So what are the stereotypes of Peace Corps? The prevailing stereotype is that Peace Corps volunteers are liberal, hippie tree-huggers and/or they are mostly young, naïve, upper-class whites who want to assuage their white guilt. Another assumption is that Peace Corps service is essentially a two year vacation; the image of someone in a tie-dye shirt and Birkenstocks lying in a hammock in the jungle sometimes comes to mind. This slacker hippie stereotype is perhaps a result of the Peace Corps’ 1960’s origins. Yet, it persists. Just look at the image of Barney Stinson when he was considering joining the Peace Corps in How I Met Your Mother. An example from my personal experience: my current boss admitted that she thought I was going to have dreadlocks and a nose ring when she saw Peace Corps on my resume. (Kudos to her for still calling me for an interview despite her assumption.)
What are the realities of Peace Corps? Some of this may be repeat information for those of you who have been reading all along, but I’ve gained quite a few new readers since I started back in 2010, so bear with me.
First, let’s address the type of people who serve in the Peace Corps. It’s true that most volunteers are young. That’s because the easiest time to make a 27 month commitment is straight out of college before you have family and career obligations. However, there are volunteers of all ages. Some people (like me) go mid-career if circumstances allow, and there are retirees who serve in the Peace Corps as well. The oldest volunteer currently serving is in his 80s, I believe.
Most volunteers do not fit the hippie stereotype at all. If anything, many of them look more like frat boys or sorority girls or members of the business club. Some of them are even “squarer” than I am. Sure, you’re going to find volunteers who have tattoos and support the legalization of pot, but you’re also going to find “good” boys and girls you’d introduce to your parents. The most “hippie” of the volunteers in Tstan while I was there was a guy who was a vegetarian and did yoga. But he was also the buffest man I’ve ever personally known. He was our star quarterback when we played football against the Marines, and he can do one-handed hand stands. And, sure, you’re going to find rich white kids who are assuaging their guilt, but the majority of volunteers don’t fall into that category.
What’s the safest assumption you can make about a Peace Corps volunteer? They want to be a force for positive change in the world. I wouldn’t make any other assumptions than that. Even then, you’ll occasionally find an anomaly, someone whose motives are something else, like running away from something. But they usually don’t complete their service.
So let’s address the service itself. If you think, ‘oh, hey, here’s a chance to learn a new language for free and to travel and hang out in a hammock in the jungle smoking pot for two years. Let’s sign up, it’ll be fun,’ let me stop you right there. While it’s true that you’ll learn a new language “for free” (though you’re working for two years in exchange for it) the chances of it being a useful language outside your service in Peace Corps is slim. While Peace Corps does work in countries that speak Spanish or French, for example, usually you are taught a tribal language instead. Yes, if you’re placed in Morocco or Jordan, you can use your Arabic later on in life depending on what field you go into. You’re much less likely to find Mandinka or Georgian to be practical after your service. Most employers in the States are not going to find my command of Turkmen to be useful to them. Still, learning any second language is good for your brain and your command of your native language and makes learning a third language easier. Plus knowing an obscure language means you can swear at people and not get found out.
You do get to travel. But not as much as you’d probably like, and if that’s your primary motivation for doing Peace Corps, it’s better to go with a plan B. Any plan B, because…
Peace Corps is not two years of lying in a hammock in a jungle smoking pot. Here is a rundown of Peace Corps reality or what to keep in mind if you’re thinking of applying.
1) You have to really want to do Peace Corps to do Peace Corps. The application process takes anywhere from six months to a year. It’s designed to weed people out. About 1 in 3 people who start the application process actually become volunteers. That’s just the application process. Keep in mind that the length of service is 27 months, so you have to ask yourself…
2) Can I live away from everyone I know for 2 ¼ years? Chances are high you’ll be able to keep in touch via the internet. It’s seemingly everywhere. But it’s not guaranteed. You may be assigned to a village where you won’t have access and will have to travel to a city once a week or once a month to access it. It may be available but out of your price range on a volunteer salary. It may be available but unreliable. Maybe, like me, you’ll luck out and be able to access it every day. Is that the same as being able to see the people you love and hang out with them? Not at all. You will miss out on a ton of things. You’ll have friends and family who get married or have babies or graduate from school and you’ll miss those events. Your group of friends will continue their weekly karaoke night at the bar without you and will undoubtedly create lots of new memories and inside jokes that you won’t be a part of. You’ll miss out on two years of pop culture. When my group entered Turkmenistan, the group that was getting ready to leave asked us, “what’s this Twitter thing people are talking about?” You might think “who cares about pop culture?” But when you return to the States and everybody is talking about a show that you’re unfamiliar with, you’ll feel left out, even if you don’t care about the show.
The truth is, serving in the Peace Corps will create a division between you and some of the people in your social circle. And it will change the way you function socially when you get back. I’m not saying you’re going to lose all your friends, but you will lose some.
