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SoYouWanna join the Peace Corps?

Ahhhhh, the Peace Corps. Meandering through a rural village in an exotic place where no one speaks your language. Palm trees and romantic monsoons. Elephants and water buffaloes lumbering past your front porch. Grass huts and smiling children looking up at you adoringly.

These are probably the stereotypical images that come to your mind when you think of the Peace Corps. Well here's a reality check: what appears to be adoration in those children's eyes may simply be a look of amusement, as in, "Who's that freak with the ugly sandals?" Also, there's as much chance that you'll find yourself in the urban center of Kazakhstan as in a grass hut in Fiji. Two potentially equally rewarding, but vastly differing environments.

 

The reality is that each Peace Corps volunteer's experience varies greatly from every other's, and your best bet is to simply get rid of any and all preconceived notions of how life in the Corps will be. If you have little or no tolerance for uncertainty, stop reading now. The Peace Corps is not for you.

What is the Peace Corps?

Basically, joining the Peace Corps means that you'll go to a foreign country (where English may not be spoken) and do some kind of service there at the request of its government. Whether it's teaching, or helping sick children, or working with the government on cleaning up an urban city, it's probably not going to be the kind of work we usually think of as "glamorous."

The world has changed since John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961. Although many volunteers still live and work in rural villages, and haul their drinking water from a nearby river, it is now just as common to find a volunteer giving computer training to university staff in a city and going home at night to electricity and running water.

What hasn't changed is the fact that joining the Peace Corps is a JOB, and volunteers still work, teach, and learn while completely immersed in another culture for two years (that's approximately 730 days, for those of you scoring at home). They have the chance to participate in a professional and cultural exchange that can have life-long educational benefits for all parties involved. Volunteers have the opportunity to prove that Americans' lives are not identical to those of the characters on Beverly Hills, 90210. Likewise, the country's citizens can prove that there's more to a country than what you see on CNN.

This SYW will present the logistics of how to apply to join the Peace Corps, what to expect and what not to expect, and perhaps debunk some Peace Corps myths. For instance, no, not all volunteers know how to sing "Kumbayah," and yes, many Republicans do join and love the experience. It also may be helpful to know that the age range of volunteers is 18 to 65. Seven thousand volunteers currently serve in 78 countries around the world, with the largest numbers in the fields of education and health, followed closely by environment and business. Facts like these are just begging to appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

1. Evaluate your situation

Joining the Peace Corps is not a decision to be made lightly. It basically involves you giving up two years of your life with little or no pay, with the fundamental goal of helping people in less fortunate areas of the world. So if you're interested in joining the Peace Corps purely for the travel, then we suggest that you find a job that will allow you to save enough money for a two-year backpacking stint around wherever it is your little heart desires instead. The Peace Corps should not be thought of as a place to sling up your hammock for two years and groove to Phish tapes, either. It would be much easier to just become a groupie for your favorite band. The Peace Corps is definitely work.

So how can you find out if the Peace Corps is right for you? Follow these tips:

  • Make sure you're familiar with the goals and philosophy of the Peace Corps. These are what you are going to have to live by for two years. The best place to learn this and other factual information is their official website at www.peacecorps.gov. They'll give you all of the official information. Check it out to get a sense of what it is all about, and then come back here and find out the real scoop.

  • Talk to returned volunteers. This could be your best and worst information source. It is important to keep in mind that they are relating very personal and specific experiences - everything from the jobs they did, to the towns and countries they lived in, to the way they interacted with their community. It might be more of a help in the long run to ask them questions they can answer objectively, such as, "Was there a strong support network of other volunteers?" and not ones like, "So, uh, did you like it or what?"

  • Be prepared to spend 27 months away from home. Joining the Peace Corps is committing to spending two years and three months (three-month training period, two-year service) in a faraway land that might have big bugs and dirty water. Naturally, there are some people who have to leave early when extenuating circumstances arise (for medical reasons, for example). But after you are already there and settled into your community is not the time to decide that you'd rather go back to the U.S and begin the novel you've always wanted to write. Volunteers who quit for no real reason often cause a great deal of unnecessary hurt feelings in the communities that have gone out of their way to host them. Remember that this is not just about you! And for Pete's sake, please stay home if you are one of those people whose attitude is, "Well, I'm just a volunteer, it's not a real job, so I can quit anytime if I don't like it." Whiners are not welcome.

Think carefully about who and what you are leaving, and about whether you are at a time in your life where you can make such a commitment. There are plenty of part-time or short-term international volunteer opportunities to be had through other agencies, so check out the resources we suggest at the end of this article.

What's in it for me?

We are sure that this question never even entered your mind, since we all know that Peace Corps volunteers are selfless humanitarians, willing to courageously dedicate their entire lives to the betterment of the world without ever asking for a single thing in return. Uh huh… Listen up, there was only one Mother Teresa, and even she couldn't have been pleasant all of the time. Be it class credit or a bit of money, even a selfless humanitarian can enjoy a good perk or two.

First and foremost, there are all the warm and fuzzy benefits: being able to make a difference in the lives of others, learning not to take things for granted, developing life-long friendships, and a slew of other feelings which may actually surprise you with their number and intensity. Sounds like sleepaway camp, eh?

But there are also some nice practical benefits that can make the decision to join up a bit easier. These include:

  • Student loan deferment. If you feel that you can't do anything selfless because you have to worry about paying back those student loans, participation in the Peace Corps can allow you to defer several different types of loans.

  • Career services. The Peace Corps will help you with a résumé that highlights your experience and will look great to prospective employers when you are back in the U.S. looking for a job. There is also a monthly newsletter with job listings and networks of people and groups to contact who will be of help.

  • Educational opportunities. Many returned volunteers decide to go to graduate school, and not only does Peace Corps experience often give you an edge in the application process, but some schools will also offer scholarships or fellowships for previous participants.

  • Financial assistance. You will receive a modest monthly living allowance that will (we hope) cover all your basic necessities and some travel. In addition, just so you don't come back to the U.S. destitute, you receive over $6,000 (it comes from a monthly allowance that Peace Corps collects for you) to help you readjust upon your return. Of course it's more likely that you'll blow it all on a great trip after you are done with your service.