Like many teenagers, I had no clue what the Peace Corps was until I was around 16 years old and in high school. It was usually around Career Day when every military-styled establishment from the Coast Guard to the Marines would set up their small table with the American flag backdrop, full of paper pamphlets and free ink pens.
I didn’t pay much attention to any of them really because at 16 years old, the military wasn’t on my radar (excuse the pun) at all. A career wasn’t really on my to-do list either, but I was generally interested in what each branch had to offer. Partial to the Air Force myself, the Peace Corps stood out to me because I wasn’t very keen on the idea of “War” and this group had “Peace” right in their name which, to me, indicated that I was less likely to die somewhere!
My curiosity was now piqued. I had no clue what they did. Were they even military? Did you get to use weapons? Was there a boot camp? So I wanted to know what the deal was. The gentleman at the table gave me the standard and generic facts about the organization: a soft power volunteer program started in 1961 that helped and aided foreign countries with social, technical and economic issues in the main area of development in over one hundred and thirty countries worldwide.
My first question was: “What does soft power mean?” The guy wasn’t all that much older than I was at the time so his answer didn’t really answer my question at all. I was still curious and wanted to know more about the agency. So, as I had no access to the Internet at sixteen, it was off to the library.
My trip to the library answered my question about what soft power was. The gist is that soft power utilizes cooperation and transparency where as hard or firm power uses more coercion and force. That was the the first interesting thing about the agency that I learned and I continued researching the Peace Corps I learned more interesting things about them.
The second thing I learned was that no, you are not deployed to a war-torn hostile country, despite what a lot of people believe. In fact, as stated in their Fact Sheet, your safety while abroad is of the utmost importance. They train you and support you with financial and housing support as well. So, people who tell you that the Peace Corps drops you into the middle of a war zone are sadly misinformed.
Number three and I heard this one from my Uncle a lot: “You don’t even speak their language.” Most people probably believe that you need to be fluent in the local language where you would be serving but that’s not true. The first three months of your service are spent training intensely and one of those training items is the language you will be speaking. However, it is true that you might not ever become fluent in whichever language you are learning but “NO!” they do not place you without assisting you with the language.
Number four and this one is more of a present day misnomer that I have heard and read too much. The Peace Corps will not let you serve if you are married or in a domestic same-sex partnership and if you do enlist, you will be forced to be away from your spouse for the entire time you serve. Not true. Unlike the major military branches where you are separated from your spouse, the Peace Corps allows married couples of any orientation to serve together. However, if you aren’t married, the likelihood of being placed with your loved one goes down tremendously.
Lastly, it’s not all bells, whistles and peace and education. Sometimes, the Peace Corp winds up involved in political quagmires. in 2007, while serving, volunteers (including a Fullbright Scholar John Alexander van Schaick) received an unusual request from a U.S. Embassy Official while serving in Bolivia, to “Spy” (for the “War on Terror”) on “Cuban and Venezuelans in the country” which was a direct violation of United State policy. At an orientation and security briefing “I was told to provide the names, addresses and activities of any Venezuelan or Cuban doctors or field workers I come across during my time here” van Schaick stated. While this is not a reflection of how the U.S. Peace Corps operates, it is an interesting occurrence in Peace Corps history.