Joining the Peace Corps can be an amazing, enriching experience, but if you’re not prepared, it can also be disorienting and terrifying. By understanding some key elements of being a Peace Corps volunteer and properly preparing for your service, your two years of service can be two of the best years of your life.
About the Peace Corps
Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps is a United States government volunteer program designed to promote world peace, international cooperation, and cross-cultural assistance and understanding. Volunteers serve two-year assignments, plus three months of initial training, and can focus in a number of broad areas, including education, health, business, agriculture, and the environment. More than 215,000 volunteers have participated in Peace Corps assignments in projects covering more than 135 countries. Today, two-thirds of the organization’s volunteers are male, most are in their mid- to late-20s, and are single. While projects are available throughout the world, the majority of assignments are found in Africa and Latin America.
Preparing to Be a Peace Corps Volunteer
1. Know When to Apply
Joining the Peace Corps isn’t a decision to be made lightly, and the application process can’t be completed in an hour. Ideally, you should apply 9-12 months prior to your anticipated departure date in order for all paperwork to be properly completed. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens, and many already have college degrees in fields related to projects they hope to help. If you are considering applying for the Peace Corps as part of a career change or transition, be sure to allot enough application processing time, and if you hope to join right out of college, apply a year ahead of your graduation.
2. Understand Poverty
Even the most impoverished Americans have access to clean water, basic shelter, food, education, and medical assistance that can be considered stunning luxuries in many parts of the world. Serving in a country where poverty may mean no clean water, inadequate food, no health care, and at best a shack for shelter can be a culture shock that could convince even the most enthusiastic volunteer to abandon their service. To better understand the poverty and experiences you may encounter, learn more about conditions in areas of the world where you may serve. Books from former volunteers such as Living Poor (Moritz Thomsen), Dodging Machetes (Will Lutwick), and Tubob: Two Years in West Africa With the Peace Corps (Mary Trimble) provide a candid, thorough look at what you can expect.
3. Pack Appropriately
Basics for your health and safety will be provided by the Peace Corps, including mosquito netting, water filters, sunscreen, and other necessities, depending on the type of assignment you have and where you will be serving, and you will be provided a small stipend for other essentials. What you will want to pack are supplies to help you adjust to your surroundings to alleviate culture shock and minimize stress. Bring along photos, a favorite book or two, or even a supply of candy or treats you know you’d miss. Those comfort items can help you adjust to your service and feel more at ease in your volunteer home.
4. Learn the Language
While it is not necessary to be fluent in a foreign language to join the Peace Corps, understanding a few basic phrases of native languages in the area you will be serving can be immensely helpful in acclimating to your new location and will help you learn the rest of the language more quickly. If you know your assignment early enough, try to pick up some basic language ease, but steer clear of “common” languages – it’s unlikely that you’ll be speaking French, German, Spanish, or Italian in the Peace Corps. Volunteers often serve in more isolated areas and learn to speak more unusual tongues, such as Patois (Jamaica), Tagalog (Philippines), Azeri (Azerbaijan), Bambara (Mali), Kiswahili (Tanzania), and Ixil (Guatemala).
5. Bring Your Passion
The best thing you can do in the Peace Corps is share your passion with others. While all volunteers have a primary assignment – helping with a health care clinic, teaching, planting crops, etc. – secondary projects are highly encouraged and can focus on your personal interests. You may teach native villagers yoga, help the local population learn about native wildlife, or start a local soccer league. Those smaller projects are no less meaningful and can be some of the best memories you bring back from the Peace Corps, if you’re prepared to share your passion during your service.
After you’ve served in the Peace Corps, you join an elite group of volunteers that includes Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, construction and home improvement guru Bob Vila, mother of President Jimmy Carter Lillian Carter, former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, astronaut Joe Acaba, and hundreds of journalists, ambassadors, senators, mayors, artists, CEOs, professors, and other influential people throughout the country. By being prepared for your experience and knowing what to expect as a volunteer, you can better enjoy your years of service and make the most of every moment for yourself as well as those you are helping.