Volunteering with the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps started as an idea that Sen. John F. Kennedy proposed to students at the University of Michigan. Kennedy challenged students to live and work in the developing world, and in so doing, to expand their understanding of different cultures and help bring peace and cooperation to the world.

Eventually, that challenge grew into a government agency whose guiding mission is promoting world peace and friendship.

The Peace Corps is a different kind of job on many levels. First of all, workers are volunteers. During their time in service, they receive a small salary that is enough for them to live in a manner similar to the residents of the community they serve. For most US citizens, that manner of living is significantly different from what they are accustomed to. When volunteers finish their term of service (27 months), they receive a stipend of about $7,000 to help them transition back into their stateside lives. Volunteers can use that money in any way they like – some people choose to travel, others use it as a cushion while job searching, and some put it toward a down-payment on a house.

Another unique aspect of the Peace Corps is that it requires traveling to a third-world country, where volunteers live and work inside a host community. Many Americans travel to third-world countries on vacation. You might have visited Costa Rica or Jamaica and stayed in a glitzy tourist resort. With the Peace Corps, you might go to those same countries and see an entirely different world. These communities are not targeted toward tourists; they are the reality of the developing world. The cultures and habits of the residents may be completely contrary to your personal view of life, but as a Peace Corps volunteer, it is your mission to integrate and mesh into this local community.

The standards of behavior in host communities may differ significantly, and things you took for granted in your college dorm room may be simply impermissible. For example, interactions between men and women often have much different rules in developing countries. Where it might have been all right for men and women friends to hang out in the dorm room until the wee hours of the morning back in the states, when you are in-country, that practice could lead to serious consequences. Also, manner of dress in host countries is likely to be different, and you will have to follow the standard of the community. That may mean leaving the Daisy-Duke shorts back home and adopting a more conservative style. Part of the Peace Corps training involves preparing you for all the cultural differences you will encounter, and training you to blend in with your hosts, which is critical for maintaining positive relationships.

A big concern for many potential volunteers (and their families) is how they will live on next-to-nothing for two years.

Sometimes, potential volunteers get the idea that only the wealthy can afford to join the Peace Corps. First of all, it is important to take a long-term view of the situation. Peace Corps jobs offer real-world experience that you just can’t get anywhere else. Your future employers recognize this, and they also recognize what committing to two years of volunteer service says about you – that you are willing to work for the greater good and that you aren’t entirely focused on instant gratification. Plus, in a global economy, first-hand experience in foreign cultures is invaluable. In other words, your short-term financial sacrifice is likely to pay off in a lot of different ways in the long-term. Add to this the fact that many types of student loan payments may be deferred during the time you are in-country, and the fact that your cost of living in your host country will be extremely low, and the bargain sounds better and better.

For many people right out of college, the first jobs are all about getting experience that you can use in later jobs. They are just a foot in the door while you figure out “what you want to do with your life.” The Peace Corps will give you incomparable experience that you can take anywhere once you leave. It will also provide you with an excellent network of fellow PC volunteers who can help with advice and career planning throughout the rest of your life. Most importantly, it will give you a new perspective on life.

The Peace Corps isn’t just for recent grads, either. Although you must be at least 18, there is no upper age limit; the oldest Peace Corps volunteer to date was in their 80s. The Peace Corps does not require a four-year degree – many people have valuable career experience in construction or agriculture that the organization values highly.

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