Joining The Peace Corps - My Family Travels

My family is plagued by a travel bug. My Dad spent two years with the Peace Corps in Korea. Aunt Karen and Uncle Tom met in Saudi Arabia, were married in Bahrain, and lived in the Marshall Islands. Uncle Billy taught French and English with the Peace Corps in Tunisia. I have cousins spattered across the globe, from Russia to the Dominican Republic, from Siberia to the Canary Islands. Uncle Ted and Aunt Phyllis spent two years in Brazil with the Peace Corps. My two older brothers are both about to leave me, Nick to the South Pacific with the Peace Corps and Sam to Hawaii, which might as well be another country.

Hearing this, one might describe us as directionless, yet each person listed above ranks at the top of my list in terms of intelligence and resolve. Each achieved successful careers, from medicine to government affairs, and they all inspired me to reach beyond conventional cultural boundaries. It wasn’t until I came to New York University that I ever questioned my lofty intentions.

Freshmen Orientation seemed more focused on career workshops than navigating the school or city, and I met fellow freshmen already intent on making business connections. Such drive is remarkable, though intimidating to an inquisitive girl from New Hampshire. Although NYU ranked 22nd among large colleges and universities for generating the most Peace Corps volunteers in 2003 (according to the official Peace Corps website), I rarely met anyone who shared my aspirations.

The Peace Corps clearly isn’t for everyone, but some otherwise interested students discount the option on the grounds that losing two years in the job market dulls their competitive edge. “If you don’t go directly into your field, you might be at a disadvantage to your competition,” said Jennine Janzer, an NYU junior majoring in event planning and entertainment marketing. She conceded that it would be nice to have a couple more years to consider careers, but sees paying off loans as a primary objective.
Similarly, Boston University junior Adam Bassett is worried about loans, and would rather complete graduate school as early as possible, although he admits that he’s “still pretty undecided about a career.”

According to Sera Arcaro, a 2002-2004 volunteer in Namibia, “Peace Corps attracts a lot of liberal arts majors that graduate and realize they have no real marketable skills, or they just don’t feel like entering the job market yet.” Although this is a common trend, several cases counter that claim. Paul Neville, who served in Tonga from 2000-2002, was on track to become a rich, powerful business consultant. However, since his time in the Peace Corps, Mr. Neville has turned 180 degrees and now pursues a Masters degree in Foreign Service at Georgetown University, hoping for a globetrotting career. Like my own experience, Mr. Neville says his friends “were so intent on getting a job that they thought I was crazy to join the Peace Corps, which, as it turns out, is an excellent point on anyone’s resume,” he adds. “Now they are all envious because they feel stuck, while I got out.”

My Dad’s career as a family physician hinged on his service in South Korea with the Peace Corps. After two and a half years of medical school, he started to rethink his goals, leaving Dartmouth Medical School to dabble in carpentry, and then joining the Peace Corps in 1974. He acquired considerable insight into public health and medical problems during his service, sparking his enthusiasm to practice medicine once again. “I was also working under two different governments at the same time, and dealing with two different bureaucracies made me realize I didn’t want a government career,” he added.

However, the Peace Corps may not be for the fiercely career-driven faction. “It’s an open ended experience, and you don’t join unless you want a commitment. People that definitely know what they want to do for the next 10 to 20 years get frustrated,” attested my Dad. The program also requires a degree of patience from its volunteers, as Ms. Arcaro recalled many projects proceeding over a prolonged and arduous course.

Yet the general consensus among the volunteers I interviewed is that the Peace Corp was an invaluable and life-changing experience. According to Richard Piazza, who served in Nigeria from 1961-1963, “the primary benefits have to do with self-respect related to making a contribution to the human state, and an expanded awareness of other cultures. These conditions lead more directly to a sense of having lived a life worth living than the strict attainment of financial goals.”

Whether I become a psychologist, journalist, or something drastically different isn’t crystal clear at this point. But spending two years volunteering in another country beats sitting in a cubicle, and might just quell that travel bug that surges through my blood.

Interested? Here are some commonly asked questions.


How Do I Apply?

To volunteer in one of the 137 countries that the Peace Corps serves, you must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years of age. The Peace Corp does take a bit of patience and commitment—the application process takes from 9 to 12 months, and volunteering requires a commitment of 27 months, although you have the opportunity to earn vacation time. Be prepared for a fairly rigorous application process–this includes a primary application, an interview, medical and legal clearance, a skill-based qualification stage, and finally placement at a site, if you are one of the roughly 50% of applicants that are accepted.

Am I qualified?

Applicants to the program need not have explicit experience in a certain field. Many volunteers with backgrounds in Liberal Arts are happy to work in education, environment, or many of the other areas available. The Peace Corps also accepts people with a combination of professional skills and work experience, and has special programs for community college graduates/associate degree holders. There are no language requirements for the Peace Corps, but proficiency in French or Spanish may enable you to work in specific regions.

What will I get out of it?

Professionally, volunteers receive 3 months of training prior to departure, as well as continued training over the course of their service. The Peace Corps also provides job placement support and networking benefits, especially in terms of federal employment.

Financially, the Peace Corps pays volunteers a modest living allowence during their service, along with a monetary reward at the end of service. Students can take advantage of loan deferment programs, and certain types of loans offer a 15% reduction for time spent with the Peace Corps.

Educationally, there are many opportunities with Peace Corps. The Master’s International program allows students to earn credit towards their master’s degree while volunteering. A complete list of schools is available here, and the program usually includes one year of study at the school followed by two years of service. This program presents many financial and academic opportunities, so it’s definitely worth considering. The Fellows/USA program offers advanced degree scholarships to former volunteers, in exchange for working in deprived U.S. communities while pursuing their degree.

For more information, visit the official Peace Corps website.

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