Does the idea of two years’ volunteer work in a country like Senegal or Columbia sound terrifying or tantalising to you? If it’s the latter and you’re a US citizen over 18 years old, you can apply to volunteer with the Peace Corps for a hands-on role that’s sure to push you out of your comfort zone.
Peace Corps volunteers can work in a wide range of roles in areas such as education, community development, heath, agriculture, and food security. To get an idea of what these roles are like and how to land one, we spoke to a current Peace Corps volunteer, a returned volunteer, and the Peace Corps itself.
Who Should Apply?
“The Peace Corps has thousands of volunteer opportunities for Americans aged 18 or over who are interested in public service abroad,” says Peace Corps spokesperson Kelly McCormack, adding that the agency looks for applicants with volunteer experience and a strong commitment to public service.
“The agency also looks for volunteers who are creative and motivated problem solvers who have demonstrated a commitment to community service, leadership experience and a willingness to learn a new language,” McCormack says.
Abigail Fay, a returned volunteer who was based in Senegal for two years in an agricultural role, says there are a few qualities that will go a long way in the Peace Corps. “What it takes is determination, a strong work ethic, and openness to other cultures,” she explains. “Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also one of the most enriching, wonderful experiences you can have.”
Arwen Wolfe, a current Peace Corps volunteer who is now working in Eastern Uganda after two years in Togo, West Africa, says volunteering is for anyone who thinks they can commit two years of their life to helping others, has a compassionate spirit, and is willing to have their life changed in a way they might not be expecting.
“If you don’t believe in the Peace Corps’ style of development – of teaching a man to fish, of going slow and gritty like the tortoise instead of other development organisations’ hare, of helping people help themselves, then you shouldn’t join the Peace Corps,” she says, adding that there aren’t enough resources available for volunteers to help their communities on any level but grassroots. “We may not have a lot of money, but we are making a difference in our communities,” Wolfe explains.
What should applicants expect?
McCormack says the Peace Corps works hard to prepare volunteers for their roles. “Upon arrival in their country of service, every Peace Corps volunteers completes two to three months of pre-service training,” she explains. “They learn the host country’s culture, take language courses and complete technical training for their jobs.” McCormack adds that volunteers typically live with a host family before they leave for their host communities.
Fay says it’s difficult to characterise typical day in the Peace Corps. “Sometimes you’re crazy busy working on seasonal projects, or visiting NGOs in search of funding. However, work-filled days were not the norm for me. Most of my time was spent just living in my village.”
Fay explains that living in a small village of 700 people with no running water or electricity wasn’t without its challenges. “Things that I thought would be difficult – living without plumbing, eating repetitive food, and learning a new language – weren’t actually so hard,” Fay says. “All that is easy to adjust to. The most difficult part of Peace Corps, for me, was adjusting to a culture so very different from my own.”
Fay adds that the Peace Corps does an excellent job preparing volunteers, but that sometimes cultural differences are so extreme that being aware of them isn’t enough. “That being said, the best part of Peace Corps for me was cultural exchange,” Fay adds. “I found myself able to interact with Senegalese people in the context of their own culture, in their own language, and that’s an amazing thing.”
For Arwen Wolfe, her current position with the Child Survival Program in Uganda is very much a full-time job. “I go into the office usually six days a week,” she explains. “Monday through Friday we are either in the field conducting home visits, or in the office filling in forms and planning. Almost every day a caregiver comes in with a sick child or some other request, so we help them. Once a month we have our large seminar at the office, when I teach them how to make Oral Rehydration Solution to prevent dehydration or some other health-based topic. On Saturdays, the 300-plus sponsored school-aged children come in for an all day session.”
Wolfe says the most difficult thing about her time in the Peace Corps so far was leaving her Togolese family behind to come to Uganda. “They didn’t become ‘like’ my family to me, as people are fond of saying, they became my family, and leaving them, not knowing when I would return, was as heart-wrenching as it would be for anyone leaving their ‘real’ family, not knowing when they would see them again.”
What kind of employment do returned volunteers find?
“Peace Corps volunteers return to the United States as global citizens and have skills that many prospective employers value,” says McCormack. The Peace Corps counts Members of Congress, diplomats, teachers, researchers, doctors and writers among its returned volunteers.
Along with a significant boost to their life experience and resume, returned Peace Corps volunteers can also take advantage of a number of benefits including the deferment or partial cancellation of student loans, academic credit, and health insurance.
Fay says that while she didn’t learn any technical skills that apply to her future career plans, she did gain a lot from her time with the Peace Corps “The experience of living in a foreign country and leaving to navigate a new culture is incredibly useful,” she says.
Wolfe says her time in Uganda has helped her settle on future career plans, and that a job in healthcare is what she is now aiming for. “Peace Corps service anywhere teaches you patience and perseverance,” she says. “You have to learn these to get anything done and be successful at all in the Third World, and you can take these skills back home to deal with situations in your job and your everyday life.”