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What It’s Like to Join the Peace Corps After College & How to Do It

What do John F. Kennedy, the University of Michigan, and international service have in common? Fifty years ago, JFK challenged Michigan students “to give two years of their lives to help people in countries of the developing world.”


This mission evolved to form the Peace Corps, an independent government organization that has seen more than 200,000 American volunteers to date. You’ve heard stories about Peace Corps participants traveling to exotic places or maybe your next-door neighbor volunteered after college, but what is being in the Peace Corps really like? More importantly, how do you know if the Peace Corps is right for you? Her Campus found out!

What is the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps sends volunteers to (currently) 77 countries around the world. Volunteers do a wide range of volunteer work in their host communities, depending on their expertise and what is needed, including: education, youth and community development, health, business and information and communications technology, agriculture and environment.

The Peace Corps’ mission has three goals:

  • Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Currently, women make up 60 percent of the volunteer base, and 90 percent of volunteers have at least a bachelor’s degree (the Peace Corps has representatives at a ton of schools across the country to recruit college students). University of Colorado-Boulder currently ranks No. 1 for producing volunteers with 117 graduates serving in 2010. Check out if your school ranks for number of volunteers abroad!

Alyssa Eisenstein, a current Peace Corps volunteer and Northwestern University 2010 graduate, said, “Probably the most distinguished part of the Peace Corps is the length of time volunteers commit (three months of in-country training plus two years of service) and the unique approach to development. Peace Corps believes that successful and sustainable development work is based on the trust and confidence built by volunteers by integrating into a host community and culture. Volunteers speak the local language, live side-by-side with the people they are helping and help identify both community needs and assets in order to solve problems in a sustainable manner.”

Who can join?

The only eligibility requirement to apply is having American citizenship and you must be at least 18. However, they recommend having an interest in one of the six program areas (listed above!), having volunteer experience (and a commitment to service) and a college degree.

The Peace Corps also values certain characteristics, such as adaptability, self-reliance, resourcefulness, responsibility, and having a positive attitude along with a sense of humor. Having a background in a foreign language can also be invaluable to a volunteer, and can even dictate where in the world you are sent. “Flexible, adventurous, caring and committed” are other attributes the Peace Corps looks for, said Alyssa.

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How do you apply?

The Peace Corps requires an extensive application process for those interested in volunteering. To apply, you will need: three references, high school and college transcripts, two essays, your résumé, financial information (such as outstanding student loans) and an application with basic information about yourself.

After your application and materials are accepted and you pass the initial qualifications, a recruiter must interview applicants, who will ask your skills and interests, explain available jobs and assess your values and characteristics (such as the ones listed above). The recruiter then decides if you are qualified for the Peace Corps, and nominates you for a project area and region. However, nomination still doesn’t mean you’ll get approved as it is just a recommendation by the recruiter to move on to the next step.

The final step before “invitation” (where you are offered the volunteer position and told the specific country and job you will be working) is a medical review (including a medical history form and various doctor exams, including a physical, eye and dental) and further assessing qualifications compared to other candidates.

Two collegiettes’ decisions:

Danielle Rhodes, University of Minnesota-Duluth ’11, decided to apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer since she is graduating this May.

“I am applying for the Peace Corps because the majority of people that inspire me were all part of this program or something similar. The best example I can give is a woman I met on a bus. We sat and talked about literature and politics, and eventually I found out she was an English major who worked diligently in the Peace Corps. When she finished, she had a vision about flying and immediately set off to be a pilot. Now she is living her dream high in the sky testing commercial aircrafts. 

Also, when I graduate, there are a lot of places that I would prefer not to work. Instead of hiding, I’d like to get my hands dirty and work on solving some real problems. The Peace Corps is something I want to be associated with. When someone asks me where I’m going and where I’ve been, I want to include the fantastic experience of working in a foreign country without a care about money, consumerism, or social media. I want to learn how to understand people with intuition rather than language, and smiles rather than e-mails. This is the first chance I’m going to have to let go, run away, and make a tremendous impact on somebody’s life. This is my first change to be a minority. What an excellent learning experience! I’ll go enthusiastically to wherever they need me. If it all goes to hell, the worst experiences make the best stories. The better question is: Why not?”

Alyssa, currently a Peace Corps trainee, has been in Nicaragua for about two months. “As a future Healthy Lifestyles Volunteer, I will live in a community for two years to educate youth and other at-risk populations concerning healthy behavior change. The goals of the program are to educate these populations about STD and HIV prevention, transmission and treatment; promotion of healthy practices to reduce teenage pregnancy; and various other health projects. With a Nicaraguan counterpart, I hope to promote youth leaders, local health workers and community participation in the health activities.”

But how did Alyssa decide to make such a commitment?

“I began to seriously consider joining the Peace Corps my sophomore year in college, when I was studying abroad in Uganda and beginning to think about a career in international development,” said Alyssa, who received a degree in journalism. “After a few stints in Africa throughout my undergraduate career, and the realization that I no longer wanted to be a journalist, I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I am interested in the world around me, committed to service to others, passionate about global development, looking for personal growth and always interested in an adventure. I couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish these goals than to join the Peace Corps!”

Volunteers live with a host family during training, which has been her favorite part so far, said Alyssa. “With daily Spanish classes, cultural activities and Peace Corps training sessions, I feel prepared to begin my Peace Corps service,” she said. “There’s always something new to do and learn while living in a foreign country. I love that the adventure never ends.”

