Oíste’s copyeditor Barbara Lewton Beach recently interviewed our Country Director, Geralyn Sheehan.
Geralyn loves her job. “How fun is this?” she said, back in February when I had the opportunity to interview Geralyn Sheehan our Country Director in Peace Corps Colombia. She comes through with her unbridled enthusiasm for her job, her love of staff, and especially her admiration and love of Peace Corps Volunteers.
The third of four girls, Geralyn grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family in Richfield, Minnesota, near Minneapolis-St. Paul. The center of the family was her grandparents’ farm in nearby Northfield, which is under family ownership today. “I grew up in a big Irish-Catholic family. We were very close with lots of relatives. There were 27 first cousins in my mom’s side.”
Tragedy struck the Sheehan family when Geralyn was 15 and her father was killed in an accident, leaving the family in dire straights with no life insurance and a home mortgage to be paid. “He was only 50 years old,” she recalled. The four girls rallied, and went to work during and after high school to pay off the mortgage on the house and protect their mother.
While still in high school, Geralyn found a good job at the local grocery store. She joined the meat cutters’ union and became a member of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). This job was to portend her future international career. There were a lot of attempts to “union bust” during these years and union employees were allowed to take one- or two-month vacations without losing their jobs or seniority.
So began a life-long pattern of travel to Latin America. During her vacations, she traveled to various countries in Central and South America with friends for a month or two. “On those trips I realized I wanted to go to college to learn Spanish and Portuguese. It was frustrating that I couldn’t talk to people and ask questions.”
Finally at age 24, with the family home paid for and her mother financially stable, Geralyn became a full-time student at the University of Minnesota. In addition she was awarded a full scholarship through a United Nations program to help open up Spain after the harsh dictatorship and death of Francisco Franco. As part of her University of Minnesota studies, she also studied at the University of Seville in Spain where she learned Spanish. In 1979, Geralyn earned two bachelors degrees in Latin American Studies and Spanish.
In 1985 she earned a J.D. degree from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul. Then in 1995, she received a Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Community Economic Development from the JFK School of Government at Harvard University.
Geralyn practiced law in both criminal and civil courts from 1985 to 1987. She’s worked as adjunct faculty with Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She worked for about 13 years as Vice President and Group VP at United Way in Atlanta, Georgia and St. Paul, Minnesota. She had her own CED (Community Economic Development) consulting agency for five years, working with developing innovative investment programs in the non-profit sector with agencies in Minnesota and communities in Peru.
Geralyn worked for about 10 years for Opportunity International, Inc. as Director, Senior Director, and Country Director in Nicaragua. This non-profit agency works to end global poverty in creating and sustaining jobs in over 20 countries.
Geralyn has never been married. In 1997 her family size doubled when she adopted her daughter Santhi, a 4½ year old from India. Santhi currently works with a non-profit agency in Minnesota helping undocumented youth to stay in high school. “She told me she’s starting to look at Peace Corps. We’ll see; I’m not pushing her. Though, she does have a heart to serve.”
“I first heard of Peace Corps in high school. I saw films of (John F.) Kennedy and felt a most compelling goal to work for peace.” It would be over 40 years later when she achieved that goal coming into Peace Corps to her current position as Country Director of Colombia in the fall of 2015.
“I’m so happy to be here. I love my job! Peace Corps draws the most interesting people. A cross-section of America – people with a predisposition to give up two years of their lives to live and serve another community.“ She added that she feels her job as Country Director is a support position, adding, “The only reason we exist is to support the volunteers.”
“I’ve been drawn to diverse cultures all my life, “ she said, adding that her Colombian staff are also diverse hailing from different parts of the nation. “They have different values, work styles and cultures.”
Geralyn loves her job, adding, “This is such a great job! I feel fortunate and honored.”
What keeps her up at night?
Geralyn worries about us, adding, “I worry about volunteers all the time. We send volunteers to do difficult jobs in the most difficult settings.” When it comes to Thursday check-ins, “I can’t go home until I have 100% check in,” she said.
But what Geralyn worries about the most are LGBT issues, family problems, and volunteers’ medical health. “I feel volunteers understand safety concerns and comply with the policies but I’m more concerned about the emotional and personal issues.”
On Kevin Whittaker
Kevin Whittaker is the US Ambassador to Colombia. The two have an attitude of respect for each other. Geralyn noted that Ambassador Whittaker is a career professional Foreign Service ambassador who is respected in his position.
Geralyn said that Peace Corps is the only agency overseas that does not have to answer to the ambassador, and that Congressional law provides that the Country Director decides where to place volunteers. She said Ambassador Whittaker told her, “I respect your autonomy; however, I hope we’ll have a relationship where you’ll take my advice.”
Geralyn plans to complete her five years of service as the Country Director, saying that the President John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver decided to limit the length of service of the three positions held by US citizens in Peace Corps countries – Country Director, Director of Management and Operations, and Director of Programs and Training. She noted that term limits wisely help avoid fiefdoms.
After Peace Corps service, she said, “I’m sure I’ll go back to Minnesota and imagine I’ll teach at the university level full-time. I really like teaching. I’d love to work with young emerging leaders, and help prepare them.”
She added, that she would like to do more writing, and “Who knows?”