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The Real Peace Corps

Cross-Cultural Exchange Makes It Worthwhile

A boy sits pensively in one Peace Corps volunteer's village in Burkino Faso.

President Kennedy told me to ask what I can do for my country. President Carter taught me to share with my neighbors my caring and my labor. President Clinton reminded me that I have an obligation to the people of the world to help them make the most of their own lives. And so, like so many idealistic college graduates, I responded to the rhetoric and signed up for the Peace Corps.

While overall my Peace Corps experience was good, I now have a different view of it than when I joined over two years ago. There is a lot the government doesn’t tell you about being a volunteer that can only be learned through experience.

The Toughest Job You May or May Not Love

Many people join the Peace Corps to help the people of the third world. While this attitude is good to go in with, most of the volunteers I met became disillusioned with their work by their second year. Much of their work receives little support from the Peace Corps’ administration in country. Volunteers sometimes find it difficult to motivate host country counterparts or, in extreme cases, they find their work not welcome at all.

Though work is an important reason to have volunteers in a country, it makes up only one-third of the Peace Corps’ goals. The other two goals, to help people of other countries learn about Americans and to help Americans learn about people from other countries, I feel are what makes Peace Corps worthwhile. It is through this cross-cultural exchange that prejudices are toppled, boarders are erased, and friendships are forged.

It is important to remember, however, that just because Peace Corps is an American government agency does not mean you as a volunteer have to support government policy or preach American doctrine. This misconception turns a lot of people off the Peace Corps. In many places where volunteers serve the volunteer is the only American the local people will ever meet. You don’t have to be a goodwill ambassador for America. Simply by being friendly, culturally sensitive, and hard-working, you give people a good impression of Americans. Also, keep in mind that volunteers serve in countries only at the invitation of the host government; therefore, Peace Corps is not a tool of American imperialism.

The 2-Year Vacation

After an intense 3-month training program in the host country, volunteers are sent to their various posts around the country. From then on it is up to the individual how much work he or she wants to accomplish. With little supervision from Peace Corps administration, a motivated volunteer can complete all his or her work and still have time to travel within the host country. Additionally, each volunteer receives two days of vacation per month or 48 days over two years, which can be used to travel to other countries in the region or back to the U.S. for a visit.

At the end of service Peace Corps gives every volunteer either a plane ticket back to the U.S. or the cash equivalent. Many volunteers take advantage of the latter option and use the opportunity to take an extended trip before returning home.

What’s in It For Me?

Though no one joins the Peace Corps to get rich, the organization does provide some financial incentives. From the first day as a Peace Corps volunteer until the day service ends, all expenses are paid. This includes roundtrip airfare, housing in country, and a living allowance. Additionally, Peace Corps provides medical and dental coverage and will evacuate a volunteer with a health problem that can’t be taken care of in country. Upon completion of service, Peace Corps gives each volunteer roughly $6,000 to help you get resettled in the U.S.

The opportunities for personal growth far outweigh the financial benefits of Peace Corps. In many cases, volunteers learn one or two foreign languages. Volunteers also learn a great deal about the countries in which they serve. Peace Corps is well respected among graduate schools and employers. Having been a volunteer looks great on a resume and the Peace Corps is a good starting place for a career in international development or the Foreign Service.

It’s Not for Everyone

For many people, their 27-month tour will be one of the most challenging things they ever do. As a volunteer you will be bored, you will be lonely, and you will get some sort of exotic illness. You will need a good sense of humor, heaps of flexibility, and donkey carts full of patience. You will have to lower your comfort level and raise your tolerance level.

Some volunteers don’t finish a full 27-month tour. Peace Corps gives you the option of quitting and going home at any time with no penalty.

Though I sometimes question the value of the work I accomplished, overall I am glad that I served in the Peace Corps and I recommend it to anyone with an adventurous spirit, a giving heart, and two spare years on their hands. As long as you approach it with realistic expectations and realize you probably won’t change the world, you will have a rewarding Peace Corps experience.

Peace Corps Information

The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President Kennedy. Today 7,500 volunteers serve in 71 countries in Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc countries, Asia, and the South Pacific.

The application process can take up to nine months and involves recommendations and an interview. Perspective volunteers can list regions where they would prefer to serve in and refuse an invitation to serve in a country in order to wait for an assignment in a different country.

Applicants must be Americans and at least 18 years old. There is no upper age limit. Most volunteers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, while those without have relevant work experience.

Training is three months in country and is rigorous. It includes language, cross-cultural, technical, and health components.

Assignments are for 24 months and are in the areas of education, health/HIV AIDS, environment, agriculture, and business development.

For more information contact Peace Corps at 800-424-8580 or www.peacecorps.gov.

MATT BROWN was a Peace Corps English teacher in a village in Guinea from 2001-2003. He is now a freelance writer and photographer living in northern California.