Peace Corps Application

How can I be a competitive Peace Corps Volunteer applicant?

Hello stonecldfox,

It’s no bother! No need to apologize for asking questions. Currently I’m sitting in my house eating a block of cheese and waiting for a local friend to take me to visit other friends in a different village. She said we were leaving almost 2 hours ago, so it looks like my day is going to finish with lots of sitting around… I also need to bake bread, so there’s an activity for the day. (Cheese sandwiches are far superior to just cheese.)

Wow, where are you volunteering? What led you to the decision to take a year off to go do that? Are you just finishing up now, or will you be starting this next year?

I took a semester off the middle of my college years because I had no idea why I was there and couldn’t get myself to do any of the work. After just those few months I did return because sitting in class was better than dealing with Christmas returns at Toys-R-Us. I don’t regret going back because having a 4 year degree is what allowed me to teach in Japan after graduating and then come here to do Peace Corps. But, if I could go back I would have waited longer to figure out why I was in university and just what it was I wanted to study.

I think the short answer to your question is, it doesn’t really matter what you major in. Just do something you really like and are passionate about. Think about how you spend your free time—what are the things you’re doing instead of completing that meta-analysis search for articles on the relationship between percentage of nitrogen in soil and the height of bean plants? (Maybe that is what you’re doing in your free time and if so…cool.) Don’t make university even more of a burden by not caring what you’re studying.

For Peace Corps in specific, your degree with help direct what sector you are placed in. I studied communication and had 2+ years of TEFL experience, so it was obvious that I would teach English. But, if your major is say Psychology, you could potentially end up in health, business or education (or agriculture, youth development or a few other sectors not in Kyrgyzstan). Your Peace Corps recruiter will look at not only your degree but your experience as well for deciding where you will be a great fit. Don’t be afraid to say what you want to do for 2 years of your life and communicate where you think your skills and interests would fit well in your interview.

I should mention again that Peace Corps has just undergone a big overhaul in how they place volunteers and now I think you apply for specific sectors in specific countries.

Remember too that once you get to your site, you will find all kinds of cross-sector projects that need help getting off the ground. You can really get involved in almost anything you like so don’t worry about getting “stuck” doing a specific task you don’t like for 2 years.

For the international experience question, one year is a lot. Recruiters are looking for that kind of experience rather than a three-week vacation in the Bahamas. But then again, it depends on what you do with your time. If you spend a year lying on the beach, it would be better experience to have spent three weeks teaching youth leadership skills at a community organization overseas somewhere. Peace Corps wants to know that you can be flexible, adaptable, open to change and have a willingness to do whatever needs to be done, growing and honing your skills all while integrating into a different culture. Call up a Peace Corps recruiter and ask these questions as well. They will have good advice for you too.

So, it sounds like you’re doing the right things! Keep loving it!

Can you share some tips about the Peace Corps application process?

Hello Rubyclocks,

Thanks for reading the blog! In the past I’ve answered questions like yours privately, but I think you’re asking great questions, and I know there are more people out there with your same questions about the application and screening process so I’ll post my answer this to the blog. (If that’s ok…like you have a choice, haha—thanks!)

From what I’ve heard there’s been a pretty big overhaul in how people apply. Three and a half years ago when I first sent in my online application, you basically just surrendered yourself to the whims and voodoo science behind the placement of volunteers. There was no choice in where you ended up serving your 2 years. There is a rhyme and reason to this method, namely the Peace Corps wants you to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. Since there will be so many things you will need to adapt to and change for once you begin your service in country, the Peace Corps wants to know they’ve found someone who is committed to serving rather than committed to a particular place. Now, however, it looks like you can apply to specific countries. This is also good I think because it helps to match people’s skills/knowledge/language/interests up with sites. That being said, you are still going to need to be exceedingly flexible and patient and willing to learn, change, bend and grow as a volunteer, no matter where you end up serving.

This is the best thing you can be in order to be a competitive applicant. Show that you are willing to try new things and be comfortable with the unknown and ambiguous situations.

