peace corps application

What Does “Third World” Mean?

This Peace Corps blogger, Jett Choquette, makes a really good observation about the idea of “third world” applying to systems and structures rather than to people. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past week as I’ve been reading on the history of the first 20 years of Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Relatable to any country that is “developing.”

Connecting the Dots

When thinking about the global community we throw around terms like “third world” or “developing world.” Coming from the first world, I’ve often heard those terms with an undertone of pity. The terms have a distributive property and rather than just being used to categorize a political territory they are used to describe people. And when these terms are distributed to people they usually mean: unhappy, uneducated, dirty, and disadvantaged.

It’s taken me almost 9 months in Paraguay to wrap my head around what “third world” actually means, because the first thing I noticed when coming to Paraguay is that Paraguayans aren’t unhappy, uneducated, and dirty. Actually, Paraguayans are almost annoyingly happy most of the time. The Paraguayan approach is simple: bad things happen, life goes on. It takes only a little time in Asunción to meet several trilingual Paraguayans and it takes no more searching than it does among…

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9 Myths and Misconceptions about the Peace Corps

The newsfeeds of today are proof enough that anyone with a MacBook, a latte and a half-baked opinion can be an expert on pretty much anything. Including, apparently, a government agency program which they have never researched, never applied for, nor ever served with.

Comments under online articles relating to the Peace Corps are awash with misinformed statements and stereotyped assertions that claim unassailable conclusions about everything from its effectiveness to its worth.

Yesterday Peace Corps rolled out their complete overhaul of the application process. And with that announcement comes once again the enlightened comments in the newsfeeds.

The following is a list of myths compiled and summarized from the comments under this recent Washington Post article about the new changes in how people apply for Peace Corps service.

Myth #1: Volunteers are over-privileged, upper-class white kids.

Fact: While only one-quarter of volunteers are minorities, the Peace Corps has begun an initiative to encourage more to apply including hiring 20 new staff for the Peace Corps’ diversity office to recruit more minorities.

The vast majority of volunteers work hard, humbly serving while growing their own skills in order to meet the needs of their local communities in challenging environments. Volunteers learn a new language, engage a new culture, and learn to thrive away from their old support systems.

Myth #2: Volunteers are just looking for a 2-year vacation.

Fact: How many people do you know who vacation in tiny villages in developing countries? Usually when one goes on vacation, they try to do less work in a more comfortable environment, not the opposite.

Volunteers also give up 2 years of salary potential—that’s 2 years of building up 401Ks, or saving for a house. It is true that volunteers receive $275 for each month served, though this “resettlement allowance” is often quickly used as volunteers search for paying jobs after finishing service.

Myth #3: Volunteers force their presence upon communities that don’t really want the volunteer around.

Fact: Peace Corps Volunteers are invited by the countries and communities in which they serve. Volunteers work directly with counterparts who had to apply and be accepted to host a volunteer in their organizations and communities.

Myth #4: The Peace Corps is a very expensive program and the benefits don’t match the costs.

Fact: The 2014 budget for the Peace Corps is only $379 million. That’s it. Guess what the Department of Defense’s budget is? $495 billion. That’s 1,300 times bigger. If the DoD had the budget of the Peace Corps, it would entirely deplete its annual funds before 7:00 am on January 1st.

At under $400 million per year, or around $50,000 per volunteer, the Peace Corps has huge ROI when it comes to grassroots diplomacy. Even if there were zero technical benefits for served local communities (which is not true), the relational and image benefits make it a no-brainer for the government.

Myth #5: Volunteers spend all their time on the internet and texting other volunteers.

Fact: Volunteers use technology for best practices. Fact: 2014 is not 1961. More students in my village have smart phones than running water in their homes. Technology changes and volunteers must keep up with the technology around them in order to implement best practices and reach as many people as possible.

One really cool Peace Corps Volunteer initiated project that came out of a Central American country was setting up a system where locals could text reproductive health questions to be answered discreetly by informed professionals. This effective model is now being implemented by other posts around the world.

Volunteers today should correspond with their organizations and local counterparts by e-mail, Facebook and text because the locals are using such technology and it allows volunteers to collaborate and be more effective in their work. 

Myth #6: The Peace Corps isn’t doing its job—just look at how effective they were in Ukraine.

Fact: The goals of the Peace Corps are “1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women 2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served and 3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

No where does it include the goal of host country government reform. Peace Corps Volunteers do not work for the Foreign Service. Peace Corps volunteers do not work for USAID. Volunteers work relationally to promote better understanding, while sharing their professional skills.

Myth #7: Applicants and Volunteers should be in command of administrative processes. After all, the volunteer exists to be served.

Fact: I’ll just include the whole comment here because it’s quite revealing. It’s posted by a “Chuckludlam” which appears to be the same volunteer who sued the Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps changes to the application process are all about process. The problem at the Peace Corps is all about substance.

