Since returning from the Peace Corps, I’ve frequently received e-mails from friends or friends-of-friends who are considering joining. They ask some great questions, and I thought the answers might be of use to the general public.
If you want my opinion in 2 sentences: the Peace Corps was an incredible experience, and I would really encourage someone to do it if that person were able to be truly self-starting in a challenging environment with very little guidance. It’s not for everyone, but they call it the “toughest job you’ll ever love,” and that’s really true if you make the most out of it.
Of course, the following is all “officially unofficial,” and consists of my own opinion alone. You will find some real opinions about both the good and bad things to consider before joining, and also some special “tips” on how to increase your chances of the regional placement you want. If you read nothing else, skip to the very last question at the end, which I argue is the most important one to answer to see if Peace Corps is something that would be a good fit for you.
If you have other questions not answered here, please feel free to post in the Comments section and I will do my best to answer in a timely manner. Also check out http://www.peacecorpswiki.org, a great resource for all things PC.
How long is the Peace Corps commitment?
Peace Corps service is uniformly 27 months. 3 months of that is training, followed by a full two years of service. While it is certainly an incredibly significant and indeed intimidating time commitment, most volunteers grow to understand why two years is really necessary. For many, the first year is largely concerned with adjusting, learning the local language, and getting to know your community. The second year is when people feel more integrated and confident, and their projects (accomplished together with local partners) really start to take off.
There has been some debate about the PC time commitment in popular news…particularly Nick Kristof’s blog post and the following response in the New Yorker by an actual Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). I tend to agree with the latter.
Also, yes you can stay past the two years of service. There is an option to extend for a third year, and many of those volunteers do so in the capacity of a “PCV Leader.” They split their time between their job at site, and helping PC train and mentor new volunteers, conduct new site visits, etc. Also, if you want to become a “career PCV” you can sign up for more than one tour and do them back-to-back!
If I don’t like it, can I come back?
Obviously, no one will hold you against your will. Plenty of PCVs “Early Terminate” (ET) for whatever reason, and some don’t even make it past staging (your US-based departure meeting), or the 3 months of Pre-Service Training in country. That is fine and normal, though obviously in an ideal world people would have some foresight about their ability to carry out the commitment, to avoid wasting taxpayer money to begin with. Each country’s ET rates are publicly available, though I would advise against making any real judgments about what that will mean for you. Some volunteers also get medically evacuated, or entire regions or an entire country will be evacuated for safety reasons. This is obviously rare. You’ll find that if you can get through the dark days (and there certainly will be some), your two years of service will pass faster than you’d like, and be forever looked upon as one of the most fulfilling times of your life.
Do you get paid to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?
The definition of a volunteer is someone who offers a service without remuneration, but fear not…Peace Corps doesn’t expect you to have to empty your savings account to get to and live in a country for 27 months. The US Government (and taxpayers) kindly provides you with a round-trip plane ticket and a local-level living stipend to cover food and accommodation. While the sum is very modest and does not leave much room for luxuries, this fact actually makes a world of difference to the Peace Corps experience. Having a local salary makes it easier for you to really integrate into the community you’re working with (taking public transport instead of cabs, shopping at bazaars, etc.), and often placements are not in cities at all but small, rural villages where both costs and standards of living are quite low. The monthly stipend you receive will depend on not only your country, but also your site placement. It is adjusted for cost of living and reviewed regularly.
After volunteers return from Peace Corps, they receive a Readjustment Allowance of $275 per month of service (the 3 months of training do not count). All told, it comes to about $6000 after taxes if you serve the full two years. The allowance is not a “salary,” but is meant to help you get back on your feet after so much time spent abroad, as you reintegrate back to life in the US and possibly the US work force.
Can I pick which country I go to?
You do not get a say in what country you go to, though you do get preferences. One tip with regards to regional placement is to express your preference in a very diplomatic way, phrasing it so that it’s clear you think your skills would be best matched to that community. For example, I spoke Russian, which very few entering volunteers do, and there are a lot of Russian-speaking PC countries so it made sense to not let that skill go to waste. However, they do not look favorably upon people who give ultimatums (“I will only go to SE Asia and nowhere else”) because that is not in line with the spirit of service and being sent to where they decide you are most needed. So you can express the preference, but you really should prepare yourself to be sent anywhere and realize that each placement will be uniquely interesting and challenging in its own way. They also might not be anything like what you envision — many of the volunteers I served with lived in Soviet-architecture urban cities where their students’ phones were nicer than theirs, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their work cut out for them.