At a minimum you will need a 4 year degree (though certain relevant work experience can also count instead) and 30 hours of volunteer tutoring time to volunteer in the English Education sector. Thirty hours is really very little though, and to be a competitive application you should be volunteering as much as possible, whether that is in after school programs, in literacy, as a coach, in a hospital or any other number of places. Having lots of volunteer experience is a must.

It also helps to have lived in a different culture for an extended period of time and studied a language, and if not, at least time spent getting to know other cultures is important. The best predictor of future success is past success and so if you can show that you are interested to the point where you’ve been putting in the work and investing the time already, that will be a good indicator to the Peace Corps that you are serious and will be a successful volunteer.

If you’re a student, get involved in campus or student organizations that are currently doing things that are helping people around the world. If you can’t find one, start one!

Last general piece of advice is to follow your passions. Don’t do anything just to fill a resume. I did a lot of that when I was younger and I ended up resenting and regretting the kind of things I was doing with my time, because I really didn’t like what I was doing, I only liked the fact that I could say I was doing it. Passion is contagious and if you love what you do, you will naturally attract and motivate others; they will want to come alongside and support your efforts too. The Peace Corps needs all kinds of different people, talents, personalities and experienced volunteers! Even though I’m an education volunteer, I still get to play Frisbee with kids and help a friend startup a small souvenir business – once you get to site you’ll figure out the possibilities and what you’re interested in.

Specifically, stay out of trouble with the law, and stay out of debt. If you have outstanding student loans or credit card debt, you need to have a specific plan in place for how you are going to continue to fulfill those financial obligations while you’re serving for 27 months. Lots of people are able to get student loans deferred, so it’s not a huge worry. (Check out www.peacecorps.gov for more details.) You also can’t have applied to be a CIA agent or have family members working for the CIA…and, if you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer you can never work for the CIA in the future…for all you spies thinking about applying, heh.

There’s also a very lengthy medical clearance process (I can go into more details on that in another post…it’s part of the reason why it took me 17 months between my application and when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan!) so be patient and jump through all the hoops and it will go alright.

Where are you at in school? I’ve been trying to check out your tumblr blog, but my internet out here in the village is so slow, I wasn’t able to open it. Do you still have a couple years left or have you graduated? Why are you interested in education? What made you interested in Peace Corps? Peace Corps loves to use catchy little phrases and one of them is “The toughest job you’ll ever love” but in this case it’s fairly accurate, however, you’re not going to love the tough stuff. You’re going to hate it. And then love other things. And then hate it again. And then hopefully love it again, haha.

Let me know if you have any other specific questions! Best of luck in your application process and love what you do!

Luther

Doubt and Survival in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps service is something that can rock you to the very core of your being and shake your innards until they’re so scrambled you can’t tell your dreams from your nightmares. Why did you even come here in the first place? What was it that told you it was a good idea to leave everything to do this? Is the world any better off for you having been here?

You wanted to do this so badly for so many years and now all you want to do is go home. This is about the point in your thought process when you find yourself at the bottom of that downward spiral called doubt.

I’m not talking about doubt’s healthier cousin, skepticism. A healthy dose of skepticism can be good for you. You should question your motives, probe your thoughts, consider your feelings and weigh the pros and cons when making any important decision. Here I’m talking deep-seeded, soul-searching gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing doubt. Why am I here? What am I doing? Is any of it worth it? Is this where I want to continue to give two years of my life?

imageI’m suddenly doubting every past decision to eat meat

At no other point in my life have I wavered in so much doubt. I’ve agonized over staying or leaving and even talked to an Army recruiter on the phone a couple of times the first autumn I was here, willing to scratch my name off the line to sign it on another, even longer contract.

It comes and it goes like tides pulled by a giant orb above our heads, almost as sure as the moon herself. Now, fortunately, she’s sailing in another sky and with any luck this season of survival will last for awhile. Yet, having been here for almost two years, I have started to realize a pattern of strategies for riding out the high tide of doubt when it inevitably comes.