Now applicants can choose where they will serve. Fine. But the Peace Corps has fought to deprive the applicants of the information they need to make this choice. To secure documents crucial to applicants who are selecting which country they want to serve in, my wife and I had to sue the Peace Corps in Federal District court.The PC conducts annual surveys of the Volunteers and if you have the breakouts of the survey country-by-country you can rank the countries — best to worst managed. There is no more credible source than the Volunteers. Of course, the PC desperately wanted to deprive the applicants of this vital information. It fears what will happen if the applicants all want to go to a well managed country.

We won the lawsuit and will soon publish the country rankings on PeaceCorpsWiki. We also had to file an appeal with the PC to secure the country-by-country breakouts of the early quit rates — another crucial measure of the health of a specific country program — and we will be publishing these on PeaceCorpsWiki.

Applicants are consumers and if they go to a restaurant they get ratings. If they go to a college, they get ratings. They get ratings of professors. They get ratings of everything, but if they are asked to spend two years of their lives in the bush, the PC doesn’t give them rankings. If the PC refuses to post this information, every applicant should put their application on hold until they get the ratings they need to make an informed choice.

Going to a badly managed country with a high early quit rate — why would any applicant do that? Would they go to a restaurant rated for having bad food, bad service, and occasional food poisoning?”

The strangest thing about this comment is the part that says, “applicants are consumers” and the part where commenter Chuckludlam compares applying to the Peace Corps to choosing at which restaurant to dine. The last time I checked, going to a restaurant was about being served, not serving others. It would be pretty strange if a restaurant invited you in and you told the server to sit down and then you went back in the kitchen and cooked him a meal. But that is the type of service true Peace Corps Volunteers are doing every day.

Volunteers are not consumers. Volunteers are, well, volunteers. This doesn’t mean volunteers shouldn’t work under good management and that the Peace Corps doesn’t need reform. We’re not heading out in the “bush” in order to suffer.

Yes, the Peace Corps must become a better organization and a safer environment for Volunteers. Yes, staff must become more competent. Let’s keep in mind, however, the words of a certain someone close to the Peace Corps: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We as volunteers and applicants should not adopt a view of entitlement.

Myth #8: Country rankings and early quit rates are the perfect litmus test for a Peace Corps country.

Fact: The rankings that you hear about are based on surveys submitted by current volunteers. These volunteers take a survey that asks questions like, “are you satisfied with your country director” and “how well-prepared were you after the training period.” Host country staff go through changes and bad management doesn’t always translate through organizational memory. Rankings change year to year even within the span of 2-year contracts.

Early quit rate means the percentage of volunteers who do not finish their 2-year contract in that country. The spectrum of reasons why volunteers leave early is wide. Some go for medical reasons, some don’t enjoy the work, some have family matters in the states to attend to.

Additionally, no one is saying that service in each country is equally as difficult. Everyone’s situation is different and each volunteer will encounter unique challenges.

One of the “Core Expectations of Volunteers” is that volunteers “serve under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” Many volunteers simply do not count the cost before signing up, or don’t realize going into it how difficult it can be. Putting applicants totally in control of how they serve and under what conditions would only fuel the attitude of entitlement.

But many leave for reasons outside of their control. Our post recently had an amazingly successful and wonderful volunteer leave his contract early to go home and care for his mother. In the rankings system, he would be counted in the so-called early quit rate. The numbers that “don’t lie,” also don’t tell the whole truth.

Myth #9: The Peace Corps is an out of touch bureaucracy more interested in perpetuating its existence than improving how it functions to serve volunteers.

Fact: The Peace Corps as an agency and Peace Corps Volunteers are not the same thing. Too often critics equate the failures of the “bureaucracy” with ineffectiveness of volunteers. The real work of the Peace Corps isn’t the bureaucracy but the feet on the ground.

Yes, there are problems with the Peace Corps as an Agency. Yes, it needs to change. But we must separate the operations of the organization from the work volunteers are doing when it comes to evaluation. Just because there are things that can improve within the organization doesn’t mean individual volunteers’ work is ineffective or not worthwhile.

The Peace Corps staff at my post repeatedly state that they exist for us as volunteers. That is their job. There are things that need to improve, and volunteers regularly voice their opinions and the Country Director and Director of Programming & Training are addressing those issues with sincerity and competence.

They know and have stated that the new application process gives volunteers more control over where they go, and therefore they as staff need to work better to make their post attractive and successful for future applicants.

Fact: Reform is coming

When it comes to large organizations, change doesn’t always come about as quickly as some would like. But reform is coming as evidenced by the sweeping changes made this week.

For those who comment and voice their uninformed or poorly concluded opinions the best advice is 1) be patient 2) come to this with the attitude that things aren’t always black and white, and 3) understand that volunteers are in this to serve and do their best to fulfill the mission of the Peace Corps to civilly, humbly and respectfully “promote world peace and friendship.”

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