The “insider info” is that you should time your leave dates carefully if you really do prefer a certain country/region. PC is notoriously bad at making logical placements (plenty of people with no language experience in a region whereas others with lots of language experience get sent elsewhere, etc.). The real thing that seems to motivate placements in the huge bureaucratic application/nomination process is timing. Therefore, if you give them a projected departure date that coincides with a certain area and they need to siphon people into that slot as soon as possible in order to have a full class, you will get sent there. The departure date schedule you want to look at is here: http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/Timeline. For example, looking at this timeline you can easily see that if you wanted to go to the Middle East, your only two options would be in March (Morocco) or October (Jordan). If you said you were available by/want to leave by June/July, you wouldn’t get either of those placements.
Can I pick which sector I work in?
Regarding substantive placement type, typical liberal arts majors are very likely to be sent to teach English unless you make a very strong case for why you should be put in another sector. Work with NGOs or student projects might qualify you more for community or youth development, while an economics/business degree might qualify you for business development. Since health is more of a niche arena, most people placed in it would probably have previous experience/education or strong interest. Overall, English teachers outnumber all of the other types of PCVs, sometimes by a lot (depending on country). Within education, you could also be placed in primary, middle, high school, university or teacher training. All of those are very different but if you have no experience teaching you might just be assigned to whatever has the most need in your particular country. Keep in mind that even English teachers have pretty flexible schedules in the PC for the most part, and a lot of spare time to do community work, side projects, write grants for their schools or local NGOs, etc.
During the application process, you will be allowed to state your preference for both region and sector, and the strength of those preferences. Use this opportunity to make the best case for yourself given your experiences and qualifications, both in essays and with your interviewer.
I hear the Peace Corps is getting more selective. How should I build my resume?
I honestly wouldn’t worry too much about resume-building. They accept plenty of people right out of college whose only “work” experience is school activities. They ask you to list absolutely all of your hobbies and skills, including volunteer work, previous student positions, and language/travel, and consider all of that to be relevant to the app. They say it’s getting “more competitive” and that only “25%” of applicants get accepted. Really this number simply reflects the large amount of attrition during the bureaucratic process that takes on average 1-2 years (in other words, many people find other opportunities before PC comes through, or drop out of the process for whatever reason). It also reflects people who do not pass the medical stage, which I will tell you right now is pretty trying/expensive. You need a full examination and lots of forms filled out about any preexisting conditions (including allergies, asthma, etc.) and if you haven’t had your wisdom teeth removed they might make you do that as well. The bottom line is that most people who can stick through the extremely bureaucratic process, wait long enough, and say the right things during their interview will get in, regardless of experience. The only things you really need are US citizenship and a Bachelor’s degree. I personally do not think this is a good thing because they sacrifice standards for and quality of volunteers in favor of big number pushes, particularly after Congress increased the PC budget and they started adding volunteers to different countries. You will find PCVs to be largely representative of your average American college graduate, without any kind of “cream of the crop” filter like there is for TFA or other similar programs.
Will I receive health care in the Peace Corps? What are some of the health risks?
Peace Corps in-country health care is some of the best you will have in your life. It is free, comprehensive, includes full coverage of pretty much anything you could have (including visual/dental), a full medical kit that you take with you to site, and 24-hour in-country doctors (called Peace Corps Medical Officers, or PCMOs) to answer your concerns by phone. If something should happen to you at your site that requires medical attention, PC will either arrange for a local doctor to see you, or provide transportation for you to come to the main country office to see your PCMO. If it is serious and cannot be resolved in country, they will “Med-Evac” you to a nearby country with proper facilities, on the PC dime.
After Peace Corps, you have the option of signing on to “After Corps” health care at your own expense. They will give you brochures about the various plans at your Close of Service conference.
As for health risks, you should know that traveling comes hand in hand with some risky health situations. If you are in a tropical area you certainly may be exposed to unfamiliar diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, etc. Sanitation conditions and infrastructure deteriorate so many volunteers experience stomach issues at some point or another. PC will give you ways to treat/filter your own water, which you should use rigorously to avoid giardia. Again, PC health care is great in country so you will be well-taken care of if something should befall you, and these things should not affect you in the long-term. If for some reason they do and you incur a long-term ailment as a result of your service, your post-PC medical expenses will be covered by the USG.
What about safety?