Stop asking so many questions

I never used to ask myself, “Am I doing enough?” As soon as that question crept into the back of my mind, things started to go downhill. At the end of any honest search to this question lies a resounding, “NO.” You could always do more, always reach more people, always start one more project. There is way more that needs to be done within a community and country than you can possibly do. Asking yourself this question is guaranteed to result in a crushing, soul-searching session sooner or later.

And if you start questioning the work you are able to accomplish, you will soon find yourself doubting the good when weighed against the sheer hopelessness of making a dent in the world’s problems. As long as you’re working and connecting with people, you’re doing some good here. Leave it at that.

Do what you like to do, and keep doing it. One of my volunteer friends has a great strategy of simply doing a level of work that he knows he can repeat again the next day, and the next, indefinitely. This way he knows he won’t burn out, but will continue to thrive in enjoyable, meaningful work.

Take care of yourself

You are going to be miserable help to everyone if you are miserable yourself. There’s a reason flight attendants remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. You’re not very useful if you’re dead.

Take the time to eat right, exercise and drink water. One of the biggest boosts to motivation is simply drinking more water. Water helps brain function, helps you get more rest while you’re asleep and keeps you alert and in a better mood throughout the day. Peace Corps issues you a filter—make good use of it.

Don’t give up on your hobbies just because you’re in a different place. Continue to do them or share them with others if you want.

Seek to strengthen your relationship with God. Your need for Him will likely be felt more acutely here than anywhere else.

Relax and breathe. Seriously. You’ll forget to do this at multiple points of your service.

Find humor in just about everything

You are going to experience some tough things, and there is a time for being somber and mourning with those who mourn. But even people going through their darkest days don’t want to wallow continuously. There will be plenty to get angry at or upset about and those are appropriate reactions to injustice and suffering. But don’t stay there. You have to balance those emotions with the little quips and smiles because brooding is a sure onramp to the downward spiral highway of doubt with no exit sign in sight. If you’re here to make things better, enjoy doing it.

And if you need to go home, go home

There’s nothing worse than after carefully weighing your options, you choose to suffer. The world’s not going anywhere. There will be more volunteers, more projects and more opportunities. As much as it is a hit to the ego, at the end of the day we Peace Corps Volunteers are just one small slice of what’s going on in our communities and in the lives of our friends, co-workers, students and neighbors. They’re going to be fine, and so are you. You can continue to keep in touch or even come back sometime, if you like.

Why I still put up with the doubt

Having said that, I’m glad I’m working through the doubt and am continuing to decide to stay. If I hadn’t I would never have met Maksat, a great friend, business partner and inspiration to me and the future of Kyrgyzstan. I would never have met my best friend Nazgul or experienced first hand the struggles of those living in a small village, out of the reach of big city resources and opportunities. I also never would have gotten to share my own English teaching skills with as many teachers nor had the time to be an influence on other people’s lives. There are so many things you can’t learn or do unless you have the backing of months or years.

For me, I think of it like being married. When I do get married, I’m not going to just wake up one day, doubt my decision and take off. The doubts will be there and maybe for a long time. But you don’t get married so you can see how it goes, playing it day by day. You get married because you’ve decided, “I’ll love you forever.” I often have doubts about being in the Peace Corps and being in Kyrgyzstan. But I also know that I’ll love them forever. And that’s why I’m still here.

imageThis one’s going to last

How to count

Counting here starts with the most important word of all: Beer. If this wasn’t a sign Kyrgyz was going to be the most awesomest language ever, I’d never drink another Jiboe again.

Each day in PST language classes, we learned to count as we learned to take baby steps in the culture.

beer…

eki…

ooch…

One, two, three days in training…one, two, three trainees sleeping…one, two, three sessions on diarrhea…one, two, three months to go ‘til school starts…one, two months to our Close of Service conference…one, two, WHAT?!?

