanding commitment to the Peace Corps. “A third of all Peace Corps volunteers are involved in education and upward of a third of all returning Peace Corps volunteers stay in education through many years of their careers …,” Olsen said, “so it makes the strength of the Teachers College Fellows Program that much more important.”
 
More than 40 universities now offer some 50 fellows programs in a range of fields from international development to public health. At TC, returning Peace Corps volunteers can choose a degree program from among six hard-to-staff teaching positions, including mathematics and science education.
 
“It’s obvious and simple logic: People who have committed to serving high-need populations in diverse settings are well prepared to come back and work in the New York City schools,” Fuhrman said, “and we are delighted to provide them with an understanding of how children learn, the pedagogical skills and the other preparation that they need to be successful teachers.”
 
Fuhrman also acknowledged Jaffe for his support of the program. In 2003, Jaffe and his wife Roslyn donated nearly a half million dollars to the program, and income from a separate $900,000 scholarship endowment established by the Jaffes is designated each year for Peace Corps fellows.
 
Olsen became acting director of the Peace Corps in January after having served as deputy director since 2002. She has held a number of positions at the Peace Corps since serving as volunteer from 1966 to 1968 in Tunisia. During the ceremony at TC, Patrick Bernal, an English teacher at the Marble Hill School for International Studies in the Bronx and a former Peace Corps fellow, presented Olsen with plaque on behalf of the program.
 
Kirsten Larson, Principal at Marble Hill who was a Peace Corps fellow in the early 2000s, said that a third of the teachers at the charter high school are former Peace Corps volunteers. Larson and other fellows founded Marble Hill in 2002 as the first small high school in the Bronx. The presence of so many fellows has made the school, she said, “a really rich and diverse place.”
 
“I had an incredible experience,” said Larson of her three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. “And the doors that have opened since I attended Columbia and the fellows program have been unbelievable. Many volunteers are hired just because of their Peace Corps experience. In my case, I was instantly asked in one phrase ‘Are you ready to work in the South Bronx?’ That was it. ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’” 
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