9 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Joining the Peace Corps

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The U.S. Peace Corps is (in their own words) the “toughest job you’ll ever love.”

As many Peace Corps veterans will tell you, there’s usually an unpleasant or startling moment when you truly realize what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Perhaps it’s when you’re staying in a small village somewhere and you can’t sleep because it’s so intensely hot, there’s no air conditioning in your room and because flies keep landing on your face.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s when you first come face-to-face with real, genuine poverty as you witness street kids scavenging for food.

Whatever that moment is, its appearance will most likely instantly destroy whatever romantic imagery you had of the Peace Corps and replace it with the cold, hard truth of your predicament – that you’ve signed up for two years of tough, hard work that will test you to your very limits.

No matter how much preparation you do, nothing will truly prepare you for what’s in store.

Of course, joining the Peace Corps and participating in their volunteer programs is an amazing thing to do (and I truly doubt if anyone has ever regretted it), but there is no doubt that the Peace Corps isn’t for everyone and that it will be a tough journey for all who sign up.

So if you think you’re ready to pack your bags for a 24 month assignment in the Peace Corps, here are 9 questions you should ask yourself (that should help determine whether the Peace Corps is really for you) before you take the plunge :

Question 1 – Why Do You Want to Join the Peace Corps? What Are Your Motives?

Dedicating two years of your life to help those less fortunate than yourself is a noble thing to do, but it is wise to first consider WHY you want to undertake this task.

Although your answer to this question will no-doubt be “Because I want to help others”, this may not be your only motive (since being completely altruistic is rare), so it’s important you figure out your other motives/reasons for joining the Peace Corps, as they may impact how your time there is spent, how much you enjoy it and what you get out of it at the end.

For example, are you looking to visit and explore a certain country? Are you looking to experience something new? What you hoping to learn new skills?

Do you want to join the Peace Corps because you want to make a real difference in the world and help those less fortunate than yourself? Or are you joining the Peace Corps because you want to look good and impress people (particularly members of the opposite sex)?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing things to impress others and to make yourself a more attractive person, but when things get tough, if your heart isn’t in the job and you don’t have a deep desire to help the people your program is designed to you may find yourself struggling.

Although the Peace Corps’ programs are designed with the intention of helping those less fortunate than yourself, it should be noted that you won’t be spending 100% of your time helping others. There will typically be large chunks of your day where you have nothing specific to do, so having ulterior motives (i.e. other things that you want to do/accomplish/see) can actually benefit you during these times.

Peace Corps

Question 2 – Are You Prepared Be Away from Home for 2 Years?

Joining the Peace Corps requires a 27 month commitment. This consists of 3 months of in-country training and 24 months of volunteer service.

Let’s think about that for a second… 24 months is a longggggg time.

Being away from home for this long can be a struggle for some people, and although you’ll be able to stay in contact with those back home, you’ll still miss your homely creature comforts.

Even when things are going well and you’re happy, you’ll still miss your friends and family and all the little things (such as your own bed, your dog and your favorite foods) back home.

Many people try to distract themselves from missing their friends and family by staying busy. Although it’s important to keep yourself busy during your time abroad, don’t feel like you always have to be working (as you’ll quickly burn yourself out). Taking some time to relax after a hard day’s work is essential in order to prepare you for the next day.

Of course, it’s highly likely that in your 2 years abroad you’ll have some free time to do whatever you want, so take this time to go and explore your new (temporary) homeland and to meet new people. Making new friends is often the best way to ease the pain of leaving behind friends at home.

Question 3 – Are You Over-Romanticizing the Peace Corps?

A little romance never hurt anyone, but if your idea of the Peace Corps is jetting off to an exotic, sun-soaked, faraway land and doing the occasional odd-job in between sipping cocktails, you may be in for a shock.

As the world has evolved, so too has the Peace Corps. Many volunteers will bring their laptops along with them, and will use them to Skype back home or to watch the multitude of movies stored on their hard-drives.

Despite your relatively sparse or impoverished surroundings, you may be surprised to see the occasional smartphone (owned by a local) and that electricity and internet connectivity are not as rare as you might think.

In addition to this, while most of your working time will be spent working on community projects, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to write reports and provide regular updates about the projects you’ve been working on.

Question 4 – How Patient Are You (or How Patient Can You Be?)

If you’re fairly impatient (like me), you will feel the urge to rush forward and complete your project in the Peace Corps (or do whatever it is you’re doing) as quickly as possible.