Somehow I skipped a few numbers in there. How did time go so fast? Life during training seems like a whole different lifetime. But that’s the funny thing with numbers and time. It seems so long ago, but feels like it went by so fast.

So as I begin to count down the days, how do I make the days count?

Math instruction for the village kid — falling asleep has never been so easy

I’m wanting to extend for a third year, but even if my request is approved, I’ll still be leaving this village. Forever. It’s a shot in the gut, realizing that. It gives me that scrambling sense, the one where I’m told I can keep as much as I can hold and so I’m grabbing at everything, stacking it up in my arms, stuffing things in my pockets and they’re tumbling down, hitting the floor, slipping through my fingers.

I think about each of the “lasts.” The last hike up the red hill in town. The last dinner at my friend Maksat’s. The last time I’ll see these familiar mountains as they slip away in the rear view mirror.

It can’t end. It won’t. I still know these people, this valley. I’ve sewn my life into these hills and it will stretch and maybe even tear a bit but I will always be part of this and it will always be part of me.

I told my family when I was leaving the states that it wasn’t a forever goodbye. “You guys make this seem like you’re mourning my funeral. I’m not dying you know. And it’s just Kyrgyzstan. I’m not climbing in a rocket for the moon.”

Maybe fifty years ago the Peace Corps was like that, where you might as well have been serving on the moon, helping the mooninites improve their cheese production or something. Where volunteers sort of just disappeared into the countryside for two years, a letter occasionally wriggling its way loose and inching towards America, reassuring its recipients that the volunteer was still alive two months before.

Now we have cell phones and skype and facebook and tumblr and a thousand other little gadgets and applications where we connect and stay in touch. We use those to connect back home in the states, but really they’re for connecting to wherever home is.

So in counting down, I never reach zero. Because I’m not in a rocket ship for the moon, I’m on the same planet, looking up at that same orb above our heads. And while our views may be from different angles, I’ll always know we’re just a phone number away.

The government loves acronyms

PCV1:  Dude, have you checked out the PCTs?

PCV2:  Yeah man, that one SOCD? I mean, SCD now – Rockin’.

PCV1:  Which one?

PCV2:  The one with the crazy LCF.

PCV1:  Eh, the SCD’s ok – the HE’s better.

PCV2:  Too bad we’re not PCVTs…

PCV1:  Hey, did you get your SPA?

PCV2:  No. Stupid SPA rep’s got it out for me.

PCV1:  You should just do a PCPP – a lot easier, you know.

PCV2:  I might throw it at VAST and see what happens. Oh! Did you hear who ET’d?

PCV1:  No!

PCV2:  That K-20 who didn’t send BAS to the DO and the SSC flipped out. The CD started AS but she didn’t want to deal.

PCV1:  VAC should say something.

PCV2:  You going to see your PM at PST?

PCV1:  Naw, I still haven’t done the VRF… But I might have to see the PCMC for some Cipro. I popped ‘em all last week.

PCV2:  Rough, man.

Was this a Peace Corps conversation? Or secret code in some shadier dealing?

If you’re in the application process to become a volunteer, you’ve probably already run into some of these abbreviations. Many of the Peace Corps publications include a list of acronyms or initialisms on the opening page so you’re not lost after the first sentence. There was even a special session during our Pre-Service Training explaining some of the more common ones. I was like, “If we have to spend all this time sorting out abbreviations, is shortening our phrases actually saving us any time?” The inevitable “huh?” that comes up in these conversations coupled with the explanation can end up taking several times longer than just saying the original phrase.

imageThis message is going in the T-R-A-S-H

And then there are the conversations that get sidetracked because no one really knows what the acronym stands for.

“Hey, the PCMO—”

“No, she’s the PCMC now.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know…Peace Corps Manager of Care?”

“No dude, the M still means Medical. I think she’s a Choreographer or something.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

So far in my volunteer service for the government I’ve learned enough acronyms to fill a pallet of alphabet soup. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I learned the government has a federal bureau of abbreviations. Or in their love language, the FBA.