3) You have to be capable of autonomy to succeed in the Peace Corps. Peace Corps does a decent job of language training, but a pretty dismal job of technical training. Your job training will be pretty minimal and you’ll mostly be left up to your own devices when you get to site. Not only that, but your boss will be headquartered in the nation’s capital and will come to your site once or twice during your service. You will have zero oversight, so unless you do something so wrong that your host country national counterpart calls Peace Corps, your boss will have pretty much no idea what you’re doing. This can be good or bad. It’s good if you like being left alone and are competent enough to work without being micromanaged. It’s bad if you need more direction in work. Know yourself and what kind of worker you are. Be honest with yourself. If you’re a person who needs lots of guidelines, etc. Peace Corps is not for you.
4) You’ll have to get comfortable advocating for yourself. You have to flat out say, “these are the awesome things I’m doing at site” if you want it noted. In addition to tooting your own horn to aid in your job performance review, you need to advocate for all your needs. If there’s a medical issue, you have to take the initiative to speak up and continue to speak up if you’re not getting the treatment you think you need. Any problems you might be having at work or at home, you have to fix yourself because you’re not going to get much help from Peace Corps.
Peace Corps is pretty hands off. They tend not to care about volunteers unless it’s going to turn into a PR problem. This isn’t to say there aren’t Peace Corps staff who are good. There were several people on PC Tstan staff who were great and who really did care about the volunteers. I am still in touch with them today. However, the country director and PC headquarters did not give the impression that they cared a lick about volunteers. Go into Peace Corps assuming that your country director will not give a flying fart in space about your emotional or physical well-being beyond what could have a negative impact on the program. It will be better to be wrong in that assumption than the reverse.
5) Yes, you’ll have to battle insects and critters and sleep on the floor. You’ll have to go without showering for days or weeks at a time. You will get comfortable talking about diarrhea with your co-volunteers. You will have to jettison said diarrhea while squatting over the hole in the ground that serves as a toilet. You will eat things you didn’t really consider food before. But after the first few months, these things will be old hat; you’ll wear them as a badge of honor.
What will really bother you will be the lack of anonymity, the lack of privacy. The fact that you can’t sneeze without everyone at your site knowing it. The fact that you can’t go anywhere without people staring. What will really bother you is the fact that you’ll work for months with a very smart, hard-working student, but they won’t get into university because they can’t afford the bribe. You’ll have a really bright, friendly girl who comes to your clubs but then one day, she’ll stop because she’s getting married at the age of 16 or 17. You’ll have a counterpart that would be a perfect candidate for the U.S.’s teacher exchange program, but she won’t go because she has a child and she wouldn’t dare ask her husband to take care of him for the three weeks she’d be gone. You may write a grant to buy medical supplies for your clinic only to have the host country government shut your grant down. You’ll plan lessons only to have them go terribly awry. You’ll explain to teachers over and over again that yelling at students and calling them names is ineffective classroom management, but they’ll continue to do it. Children will throw rocks at you. People will scream “hello” at you over and over and over again even after you’ve responded with “hello.” Complete strangers will tell you you should get married and have babies soon. You will get frustrated by the ridiculous amounts of red tape you’ll have to go through to get even the simplest things accomplished. You may end up getting evacuated from your country like the volunteers in Kazakhstan or, most recently, Ukraine.
6) When you return to the States, you’ll have serious reverse culture shock. You will stand in the grocery store and think, “why do we need 400 cereals? Why do they have 27 different magazines about guns?” You will overhear someone in a restaurant complain that they don’t offer a light salad dressing and it will take every ounce of your energy to refrain from jabbing a fork in their eye. You will talk about your experiences and most people won’t care. They will nod politely and then change the subject to reality television. You will try to start a conversation about global politics and be met with blank stares. You will say things loudly in English thinking people don’t understand you and then realize that they do. You will pepper your English with words of your host country’s language like you did with your fellow volunteers and then realize that no one here knows what you mean when you say “sheylemi?”
You’ll notice that lots of businesses offer discounts and free things to people who served in the military, but Peace Corps isn’t on anyone’s radar. You’ll go into Bronner’s CHRISTmas store and peruse their many offerings for each branch of the military (including the Coast Guard); you’ll find ornaments for dog dressers and oboe players but nary a one honoring the Peace Corps. You’ll go into a scrapbook supply store and find pages and stickers and die-cuts for experiences as mundane as getting a haircut, but nothing for Peace Corps. This will surprise you, and you’ll think to yourself, ‘this is an organization that’s been around for 50 years and is an ultimate scrapbookable experience. There is undoubtedly a market for Peace Corps themed scrapbook supplies, so what’s with the dearth?’ Then you’ll get in your car and find yourself behind someone with a “my kid is on the honor roll at Mediocre Intermediate” bumper sticker, and you’ll think to yourself, ‘if only my parents could get a bumper sticker that says “my son pooped in a hole in the ground for two years and contracted malaria serving his country in the Peace Corps.”’ But these things do not exist. Your commitment to aiding national security through diplomacy and goodwill goes ignored once you get home. No one will thank you for your service; they are largely unaware that Peace Corps is a service to our country; they think you spent two years in a hammock in the jungle. Or they have no clue what to think because they’ve never heard of the Peace Corps.