In the Peace Corps, the projects you’ll be doing are designed to last for the two years of your service, meaning you can’t just finish it in 6 months (if you’re quick) and go home early.

Patience is something that you must have (or must learn to cultivate if you don’t have it already), as there will be countless times during your service when you’re simply waiting about for things to happen.

Everything will move at a slow pace, including progress on your project. Maintaining motivation over a two year period can therefore be difficult for some people, as continuous setbacks and delays can make it seem like you’ll never achieve your goal.

Fortunately, the Peace Corps has found a way of limiting the amount of massively impatient people from joining their program (whether intentionally or not). They have done this by making the Peace Corps application process so incredibly long and arduous that it instantly weeds out those not suited to a more patient lifestyle right away.

Although the application itself is pretty straightforward, you will be expected fill out endless forms detailing your health history and you’ll also be asked about your relationships, meaning that only the most persistent will get through it.

Essentially, the people at the Peace Corps are trying to weed out anyone who might have a strong reason to come home early (as taking volunteers on and training them is a massive cost to them), which is why they’re looking for self-assured, healthy people with a minimal amount of emotional ties back home.

Even if you do manage to get through the initial application, all they will tell you is that you’ll ‘be given a placement in a program somewhere within the next year’. Even if you are lucky enough to be told which region you’ll be going to, it’s likely that the description of this ‘region’ will be incredibly vague (and thousands of miles in size), giving you no real idea of where you’ll be placed.

Surviving all of these steps (without going crazy) and making it to the end obviously requires a large amount of patience, which is why it’s important to ask yourself whether you think you can go the distance or not.

Question 5 – Are You Prepared to Adjust to Another Culture?

Judging by some of the accounts on the ‘A Day in the Life of the Peace Corps’ page, some of the places where the Peace Corps operates are very different to the western world. Here are a few examples:

Breakfast can be many things: fried spaghetti, boiled plantains, an egg and bread … Today will be a big day. I have a meeting scheduled for 9:00 dealing with a goat-breeding program we have initiated. However, I know it will most likely start at 10:30, as meetings occur after the daily routines such as caring for animals, fetching water, cooking breakfast, and sending the kids to school. Long ago, I disregarded the hands of my watch and instead wait for my neighbors to leave their house as they pass me to go to the center.” – Isaac Redig, Haiti

I start each day at 6 a.m. with a warm bucket bath and, while my supply lasts, a cup of Guatamalan coffee … I may have to contend with ants, swabbing out my flat after heavy rains.” – Maura Varley, Belize

After my bucket bath I head to school. Though it’s incredibly hot during the summers, I enjoy my half-hour walk. The children walk beside me, laughing and screaming. I negotiate herds of goats, cattle, sometimes deep mud and large oscines (shallow pools of water), depending on the season. My school is small, with three stick sheds and two concrete classrooms. I spend most of the day with my teachers, observing classes, giving demonstration lessons, and holding after-school workshops on various teaching techniques.” – Julie Maurin, Namibia

If you live in a big American city, you’ll no doubt be used to a fast-paced life. You may have to get used to slowing down, starting  meetings with a communal prater and watching as sunny afternoons drift by despite there being things to do and work to be done.

Breaking down the cultural barrier is a lot easier once you have a grasp on the local language, as it’ll allow you to talk to (and relate with) the locals on a personal level.

It’s important to respect the local way of living wherever you’re placed. This might mean adhering to the local dress codes, taking note of their customs and ensuring that you don’t inadvertently offend them.

The fact that the Peace Corps service lasts for two years is not unintentional – there’s a good reason for it lasting so long. Over the period of two years, you’ll have the time to really immerse yourself in and understand the foreign culture of the country you’re staying in. It will also give the locals a chance to interact with you and get a better understanding of your culture.

When the Peace Corps was established, three simple goals were laid out:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

As you can see, the second and third goals here are all about promoting cultural understanding. Over the course of the two years, there will be many times eating meals and many long afternoons which you‘ll spend conversing with locals. During these occasions, bit by bit, cultural understanding will be gradually improving thus completing two thirds of the Peace Corps’ mission.

Tonga Dancing

Question 6 – Are You Prepared to ‘Pay Your Dues’?

Wherever your Peace Corps assignment takes you, you will have to ‘pay your dues’ in one way or another.

