By Sara Fullerton
A couple weeks ago, you may have noticed a Peace Corps recruiter in the University Center lobby. In case you’ve been curious about the organization but haven’t looked into it yet, I hope to offer some important background information here.
Peace Corps is a government agency of the United States that sends volunteers to locations in over 60 countries to do direct service in one of six areas: agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health or youth in development. Accepted volunteers agree to serve for two years.
Peace Corps partnerships are established at the request of the host country or organization. Volunteers are trained to work directly with community members, providing education and resources that will sustain the work after the volunteer departs. They look for applicants with past experience in their desired area of work.
Competitiveness varies with the program. The education sector is most popular and largest. The agriculture sector is most in need of volunteers.
Anthropology professor Joyce Millen and Spanish instructor Julie Veltman both served in the Peace Corps shortly after graduating from college. Their personal experiences offer an antidote to the simplifications that often come from a website or recruiter aiming to promote an organization.
One major takeaway I gleaned from my conversations with Veltman and Millen is that one must interrogate and complicate their vague sense of wanting to do good in the world. This starts by coming to a place with an understanding of its history.
Veltman says, “It is important to understand the role of the US Government in creating and perpetuating policies that exacerbate poverty in many countries. In a perfect world, the structures wouldn’t have been created where [this] kind of work [is] needed . . . I feel good about the work I did . . . But I do see the way in which that work is complicit in a larger system of creating these inequities.”
This said, Veltman reflected that it is easy to get “frozen” in the idea that “no organization is pure enough, in which case one ends up doing nothing.”
One should approach service with the understanding that they will not have the tools or insight to improve conditions immediately. As Veltman says, “If it were that easy, if a 21 year old were able to do that, then it would’ve happened a long time ago.”
Choosing to serve in Peace Corps shortly after college — as many volunteers do — means coming to the work at a highly impressionable age. Volunteers like Millen look back and realize how invaluable it was for them to “grow up,” in a sense, in the location they served. She said that the locals where she worked in Senegal were “more comfortable in their skin” than many people she had known back home.
At the same time, living in a foreign environment will put you in contact with realities you had no previous framework to hold, and for this reason, the questions of whether and where to apply should be visited with care and attentiveness to one’s own limits and needs.
Applicants can either select a specific program, or submit a general application for Peace Corps to place them in progress based on skills and experience.
While putting in a general application allows higher likelihood for acceptance, Millen cautions that “where you go matters tremendously.”
The choice to apply blindly should not be taken lightly. As Millen says, “It’s a risky few years, and the people who go through it are emboldened, and come out strong with quite a sort of armor. But it’s not for the light of heart.”
There are intensive trainings upon acceptance: pre-service, mid-service and upon completion. Typically, all volunteers accepted to one program train together in that country and are then split up to work in different communities. Working individually offers volunteers a better chance to integrate into the local environment, where they often live with community members.
Pre-service training is multi-dimensional, offering language, technical skills and health and safety training.
The Peace Corps application is free, and all costs associated with the position, including flights, medical care et cetera, are covered. Volunteers are offered compensation for living expenses about equal to the average income in the community they live. Once home, volunteers receive $8,000 (pre-tax) to use as they wish as they transition back. Volunteering also opens up opportunities for reduced tuition rates and stipends for graduate schools.
Typically, applications are posted about 11 months before departure. Applications are due about eight months pre-departure date, and applicants learn if they’ve been accepted about four months beforehand.