By now you’re probably thinking, ‘gosh, Maresha, after everything you’ve said, why would anyone join the Peace Corps?’ I don’t mean to discourage people from joining the Peace Corps, I only mean to give people a realistic picture of the Peace Corps experience. Along with the negatives, there are plenty of positives. So why would a person want to join the Peace Corps?
1) It’s character building. You might not have noticed but some of the negatives or warnings above are actually positives. The skills you learn in the Peace Corps (autonomy and advocating for yourself) will serve you well throughout the rest of your life, both professionally and personally. Other skills you’ll acquire include patience, problem-solving, and diplomacy in addition to more measurable skills like grant writing.
Smart employers will see Peace Corps on your resume and know that you are someone who can work cross-culturally, someone who has the tenacity to live and work in less than ideal conditions, and someone who is able to think and work independently.
In your personal life you’ll discover that you’ve become less daunted by things, almost fearless. You’ll find that you’re more comfortable saying “no” when you need to and that your social circle keeps expanding because you’re more willing to socialize with people who are different from you.
2) You will meet people who will take up permanent residence in your heart. You will live with a host family that will become a real family to you. When you refer to them in the States, you’ll have to catch yourself and specify that you mean your Armenian sister. They will be people you will invite to your wedding. Among your fellow volunteers you will make lifelong friendships. Your shared experience of the crucible that is Peace Corps service in your assigned country will forge a kind of relationship that you can’t duplicate with those who haven’t served. (Also you will learn to use metallurgy metaphors.) Not everyone you serve with will be your best bud forever, but there will be a handful that will always make you smile whenever you think of them. One of the people I met in the Peace Corps is someone I now consider one of my best friends, almost a soul mate if I believed in them, and, indeed, has taken up permanent residence in my heart.
3) You will change lives for the better. You’re not going to save the world, but you will make a profound impact on several of the people you serve. You will open up doors for them, teaching them skills that they can use to get better jobs or to start their own businesses. You may inspire girls in patriarchal societies to pursue an education and independence. You may improve the health and living conditions of your village through your instruction.
4) You will play a small but important role in national security. I firmly believe in the founding principles of the Peace Corps, that volunteerism and goodwill helps build positive relationships between nations. There are current world leaders who have good attitudes toward the U.S. because they were exposed to Peace Corps volunteers when they were younger. For many people in your country of service, you will be the only American they will meet. Peace Corps is your chance to show that Americans are not all villainous or immoral.
5) You’ll be more educated. You’ll have a lot of down time during your service, and for about 90% of volunteers that means an increase in reading. You’ll read things you wouldn’t normally read and some of that material will be nonfiction that will educate you on subjects you didn’t know you needed educating in. Plus, your experience will open your eyes to global issues. You’ll learn the history and culture of your host country as well as get an understanding of the general region of that part of the world. And it’s not limited to your country/region. I have a little better understanding of what’s going on in Ukraine than most Americans because I traveled there during my service and talked to volunteers who were posted there. When you’re in Peace Corps, if you vacation in another Peace Corps country, you have access to their PC headquarters, and your peers there are invaluable resources for learning about the country.
6) You’ll really know yourself. You shouldn’t join the Peace Corps to “find yourself.” If you don’t have a pretty good sense of self to begin with, you won’t make it. That being said, by the end of your service, you’ll know yourself even better. You’ll have a better understanding of how you were shaped by your family, your community and your Americanness. You’ll understand your strengths and weaknesses better. You’ll have a clearer idea of your priorities and values and be better able to articulate them.
7) You get bragging rights. Not a lot of people have done Peace Corps, because not a lot of people can or are willing to do Peace Corps. There are legitimate reasons not to do Peace Corps, but some reasons are pretty lame, from fear (what if I get cholera and die?), to materialism (two years without a paycheck or new Jimmy Choos?), to bigotry (why are we sending help to other countries when there are poor people here?). Giving up two years of your life to volunteer in a developing country is a daunting idea. A lot of people quit. The early termination rate is about 33%, though it differs from country to country. Living in a developing country among the locals is very different from visiting said country or living among expats in the nicer accommodations of the capital. See my Live Like a Peace Corps Volunteer post. Those who make it to the end of their service have a right to be proud of their accomplishments, both professional and personal.
If you’re considering the Peace Corps, or just want to better understand your PC pal, I hope this helped. I’d also encourage you to talk to former Peace Corps volunteers and read Peace Corps blogs. Certainly, if you have any questions you’d like to ask me you can use the “Contact Me” tab.