Emboldened to Think Big and Give Back

Alumni6 MIN READ

Jackie Dao Dinneen ’05 helps carry forward the momentum of the College—and the Peace Corps

By Dominick Leskiw ’21
December 12, 2022

Jacklyn “Jackie” Dao Dinneen ’05 describes bringing her father to the White House for a holiday dinner as one of the proudest moments of her life. There, Dinneen realized that she, a first-generation alumna of color, could achieve anything she put her mind toward.

Both of Dinneen’s parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the 1970s. Upon their arrival, they worked to learn English and made a living to support Jackie and her brothers. “The number-one thing they instilled in us,” Dinneen said, “was, ‘You were born in this country, you are so lucky to know this language and to get an education. All we ask is for you to go to college and pursue a career that is your passion.’”

Dinneen followed their guidance. Recently appointed to the position of deputy chief of staff at the Peace Corps, Dinneen also joined Colby’s Board of Trustees in May 2022. “I was really interested in Colby’s trajectory of speaking to first-generation, low-income students,” she said. “How are they reaching those students today? If I can help with the momentum Colby has now, at that level, I’d be honored.”

Dinneen’s sense of service and giving back began with her grandmother. “She’d say, ‘Yes, pursue a career that you’re passionate about,’” Dinneen recounted, “‘but give back to this country because they gave us everything when we had nothing.’ I took that truly to heart by becoming a government major and education minor at Colby.”

Dinneen had not always been set on finding a job in public service. She instead intended to pursue a career in nursing or medicine. That changed, however, when she enrolled in an introductory government course at Colby with Cal Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, Emeritus. Mackenzie stood out to Dinneen because of his accessibility to first-years, his attention during office hours, and his ability to connect with students on both an academic and personal level.

One day, while conversing with Dinneen about her family’s background, Mackenzie shared that he had been conducting research on the former South Vietnamese president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who had recently passed. It turned out that Dinneen’s family had been very close with Thiệu; they even shared meals together on weekends. This delighted Mackenzie. After forging this connection, Dinneen started thinking more seriously about government as a potential major.

Her parents, however, expressed concern over their daughter falling into the minority as an Asian woman in the American government.

“I told that to Professor Mackenzie,” she continued, “and he, without a blink of an eye said, ‘Jackie, if you want to run for president one day, if you want to become a senator or congresswoman one day, if you want to be a staff member one day, if you have a passion for education and want to focus on policy … there’s absolutely a future in government, if that’s what you want.’ I never knew of those avenues. He opened that trajectory for me.”

After graduating from Colby, Dinneen moved to Washington, D.C., to begin what would soon become an extraordinarily robust and varied professional journey. Following an entry-level position for Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, she took a job with EADS North America, now known as Airbus. One of Dinneen’s mentors at EADS was former U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Terry Cross, who encouraged Dinneen to pursue her master’s in public policy at George Mason University and then apply to work in the White House for the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama Administration.

She followed his advice and got both her master’s and the White House job. After two years working as deputy White House liaison at DHS, helping the White House liaison identify, onboard, and support all political appointees, Dinneen was hired as White House liaison at the Peace Corps.

“That was an incredible transition, and it was a really exciting time where we had changed our volunteer application process—whereas before you would apply and Peace Corps would choose where you serve, now you could select where you want to serve, and we provided a lot more transparency.”

Partway through her time as the White House liaison, Dinneen became an associate policy director for First Lady Michelle Obama on her Let Girls Learn initiative, aimed at educating and empowering girls around the world through community-based projects.

Following her time with the Obama Administration, Dinneen moved with her husband to Massachusetts, where she landed a job at The Partnership Inc., a nonprofit focused on identifying, developing, retaining, and convening professionals of color in the greater workforce. At the same time, she volunteered for the Biden-Harris Transition Team.

After Biden was elected, she received a call from Dave Noble, then chief of staff of the Peace Corps, asking if she wanted to return to the agency. “I cried when I got that phone call,” Dinneen said. “It was incredible being asked to come back to an agency that I had loved.”

She began in her current role in February 2021. As deputy chief of staff, Dinneen wears a lot of hats, helping with everything from recruitment of volunteers, coordination with the White House, and global operations.

Dinneen has also been involved in intercultural competence, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility work for the Peace Corps. “Part of our DNA from the Peace Corps Act that was established 61 years ago is really understanding and meeting with different cultures, understanding difference, understanding what we bring to the table as volunteers and as staff, but then also what our community members in each country bring to the table,” she said, noting that this work is critical at a time of such dynamic and frequent change not only in the agency, but in the world at large.

Following the outbreak of Covid-19, Peace Corps grounded its 7,000 volunteers for the first time. Today, more than two years later, close to 1,000 volunteers have returned to in-person posts. Others are continuing to partake in virtual service opportunities developed during the pandemic. Dinneen praises virtual service for opening the Peace Corps to a wider range of people, such as seniors or people in the midst of their careers, who could not otherwise commit to spending two years volunteering on the ground.

Dinneen also emphasizes the partnership between Peace Corps’ volunteers and the countries where they serve.

“When we go into a country, it’s not like the U.S. picks where we send volunteers to serve. We respond to a country that formally requests a partnership. So, volunteers that we send are working hand-in-hand with their community members, their counterparts, on projects such as education, health, agriculture, environment, youth in development, and community economic development.”

Jackie Dinneen ’05, Deputy Chief of Staff, Peace Corps

Dinneen is passionate about encouraging Colby students of color to pursue careers in fields they care about, despite historical roadblocks and current challenges. She advises students to put in the work of getting to know their classmates and emphasizes the importance of connecting with fellow alumni to form both personal and professional relationships. “They’re going to be joining a very special network upon graduation,” Dinneen said of current Colby students.

For any student of color questioning their future and the impact Colby might have on their life, Dinneen remarked, “I want to hug them and say, ‘Yes, Colby really did change my trajectory, in ways that I’m so deeply, deeply grateful for.’ It gave me an incredible foundation not only of academics, but also for life.”