Growing up, there were too common pop culture plot devices. If you were unhappy and needed to escape from an ex, the law, or reality in Hollywood scripts, you either joined the French Foreign Legion or the Peace Corps. Both meant traveling to a backward, usually Northern African country to help the locals – but Americans joined the Peace Corps.
Frances “Baby” Houseman planned on joining the Peace Corps in the intro to Dirty Dancing. Robin Willilams’ character in Jumanji was a recent Peace Corps volunteer, at least according to Kirsten Dunst’s character. When confessing to each other, Angelina’s Jolie’s character tells Brad Pitt’s in Mr. and Mrs. Smith that she lied about being in the Peace Corps; he gets upset because he really liked that about her. Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers goes off to the Peace Corps. While Hollywood plots make noble references or jokes, they don’t attempt to portray the reality of volunteering to go to a foreign country for a two-year stint.
Community service abroad used to be a rare thing. Now, with voluntourism and NGOs helping out in areas stricken by earthquakes, tsunamis and man-made disasters, it’s more common for people to go and help build houses, cultivate crops, teach skills and such. The Peace Corps is just one option available for Americans. But, if you are considering joining up, here are some details to know:
- If you are curious what life in the Peace Corps is really all about, there are over 1,000 books that relate real-life experiences. That’s right. More than 1,000 former Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their volunteer time, including travel writer Paul Theroux, who served in the 1960s. Two often mentioned ones are Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle (1969), with its witty expatriate observations, and George Packer’s The Village of Waiting (1988), about dealing with isolation and futility during his time in Togo. These and other depict life in the Peace Corps as a time of reflection, selflessness and gaining a deeper perspective of life.
- Two years may seem like a long time, but it isn’t. It takes a few months to really get settled, and a year to get to know life in the area. Then, before you know it, you are planning the trip home. Think what it must have been like being in the Peace Corps in the 1960s or 1970s, with no internet much less Skype, no cell phones, just letters that took weeks or months to travel back and forth.
- You can play to your strengths when choosing an assignment. If you are fluent in a second language, or have experience tutoring math or English, or you always had an interest in solar power. Put is in your application and play it up in your interview. Even if it doesn’t pertain to your primary assignment, you reportedly have freedom to develop a secondary project that can be your passion.
- Important demographics of Peace Corps members: Ninety percent of Peace Corps members have at least a four-year degree. Additionally, more than 130 colleges will give you credit for service and some have Masters’ Degree programs you can work on while abroad. Sixty percent of current participants are female. Only 7 percent of those in the Peace Corps are married. Less than 40 percent of current Peace Corps members are in Africa. Latin America draws a great deal of volunteers too.
- The Peace Corps does offer advantages over other volunteer programs in development countries. It works closely with American embassies, since the members are technically government employees. Each country has an emergency-action plan that includes closing the Peace Corps activities in that country and evacuating volunteers, if need be. The Peace Corps staff gets medical care, vaccinations and such for free, and works to make sure the homes volunteers go to are safe.
Lastly, unlike in movies, getting into the Peace Corps takes time. If you are considering it, allow almost a year for the entire process, with interviews and such. Get in touch with former Peace Corps volunteers, maybe even someone who served in the country or region in which you are interested. They can tell you when to expect from the experience and what it was like returning home and getting a job afterwards.
Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Peace Corps – TIME
Fast Facts – PeaceCorps.gov
25 Fun Facts – PeaceCorps.gov