Not only is this week in March Peace Corps week, but 2021 celebrates the 60th anniversary of United States Peace Corps. Yippee!
At the start of the global pandemic last year, the program ceased its operations and sent all of the current Peace Corps volunteers back home to the U.S. I truly felt bad for all of those Peace Corps volunteers who had to cut their service short.
Brief History and Requirements of Joining the U.S. Peace Corps
John F. Kennedy declared the international volunteer organization official in the middle of the night on October 14th, 1960 on the steps of the Union at the University of Michigan. Exactly 45 years later, I stood on the exact spot while I attended the University of Michigan for one semester. I felt honor and pride that I was part of this amazing legacy shared by only 240,000 American citizens!
The United States Peace Corps is a federal volunteer service program with a 2-year contract. In order to apply and be accepted, you must:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Have a Bachelor’s degree
- Go through a rigorous application process, including medical clearance and an interview
Peace Corps Mission
There are 3 goals of the Peace Corps and it’s important to learn these before you apply (it will also be dri lled into your head during your pre-service training). See if these resonate with you before considering joining the Peace Corps.
Something to keep in mind is that everyone has a different experience in the Peace Corps. However, everyone can agree that it’s a unique and life-changing experience that will certainly open up your eyes to the rest of the world.
Don’t expect to change the world, expect the world to change you.
My Experience with the Peace Corps
Joining the Peace Corps was an amazing experience for me and one of the best decisions I’ve made with my life.
However, making any major change in your life is nerve-wracking. Leaving a stable job, moving abroad, and not seeing family and friends for 2 years can give you plenty of fears and doubts.
In addition to that, you don’t really know what to expect or what you’re getting into. The Peace Corps is stationed in many different countries and has varying assignments, so each volunteer has a unique experience.
At the time I joined, there was minimal information about Kazakhstan on the internet. Being a newly-formed country after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Peace Corps had only been there for a few years. We ended up having to explain ourselves A LOT to the host country nationals (HCNs). We had our answers memorized in Russian about what Peace Corps is and why there are Americans in their country. Most of the HCNs were still confused and asked, “Are you spies?”
“Losing” 2 Years of your life? No, you’re GAINING 2 Years of Life Experience.
For an average American, there is no “perfect” time to join. Guaranteed you will miss some kind of major life event or milestone, whether it be a wedding, birth of a child, milestone birthday or anniversary, etc. By the time I left for my pre-service training, I missed my sister’s graduation from medical school and a family vacation on an Alaskan cruise afterwards. Two of my friends got married and one friend had a baby in my second year of service.
I joined the Peace Corps at 29 years old, a few years older than those fresh-out-of-college that you always imagine Peace Corps volunteers to be. The surprising thing is that in our cohort, we had several retirees and mid-career professionals. Of the 40 or so new volunteers, about half were recent college graduates. 1/4 of the volunteers were early-to-mid career in the age range of 25-44 and the rest were retirees over 60 years old. We even had one volunteer who was 72!
The fact is, there’s never a good time to join the Peace Corps, except for NEVER. Sure, I felt like I missed out on major life events for my friends and family, but I didn’t feel like I lost out on the daily grind at my 9-5 office job or life in the United States of America.
Would I have traded my 2 years in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan for an extra 2 years living in Chicago? No way! I have absolutely no regrets of joining, and to this day believe that it was one of the best times of my life.
Everyday was an adventure in the Peace Corps. It’s two years of my life that I’ll never forget, and it gave me a priceless experience, bulk for my resume, and life/travel/work skills that I never could have gotten through an office job with occasional vacations.
With that said, the Peace Corps isn’t for everyone. My cousin said that she looked into it after college. After realizing they didn’t go to the south of France, she knew that it wasn’t for her! Nope, the Peace Corps does not serve in Western Europe.
If you are considering applying for or joining the Peace Corps, here are some tips to help make your decision.
Top 5 Reasons to Join the Peace Corps (benefits during your service)
- Cultural exchange.
This is my number one reason to join because I’ve always been interested in traveling to other countries and learning about different cultures.
In essence, we are going into the country to try to get its people to think highly of Americans.
It worked for my mom. When I first told her that I was going to join the Peace Corps, I was worried about her reaction. As an immigrant from South Korea who moved to the U.S. to give their kids a better life, I was convinced that she would break down, asking me why on earth would I go to a “poor” country, and try to talk me out of it. Instead, she relayed a story to me about how she remembers the Peace Corps volunteers in Korea that helped dig up latrines.
2. Learning opportunities.
Not only do you get trained on the language of the country, but you get technical training that lasts for a month or so before your service (otherwise known as “PST” or pre-service training). This is when you get to be with the other Peace Corps volunteers, live in a host family, and learn/work with Host Country Nationals (HCNs) and other Peace Corps staff. This is one of the best times of the Peace Corps experience (or for any expatriate moving abroad), called the “honeymoon” phase.
In addition to learning the language, culture, and how it is to work in that country you can also use the time during your Peace Corps service to learn things on your own. Without the busyness of U.S. life – you have down time to read and learn what you’ve always wanted to. I learned guitar while I was in the Peace Corps, and also had time to read a lot of books and study for the GREs.
Peace Corps service gives you the opportunity to travel more, and to places that you would not normally visit from the U.S.A. It’s easy to jump off to different countries depending on where you serve.
Also, since many of the assignments involve teaching, you essentially get summers off. Summer is the time to explore the country you are serving in, or find cheap flights to neighboring countries. During my first year in the Peace Corps, I mostly stayed in the country and visited other cities. In my second year, I went to Turkey during the summer and India over Christmas break. When I finished my service, my sister came out to visit me. We visited Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan and China on the way back to the U.S.
