I just wanna be a Kyrgyz foodie

Hey all! 2015 has been rung in and I’m back in Kyrgyzstan for my last stretch in the Peace Corps. Six months left today until I COS (that fun acronym for closing my service!).

My blogging friend Grace over at cooking in the corps asked me some questions about food in Kyrgyzstan and I answered. Check out the intense post here. (If you dare!)

Drinking fermented milk in the mountains

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!

What do you mean when you encounter people you can’t help?

Dear glamorous-fervour,

Yes. All of the above, though I think where it hits me most is the area of justice. For the sake of all my Kyrgyzstani friends, my point isn’t to knock Kyrgyzstan. There are problems in America too, just as in every country. But right now this is my home and I care a lot about it and so I want to speak some truth to help make my little contribution to the momentum of change.

There is a lot of corruption here, and I encounter a lot of situations where things “aren’t fair” for people, whether that is being blackmailed by police officers, or students not being given a fair shot at getting into university, or women who are bride-napped being overlooked by the judicial system. There are problems that are in dire need of being addressed, but I can’t get directly involved in most cases.

For example, as volunteers we are highly discouraged by Peace Corps from getting directly involved in say a bride-napping while it’s taking place for a couple of reasons: 1) It could be personally dangerous and PC is liable (and they just don’t want us to get hurt) 2) We as PCVs don’t understand all the cultural nuances and what we say or do could potentially make things worse.

This makes me feel pretty helpless and awful when stuff like this happens when I can’t directly do something about it, and it applies to things that happen at school or with friends in general too.

That doesn’t mean we as volunteers can’t do anything. I can give trainings about how to get along with people and show ways boys and girls can healthily interact. I can direct people towards the services that can help them. I can volunteer with an NGO that helps women who have been kidnapped or abused. I can love my host siblings and engage in conversations about these issues that face them and have discussions about what can be done within the cultural and legal context.

I have huge respect for volunteers and local workers who fight for justice through their work here, day in and day out. It can be pretty upsetting and gut-wrenching to serve with a tender heart, but, “Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness.” (As Katherine Henson said, I believe.)

I also have my own limits of giving though, and sometimes I get overwhelmed. When it comes to this point I really need to step back, put into perspective my options, and learn to take better care of myself so I can be in better position to help others. It’s one of my constant inner struggles: wanting to help, trying to help, balancing that against my selfishness and then trying to figure out where that line is between selfishness and need to take care of myself.

Are you thinking about volunteering with Peace Corps? What are your thoughts on trying to help those in need when you know you can’t do everything?

Thanks for the note!


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 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!