Remember the Peace Corps? That non-profit hippy organization where young and earnest volunteers flocked in t-shirts and shorts to places like the jungles of Africa to help the starving people of the world? Well, it’s still going strong with almost eight thousand volunteers in 75 countries all over the world. Some things have changed – you have as many volunteers teaching Information Technology in Bulgaria and Business Administration in Romania as you do teaching Community Development in Ghana and Forestry in Cameroon. But the basic mission of Peace Corps is the same. Peace Corps volunteers help people overseas, learn from them and bring back that learning to the United States. For Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), this is a lifelong process. There is no such thing as an “ex-volunteer”.
The Peace Corps started in 1961 as part of John Kennedy’s exhortation of young Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a foreign aid agency of volunteers that would work at a grassroots level in the Third World. The original Peace Corps volunteers had to go through a battery of physical, educational and psychological tests when they applied. The current application process is as rigorous in its own way as the old one for prospective volunteers, but a lot more of making through it is up to you.
To join Peace Corps, you first need to fill out an application. You can download this off the official site. Many apply to Peace Corps but few get in because most people drop out during this phase of the application process. The recruiters will be most interested in any volunteer experience you have, as well as practical skills in agriculture or other technical areas and, perhaps most important of all, foreign language skills. They also generally look for a college degree in prospective Peace Corps volunteers. It is possible to join Peace Corps without very much education if you have a lot of practical experience (if you’ve run a farm or a business, for example) and some very young people have become volunteers. However, your chances will be much better with a college degree, some volunteer experience and training in at least one language under your belt. For example, South and Central America are very competitive regions for volunteers. So, if you want to go there, learn some Spanish first. Despite its broad focus, Peace Corps, like all government aid agencies, has a specific focus for its volunteers. When you join, you should keep that focus in mind.
While applying, also keep in mind that you will need to be flexible and that Peace Corps volunteers give up 27-29 months of their lives (training periods vary between three and five months depending on the type of program). You will also need to clear or otherwise take care of any major debts you may have before you join Peace Corps. But try not to be too hard on yourself during your self-evaluation. Many people psych themselves out because they are afraid of bugs or going without email or some other thing that will seem irrelevant once they actually become volunteers.
If you make it through the initial Peace Corps application process (most people do if they persevere), you will next have to get a medical clearance. Many people don’t make it past this process, but if you have a health problem, you can negotiate on some things – say, only going to certain countries that can accommodate your medical condition.
If you pass the initial application process, and medical and security clearances, Peace Corps will nominate you to a region and a general type of program. This process can take a month or two or it can take up to a year. A lot of it depends on any personal complications but also on outside forces that you can’t control. Peace Corps is a government bureaucracy and as such, can move very slowly. Watch out about complaining too much during this process, though – joining Peace Corps is not quick. A near-universal experience of Peace Corps volunteers is dealing with the even slower and more arbitrary bureaucracies of developing countries. This process is, in fact, an informal test of your patience when you join. Many applicants grow frustrated and either quit or get themselves deselected while dealing with the Peace Corps bureaucracy. It’s a common mistake. Don’t make it.
Finally, you will receive an invitation from Peace Corps to a specific group of trainee volunteers leaving at a specific time for a specific country. Different volunteer programs leave on different schedules throughout the year, most commonly in the spring or fall. If you get your nomination right after a deadline, you may have to wait a few more months for the Peace Corps program that you want. Also, you may get some strange invitations to programs and countries you didn’t ask for since Peace Corps has volunteer quotas to fill for each program and country. It’s up to you whether you accept or reject them, though you should be cautious about saying ‘no’ too many times. It may get you labeled as “inflexible” and therefore unsuitable as a volunteer. That said, if you have your heart set on a program and/or country, have made your wants clear, are willing to wait and know there’s an appropriate training group coming up, you may be able to hold out for it. This part of the Peace Corps application process is somewhat flexible.
Once you receive your invitation from Peace Corps, you will also get a date to go. You will receive a welcome packet telling you about your volunteer program and your host country. Read through it closely, but also talk to volunteers who have served or are currently serving in the country. They will have information not in the Peace Corps packet. Remember that you only get 80 pounds’ allowance to bring with you to training and that you can get things overseas or have people send you things.
When the day arrives, you will take a flight, usually to Washington D.C., where you will meet with your group of fellow trainee volunteers. After an orientation period of around a week, Peace Corps flies you off together to your host country for three-to-five months’ training. Some more technical Peace Corps programs will start off with a month or two of training in the U.S., first. In your host country, you will learn the skills necessary to do your job as a volunteer as well as necessary language and culture skills. Many Peace Corps trainees live with host families during training to facilitate the process of adjusting to the culture. Toward the end of your Peace Corps training, you will receive your post assignment.
Should you pass your training successfully, you will be sworn in with the rest of your group. Only then will you be a full-fledged Peace Corps volunteer and can be said to have joined the Peace Corps. After that, you go out to your post and start in on your new adventure. Good luck!