Jay A. Minert, University of Hawaii at Hilo
While it has been several years since I was a Peace Corps recruiter, I still find myself engaged in familiar dialogue: An advisee will look at my wall, see pictures of my Peace Corps experience, and exclaim, "I want to do that!" Whether preparing for a Study Abroad program or showing interest in international service opportunities such as Peace Corps, these students appreciate having frank and honest discussions about the realities of living overseas. This article provides points of consideration for advisors who know similar students.
In speaking with students, I first make it clear that I no longer officially represent the Peace Corps agency, and that my views are my own (which is true for this article as well). I advise students to research the Peace Corps Web site (www.peacecorps.gov) and contact a current Peace Corps representative to discuss their interest in service. Speaking with returned Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) can also be helpful as we each have our own unique story to tell. I served in Belize, where I ran a conservation corps for inner-city youth, and in Palau, where I implemented environmental education projects. Each PCV experience is unique; even those who serve in the same country can have very different experiences.
What makes Peace Corps so difficult that it is touted as the 'toughest job you'll ever love?' Since there can be millions of potentially challenging scenarios, I advise prospective PCVs to reflect on what might challenge them overseas. It is important to recognize that PCVs face unique challenges that depend largely on the individual's circumstance. Sure, there are those "typical" difficulties (language barriers, homesickness, big bugs, living amongst poverty, etc.), but personal characteristics such as age, ethnic background, sexual orientation, dietary constraints, and health considerations represent a myriad of issues which can translate into unique challenges for any PCV. For example, PCVs of color may be perceived differently than white PCVs; a vegetarian might struggle at a dinner where she is the guest of honor and goat the entree. The aim is to assist applicants in discovering what their own challenges will likely be and how they intend to respond to those challenges - an integral part of the Peace Corps application process.
I encourage applicants to think about their expectations. Visualizing life as a PCV can elicit romantic images of an exotic, colorful village where small children adoringly follow the PCV who works on profoundly important projects. The truth is always somewhere in the middle: the village may seem exotic at first, but can grow to be quite boring after the initial "honeymoon" phase; intense popularity is great, but a total lack of anonymity can become quite challenging; the village may not be a village at all, but rather a bustling metropolis; and the projects in which the PCV is engaged may not initially seem very significant when compared to the U.S.'s concept of "work." Despite all this, a Peace Corps experience can be profoundly important in ways the PCV never imagined.
The fact is, the more expectations a PCV brings with her, the more chance for disappointment. An applicant wanting to go to Latin America might expect a tropical environment where Spanish is widely spoken; what he might find instead is life on top of a Latin American volcano where it is cold and the primary language is a Maya dialect. PCVs usually arrive with romanticized imagery of what their service will be like, but being able to adjust to the realities of life in a developing country is critical for a successful service.
Applicants should understand that the Peace Corps can be very competitive and there are proactive things they can do while still in college. Making sound academic plans and taking courses in subject areas relevant to a desired assignment area can be beneficial. Gaining meaningful cross-cultural experience, such as Study Abroad or experiences found right here at home, is vital. Establishing a pattern of relevant volunteer activity is very important (whoever heard of someone embarking on a two-year volunteer stint with no previous volunteer experience?). Possessing language skills can be helpful for some assignments, although previous language skills may not be necessary as PCVs gain language proficiency within their country of service.
It is important that applicants reflect on why they want to serve. Many students recognize the career-advancing benefits of doing Peace Corps service. However, in considering service, students should seek a healthy balance between personal goals and pragmatic, genuine altruism.
A final piece of advice: be flexible! Applicants may insist on specific geographical or work preferences that may not be possible to accommodate. After all, the host countries request PCVs, not the other way around. If an applicant demands to be placed in Asia teaching English, but no Asian country is requesting English teachers, then that applicant will need to reassess priorities. Be open to the unknown. Applicants who are willing to serve where their skill sets are most needed find better fits. The more flexible and open PCVs can be, the more likely it is that they will enjoy their experience.
One article cannot succinctly address all of the issues surrounding Peace Corps service. However, it is my hope that this article will serve as a reference point for advisors who counsel students interested in an international living experience such as the Peace Corps. Our world is becoming ever more interconnected, and the ability to examine life from a truly global perspective is a valuable skill that everyone should possess.
Jay A. Minert
University of Hawaii at Hilo
Cite this article using APA style as: Minert, J.A. (2009, June). So you want to join the peace corps: Advising students toward a rewarding international living experience. Academic Advising Today, 32(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]