When you are in the Peace Corps, your day-to-day is so unlike the busy rat race of life in the U.S.A. You may actually have more time than you’ll know what to do with. In most cases your assignment will not be a 40 hours workweek (there’s only so much you can do when you don’t speak the language, which is why i ended up creating my own projects like teaching English at a Kazakh college and forming clubs with high school girls and college kids).
That leaves a lot of downtime to focus on personal development (if you choose). It also gives you time to build relationships with your host family and other host country nationals, other Peace Corps volunteers, take up a hobby, read books, write, etc.
You will make friends with Peace Corps volunteers and host country nationals. Almost 20 years after my Peace Corps service, I’m still in touch (mostly through Facebook) with my cohort, my students, my host family, and other people I met during my service. I know that if I were ever to go back to the country to visit, that there would be people that I would want to visit and see. You will always remember these people because of the profound effect they have on your lives and their willingness to open their homes and hearts to a person from another country.
Top 5 Reasons to Join the Peace Corps (Benefits After Service)
1. Employment Benefits.
Peace Corps experience will always be an asset on your resume. Employers see Peace Corps volunteers as unique individuals that take initiatives, hard workers, willing to take risks, committed, problem-solvers, and thinkers outside the box.
2. Grad School Benefits.
There are many programs across the U.S. that offer free grad school in exchange for community service if you’re a Returned Peace Corps volunteer. If I could do it all over again, this is the route I would have chosen. Instead, I’m still sitting on student loan debt from going to a private school. Although I really wanted to go to Tulane and be in New Orleans, it wasn’t worth it in the end.
3. Lifelong Friends/Network.
You will never forget the other Peace Corps volunteers that you served with in the country. You will always have an incredible bond over sharing a unique experience, I guess like how war veterans have. But it’s not only with the volunteers you serve in the country with, but all Peace Corps volunteers.
You will share a special bond and unique life experience for the rest of your life with not that many like-minded Americans (as of date, there have been —- people who have served in the Peace Corps since 1961). There are Returned Peace Corps volunteer groups around the country that you can join up with to share with like-minded folks because let’s face it, your friends don’t really want to hear about your experience.
4. Stories for Life
The Peace Corps gives you such unique experiences that can’t be matched by life in the United States. There are only so many stories that you can tell your friends before they start rolling their eyes and thinking “Here we go again.” But you will always have these stories in your pocket to share with other Peace Corps volunteers, your children, at your friend’s barbecue, or to write about. And you never know when you’ll come across another Peace Corps volunteer while sharing your story who will say “I served in the Peace Corps, too!” and get you.
5. Life Skills.
When you navigating another country, you develop skills you never knew you needed, from hitchhiking or telling someone off in another language, negotiating a price, trying to get items that you need or want (coffee and peanut butter were big ones in my country). You inevitably build up your courage and confidence that you can do anything in life.
6. Worldly Travels.
When you join the Peace Corps, you are most likely not going to a country that is a typical tourist destination. You will go someplace that not many other Americans have gone to. If you travel during your service, then you have the opportunity to go places that you normally wouldn’t have gone to. It’s an amazing opportunity in 2 years not only to get to know your country of service but also see other parts of the world less-traveled.
Reasons NOT to join the Peace Corps
- To change the world. Let’s face it, you’re not going to change the world in 2 years. If you’re lucky, you will make a difference in one person’s life. But you can’t come into the Peace Corps thinking that YOU as one person, are going to make a big difference in making the world a better place. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small contribution to the world.
- To be a role model. When you join the Peace Corps, you are going into the country to provide technical assistance, English language lessons, or some other skill that you may have. That doesn’t mean that the HCNs you meet want to be like you or to live in the United States.
When I told my co-worker at a former job (a Returned Peace Corps volunteer) that I was joining the Peace Corps, he asked me, why I was joining. When I told him that I was interested in the cultural exchange, he said “Oh good.” Then he proceeded to tell me about some kid he had met who wanted to join the Peace Corps to be a role model. My co-worker said, What an arrogant a-hole! No one is going to want to be like you!
- To find yourself. Let’s face it, the Peace Corps draws a lot of weird people (including me). Not all Peace Corps volunteers join because they know what path the experience will take them on. However, if you’re completely lost and looking for meaning while serving in the Peace Corps, then you are not doing anyone any favors (except for yourself). To be a successful candidate, you have to have somewhat of a stable footing.
- To make money. It says it in the title, Peace Corps is a volunteer gig. Unless you have money saved up before your service, you will be poor during your service. You will be paid the same as a host country national in a similar position. And most likely if the Peace Corps is in the country, the local currency will not take you that far.
Even after your service, you will get a stipend which doesn’t take you very far for life back in the U.S.!
- If you are not flexible, patient, and open-minded. If you are the type of person who is dead set in your ways or think you’re right all the time or not willing to listen or accept things as they are, then please don’t join the Peace Corps. You will only be frustrated.
Inevitably there will be times that Peace Corps volunteers get frustrated during their service, and in those situations it’s best to vent with other Peace Corps volunteers but please don’t take it out on host country nationals (unless it’s absolutely necessary, and which I’m guilty of). You will only look like a jerky American and that defeats the purpose of the Peace Corps.
These are some of my reasons to join and not to join the Peace Corps. It has been almost 20 years since I left the country for my stint. Even today, I can say that my 2 years in the Peace Corps was one of the most exciting, adventurous, and life-changing experiences in my life. There is so much to learn about the world and yourself during those 2 years, and the lifetime worth is priceless.
I have not ruled out the consideration of joining again in my retirement years. I’ve also said that if the Peace Corps ever opens up in North Korea in my lifetime, that I would be the first to go.
How about you? Are you considering joining the Peace Corps?