What are the pros?

“The benefits of Peace Corps service are endless. Personal benefits include learning a new language and skill set, personal growth and self-discovery, learning how to live in another culture, and leadership skills, among others. There are countless benefits for graduate school including reduced tuition and scholarship eligibility, also benefits for government service and critical job experience for a post-Peace Corps career,” said Alyssa. “Host communities benefit from the skill sets Peace Corps volunteers bring to help improve their lives through various community-based projects, including health, education, environment, small business and agricultural projects. Members of the communities learn about American culture through the cross-cultural exchange. And friends and families of volunteers learn about life abroad by following the experience of the volunteer.”

Other benefits include:

  • Peace Corps volunteers often are seen as interesting candidates for jobs (you learn language and technical skills, as well as gain experience working with diversity).
  • Some Peace Corps programs can earn you graduate school credit and student loans can be deferred until after service.
  • It’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a chance to live in another country and experience a new culture.
  • It’s a great way to spend a few years if you don’t want to enter the workforce or continue with grad school right away!
  • While in the Peace Corps: you receive a living stipend, free housing, have full medical coverage, travel expenses to and from your host country are paid, you get two vacation days for every month of service, and there is no fee to participate.
  • You have a chance to meet new people (both in your host country and other volunteers/Peace Corps employees).

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What are the cons?

While the Peace Corps does everything in its power to keep its volunteers safe by offering excellent medical services when needed, volunteers’ safety going into a foreign country cannot be 100 percent guaranteed. Recently, ABC News aired this story about a large number of women coming forward with stories of sexual assault while abroad and their feelings about the Peace Corps’ handling of the incidents.

“A large part of being a successful Peace Corps volunteer is dependent on cultural integration,” said Alyssa. “Along with that, many may feel lonely and isolated from friends and family in the U.S. Depending on the host country, volunteers may have cell phones and Internet access, but communication with friends and family back at home and the news from the U.S. can be spotty. Volunteers are often challenged by the cultural or religious norms of other countries.

Other cons:

  • The language you learn could be only useful to the specific region you live in, and may not be practical in your later life.
  • The culture you live in could be overwhelming, and the living conditions will most likely be much lower that you’re used to. (While this is a good opportunity to gain worldly experience, culture shock can be very real! The Peace Corps’ living stipend provides enough to live in that community, i.e. you won’t starve.)
  • You have to say goodbye to loved ones (and even go through annoying things like selling a car, etc. to plan for a two-year absence) for two years, and then have to say goodbye to the people you befriend in your time of service.

“However, with the isolation and cultural challenges comes a greater sense of self and personal growth,” said Alyssa. “Overcoming two years of challenges and hardships helps people become better problem-solvers, as well as more tolerant, flexible and open-minded citizens of the world.”

What is it like to be in the Peace Corps?

What is it like to be in the Peace Corps? Generally, the experiences of volunteers widely differ depending on the job and country you live in. Every Peace Corps volunteer undergoes three months of training—mostly language training—before they begin their two years of service. The training takes place in the host country before the volunteer finds out what region and specific job they will be working.

Volunteers’ stories:

Check out photos, journals, and stories on the Peace Corps website

Volunteer blogs:

Nicaragua Notes – A blog by Alyssa Eisenstein, training in Nicaragua

Waid’s World – A blog by Michael Waidman, volunteering in Ethiopia

What happens after my service?

Volunteers are given “transition funds” after their service—generally $7,000+ (pre-tax)—to help in finding a new place to live and to pay bills/live on until you find employment. Volunteers are also eligible to keep an affordable medical plan for up to 18 months after coming back to the U.S. Education loans such as Stafford and Perkins can be deferred while you volunteer. Perkins loans can also be potentially cancelled—the percentage that will get cancelled depends on the amount of time you serve. The Peace Corps can also assist you in finding a job after your service, through networking events and an online newsletter with job announcements.

“In my opinion, the best thing about the Peace Corps is the endless learning for everyone involved. It doesn’t matter if you join right out of college or are a 65-year-old retiree, whether you’ve lived abroad your whole life or have never left the U.S., everyone has something to learn from another culture,” Eisenstein said. “Because other countries must request volunteers to come to their countries, people from other countries can learn a lot about the U.S. as well. Personally, I am looking forward to becoming fluent in a second language, making Nicaraguan friends, learning more about development work and global health, working with people from another culture to cause sustainable change, trying new food, sharing my (American) culture with Nicaraguans, living in new surroundings, traveling, and learning more about myself. And hopefully I’ll make a difference or two along the way!”

Deciding to dedicate two years of your life to service is a HUGE decision, so if it’s something that at all interests you, talk with your friends, family and local Peace Corps recruiter to aid in your decision! Best of luck, collegiettes!

Sources

Peace Corps website [peacecorps.gov]

Danielle Rhodes, University of Minnesota Duluth ‘11

Alyssa Eisenstein, Northwestern University ’10

Meagan Templeton-Lynch is a junior Technical Journalism major with news/editorial and computer-mediated communication concentrations, with minors in English and sociology. She attends Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO but grew up in Montrose, CO on the western slope. She hopes to join the Peace Corps after graduation, and then go on to get a master's degree. Meagan wants to write or be an editor for a national magazine in the future. She loves writing and studying literature. She loves the mountains in the summer and goes hiking and camping as much as possible. She is a proud vegetarian, and says she will always be loyal to Colorado, no matter where she ends up.
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