Peace Corps has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for safety concerns of volunteers, including a high rate of rape and sexual assault. I obviously have followed this quite closely since our program in Kazakhstan was evacuated for related reasons (preceded by safety-related evacuations/suspensions of PC programs in Niger, Mali and Honduras).
Overall, all I can say is that the Peace Corps does take the safety of its volunteers seriously, but you will also be alone at your site with nary an administrative or PC-related officer in sight for the vast majority of your service. There is really not much they can do for you besides provide preventative training on how to be aware and use common sense, and of course provide health and evacuation-related services in the aftermath of an incident. If you do feel your safety is at risk for whatever reason, call your Safety & Security Officer (every post has one) they will take appropriate measures, up to evacuation. I encourage volunteers to put pepper spray on your packing lists (particularly females), keep a “go-bag” in case of emergencies, and just in general to use common sense. PC also tells you over and over again that alcohol is a big fueler of safety-related incidents, yet nearly every group of young PCVs has volunteers that abuse it during their service. Don’t be that person.
What about criticisms of the PC, such as use of technology or development methods not appropriate to local customs, PCVs returning as “economic hitmen” to utilize their experience for mercenary purposes, etc.?
The criticisms you can read about PC as a development agency I’m sure are legitimate, but could really be applied to all development agencies. Whenever you have outsiders trying to create change in a developing country you run the risk of non-compliance with cultural norms, insensitivity, misused technological advancement and other such issues. Check out the blog Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like…it’s a comical and pretty disillusioned satire on the state of expats in development. That being said, as I said before I think PC is a far more “grassroots” experience that lends itself better to truly understanding the culture and working within it instead of outside of it, compared to the Foreign Service, UN, World Bank or big INGOs who often employ foreign expat staff that get paid a lot of money, have maids/drivers and live in a bubble. Even though it’s hard to live on a local PC salary sometimes, it truly does make a huge difference because you are fully integrated into the community you’re working with, and often that community is not in the capital city but instead in a small and isolated village. You may very well be the only foreigner who lives there. So really, whether or not those problems end up occurring will be entirely up to you and not up to Peace Corps as an institution.
PCVs returning to their countries of service to be “economic hitmen” is not really a real trend. I’m sure it’s been known to happen once in awhile, but that would certainly be the exception and not the rule. Most RPCVs who come back from service stay connected to their countries but do not necessarily go back for work. They spend their time in normal state-side jobs or grad school and continue representing their country of service through Peace Corps’ “third goal,” which is bringing knowledge of the country to Americans (who often know nothing about it). Of course, you do have a disproportionate number of RPCVs going into jobs like development or government work (particularly the Foreign Service), and it is a great jumping off point for that if you are interested. It gives you instant “field credibility” that is invaluable if you want to continue working abroad.
If you could give one piece of advice to me (a prospective Peace Corps applicant), what would it be?
The #1 thing I would like to tell people about the experience before they join: The job and experience in every way is very self-initiated and self-controlled. You need an incredible amount of proactivity, personal responsibility and motivation to control your own schedule and make the experience into what YOU want it to be. Think of PC as just a credible agency to get you started with some training and a regular stipend (however small) to live off of. The rest is completely up to you. It is not “likely” that your site placement will go wrong or that your local counterparts will misunderstand you or that you will have culture shock or that you might feel bored/misused/unclear of what your role is at any given time — these things are practically a given. So your job is to work through that by being super proactive, creating and following through on plans of your own (which obviously will be constantly changing as you collect new information about your community), not blaming PC for intrinsic problems that occur everywhere in developing countries or expect them to solve your issues with some silver bullet, and hunkering down and learning the local language to help you navigate and be effective. I cannot tell you how many PCVs I met who were unable to do these things for whatever reason and ended up having an (at best) unproductive or (at worst) miserable experience.
So the #1 thing I would ask yourself is: Can I govern my own time and responsibilities in a difficult setting? Do I need “hand-holding” or rely on administrative support (which by the way in PC, like in any government agency, is often inefficient/bureaucratic/totally illogical) in order to be productive? If so, then the Peace Corps is probably not for you. But one of the best things it teaches its volunteers (those who actually end up doing their job, in any case) is how to be a self-starter and shape things based on your own will and ability. As hard as that is, it is also incredibly rewarding to look back on your two+ years and be able to say that you accomplished many things together with your community through no dictation from above or any kind of real “boss” telling you what indicators to fulfill or what schedule to keep.