It changed my life and can change yours, Peace Corps director, a Salt Lake City native, tells Utahns

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jody Olsen, director of Peace Corps, addresses the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy (UCCD) luncheon on the role the Peace Corps plays in citizen diplomacy at Westminster On The Draw in Salt Lake City.

When Jody Olsen kicked off her trip to Tunisia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1966, she never imagined that the one-time experience would blossom into a decadeslong career in the organization.

“It was an accident that I found myself back in international involvement,” Olsen said Wednesday. During a dispatch to Togo in 1979 as a country director for the Peace Corps, the Salt Lake City native decided that she had found her true passion.

“This is really what I’m about,” Olsen recalled of that epiphany. “I’m about helping to build teams that change lives in cultures and countries around the world.”

Forty years later, Olsen gave a speech Wednesday on global engagement as the director of the Peace Corps at the Tribute Award Luncheon held by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy (UCCD), a nonprofit with 50-plus years of history hosting and connecting international visitors with Utahns.

The annual ceremony, honoring those who contribute to citizen diplomacy in the state, was joined by many volunteers and staffers at the organization, a Kosovo delegation focused on renewable energy and former U.S. Ambassador John Price and his wife, Marcia Price.

“I’m a great fan of the Peace Corps,” said John Price, a Utahn. “As U.S. ambassador to three African nations, I consistently heard great reviews in how the young volunteers made a difference in [people’s] lives and how they wish they would return.”

The Peace Corps bears a mission to “promote world peace and friendship,” Olsen said. According to the latest statistics, 46% of the agency’s volunteers were placed in Africa, she said. They serve in a range of fields, including education, health care, youth services, economic development and the environment.

Olsen encouraged elderly volunteers to join the effort as well, noting that 4% of the Peace Corps’ ranks are over age 50. She described the two-year experience as a life-changer.

“It changes a piece of your life when you share that international story,” Olsen said, appealing to a UCCD audience with experience hosting international groups.

Reflecting on her own upbringing, she said the state’s cultural and religious history prepared her for a career abroad. “It is so important that we take those moments, those hours to share who we are as people, as individuals, as citizens of Utah, Salt Lake.

“I can’t stress enough — even a day, a week, a dinner, a drive around the canyons, a conversation, time being together, sharing a story from here vis-a-vis a story from there … makes a difference for a lifetime.”

Susan Arsht, an assistant professor at Westminster College, received an award recognizing her contribution to international engagement. As an educator, Arsht said she encourages in-class conversations among her students and international visitors, and many of her students offered positive feedback.

“I would like to thank UCCD and Westminster College,” she said, “for allowing me to be the conduit to students and others for the opportunity of citizen diplomacy.”

The Salt Lake Tribune was lauded for its engagement with international readers and hospitality toward international groups. Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce received the award on behalf of the paper.

“Like [the UCCD], we’re in the business of empowering citizens,” Napier-Pearce said. “We want to share experiences and we know the power of stories.”

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