No matter how much training you’ve done (at home or on-site), if you’re working with someone (e.g. a farmer) who has been doing their job for their entire life, they’re not going to be interested in the opinion of some foreigner who can’t properly speak the local language and who claims to know everything.

Even if you are skilled and have experience in what you’re doing, it may take time for the locals to trust you and respect your opinion.

Because of the fact that some aid agencies don’t deliver on what they promise (or don’t involve the members of the community in their plans as much as they should), locals may be (rightfully) skeptical of you and your apparent interest to help them, and will be wary of investing too much time and energy into you until you’ve proven yourself to them.

Make sure your actions speak louder than your words, and take every opportunity to show them how committed you are to helping them.

Question 7 – Are Your Prepared to Witness & Experience Poverty First-hand?

Due to the nature of the areas where most Peace Corps programs take place, it’s likely that you will encounter/witness poverty at some point (especially if you’re going to a large city).

You may meet people who can’t afford to send their children to school or take their sick baby to visit the doctor.

You may meet people (of all ages) who are homeless and living on the streets or who’s crops have all dried up and have no food to eat.

Hearing about poverty and seeing it on television is very different to actually being there and realizing it for yourself first hand. The truth and magnitude of the issue can be a lot of take in, so it’s a good idea to mentally prepare yourself for what you may see before visiting any of these deprived areas.

Question 8 – Are You Prepared to Change?

After returning home from 2 years abroad, you will no doubt realize that you’ve change massively (in more ways that you can possibly imagine). You will also find that the world you left behind won’t have changed a whole lot in your absence, and that everything (and everyone) is pretty much the same.

Unexpectedly, one of the hardest things about being in the Peace Corps is returning home again after the 2 years are up.

“You may wonder, ‘How can I leave it all behind if I am just coming back to it? How can I make a new beginning if I simply return to the old?’ The answer lies in the return. You will not come back to the ‘same old thing.’ What you return to has changed because you have changed. Your perceptions will be altered. You will not incorporate into the same body, status, or world you left behind. The river has been flowing while you were gone. Now it does not look like the same river.” – Steven Foster

Expect your family and friends’ interest in your 2 years abroad to fade pretty quickly, and expect those who ask about your service to  expect you to be able to summarize your time abroad in just a few short sentences.

It is difficult to explain and summarize two years of life changing work in just a few short sentences, yet most people won’t be interested in listening for any longer than that (despite your willingness and excitement to talk).

Although the world you’re returning to won’t have changed a whole lot in your absence, because of how you’ve changed, you’ll notice things and care about things that you didn’t previously.

For example, after two years of living in an impoverished country, you’ll be appalled at how much people waste water or throw away food that’s perfectly good. You’ll be amazed at how self-consumed some people are, and how people can be so annoyed and wrapped up in petty things that don’t matter.

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

While the above quotation may sound exciting (and means you can explore your hometown as if it were a foreign land and have all the benefits that come with doing so), ‘knowing your home for the first time’ means that you’ll inevitably feel like a stranger in a place that was once so familiar.

Your friends and family will no doubt expect you to slot right back in to ‘normal’ life upon returning, as you’ve ‘had your fun’. For many it is not as simple as that.

Readjusting to the western lifestyle will take time. There are Peace Corps alumni groups to help ease you through this process, and it’s good to stay in touch with your fellow volunteers as they’ll most likely be the only people who will understand what you’re going through.

For more on this, check out this post.

Question 9 – Are You Ready to Commit?

While joining the Peace Corps is a noble undertaking, there’s no point signing up if you’re going to give up and go home after a month.

In addition to this, even if you do plan on going the distance, if you’re not prepared to throw yourself into the experience and you’re just planning on coasting through and doing the least amount possible (whilst dreaming of being back home) you’ll be wasting your time and the time of the organizers trying to accommodate you.

As with so many things in life, the more you put in, the more you will get out of the experience.

Joining the Peace Corps will give you the opportunity to live an amazing life where you’ll learn new skills, meet new interesting people and experience things most people can only dream of. It is difficult to achieve these things, however, if you aren’t prepared to commit to the program and to step outside of your comfort zone.

You will eat weird foods (no doubt made from brains, testicles or eyeballs), you will have to live without your Xbox for two years and you will feel like you’re perpetually in need of a shower, but in the end, you’ll be the better for it.

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’ is a Peace Corps Agency public service announcement film made in 1978. Those interested in joining the service should check it out:

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