applying for peace corps

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!

Don’t join the Peace Corps

You heard me. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, it’s going to break your heart.

The Core Expectations for Volunteers states you are expected to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” What it doesn’t state however is just what hardship means.

Right now you’re thinking, “Oh. There’ll be no flush toilets or showers. I can handle that. I might have to squash a few spiders, but for the high calling of changing the world, I think I can put up with those things.”

But the truth is, hardship isn’t the quirky and fun hardship you’re expecting, where each new day brings adventure upon crazy adventure, more wonderful than the next. True hardship is much more sobering.

During your service you might have to bury a neighbor. Or watch helplessly as your host family is torn to pieces by corruption. You might show up to school to learn one of your students was killed by a classmate. Your host sister could be kidnapped and forced to marry a man she’s never met. You might witness abuse, violence and mistreatment. You may see your best student lose to a kid from another school because his bribe was the biggest. Your dog might be fed a needle, just to quiet it down, forever.

And if none of that happens, then something else will. There’s just no knowing how hard it will be or it what way. It could be dealing with other volunteers is your biggest challenge. Or that you can never live up to the expectations of your host organization. Or that the Internet is so accessible you spend your entire day trolling Facebook, jealous of all the lives continuing on back home.

And what about all the things you’ll give up? Your boyfriend might not wait two years for you. You’ll put your career on hold. Your familiar support networks probably won’t be around – there’ll be no gym, no fast food joint, no car to drive, no family to visit. The stress and diet could make you lose thirty pounds—or gain thirty—whichever you don’t want.

The Peace Corps uses phrases like, “Life is calling. How far will you go?” and in a breath you’re ready to sign your name on the line. But two years is a long, long time and in the middle you find the world you wanted to change is a confusing and complex puzzle of which you are just one, tiny piece.

So please, if you’re not ready for the heartbreak in the hardship, don’t join the Peace Corps.

Or do.

Because you might just find that all your blood, sweat and tears are worth it – worth the pain, worth the time and worth the investment in the people for whom your heart breaks. Because you might learn some of the most important lessons of your life – that a broken heart can heal stronger than it was before, that a softened heart has more compassion for the world, and that in between its cracks and fissures is the only place where true beauty and grace can grow.