Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So You Want to Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?


Since being in Rwanda for five months (hard to believe!), I’ve had a few friends and friends-of-friends who are interested in becoming Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) ask me about my experiences, so here’s some food for thought (based on my experience, so take everything with a grain of salt!). Feel free to pass this on to friends or family you know who might be thinking about doing Peace Corps; sometimes it can be hard to gain real knowledge about what the experience is like. 



Pros

If you want to have an experience that is really different from just travelling or even studying abroad in a place, Peace Corps is it. Peace Corps provides intensive cultural and language training (for the first 2-3 months) to help you integrate into your community. People in my village know my name. I can have conversations with people and not always expect them to just know English. I have friends and neighbors here (no, not "people I'm trying to help" or "poor African children". Real relationships). I can say, “I live in Rwanda.” There are so many things that I wouldn’t have learned if I only came for a few days or weeks or months, and I'm still learning all the time. You will question things. You will learn things. And quite honestly, your perspective on life might seriously change.

Safety and security: If you already know that you really want to live/work/volunteer in a developing country (like through one of hundreds of other volunteer programs), Peace Corps does have advantages that many other organizations don't have. Each country has a safety and security officer who keeps abreast of what’s happening in the country, and Peace Corps works closely with American embassies as we are considered government employees, technically. Every country has an emergency-action plan in case the situation gets bad, ending with the closing of Peace Corps in that country and the evacuation of volunteers. We also get amazing medical care from two doctors who work solely for Peace Corps, are available 24/7, and take care of about 140 volunteers total. We receive the necessary vaccinations and medications (i.e. malaria prophylaxis) for free, plus a water filter and mosquito bed net. Peace Corps has a specific set of standards for our homes that help to insure our safety. This isn’t the case for everyone, but I truthfully feel very safe in my community.

An awesome group of other volunteers: past, present, and future: I honestly wouldn’t be able to make it through rough days without the support of my Peace Corps community. Whether it’s just venting, joking around, having fun together, or having my PCV friends assure me I’m not going crazy, we’re there for each other. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get along with every single Peace Corps Volunteer. But I’d say there’s a high proportion of serious, serious gems.
            What’s just as cool is the community of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I’ve had the good experience of knowing a few, and there were awesome at giving me support and advice. There are RPCV groups in every state and all around the world. There are reunions and events, newsletters, and websites. Already I feel really connected to the legacy and history of Peace Corps (that’s over 50 years and over 210,000 volunteers in 139 countries!). I was flipping through an RPCV magazine in Rwanda, and it described the reunion of one of the very first Peace Corps groups sent out back in the 1960s (no internet or cellphones! Gasp!) to Kenya. The RPCVs were now mostly in their seventies, but it just made me so happy to read about their experiences and challenges, and how many of them stayed active in their communities, volunteering, and international affairs. Inspiring stuff.



Financial support: As PCVs, we receive a stipend every month to cover things like housing, food, and transportation. It’s not a lot, but it’s really important. It’s nice not having to worry about whether I’m going to run out of money before my service is over, and not having to pay to volunteer (some organizations charge a couple thousand dollars for a year volunteering!). And if you’re really frugal you can save a bit of money for travelling.

Independence: To some people this may seem a little oxymoronic (see below points under “Government bureaucracy and rules”). But at my site, I do have a lot of freedom in my secondary projects. This can also be a negative, because if you’re not a self-starter/expect to be just handed an exact, precise job description and follow it, good luck. But hey, want to start an avocado project? Start an English club? Host a health event? If you’re willing to put in the work and expect challenges, you can often make it happen. I also have quite a bit of freedom as far as my schedule goes and how I spend my free time.

Job experience. After college, I felt lost in many ways. Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t know what I always wanted to be when I grew up. I toyed with the thought of going to grad school, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something like a law degree and then find out later I hated it. When I thought about my life in 10 years, it basically had a lot of question marks. I have a lot of different interests, and I just couldn’t make a decision. Peace Corps has really, really helped me clarify what my career goals are, and it’s a great way to gain career experience (especially in the areas of education, public health, and international development). It can also help you get out of that “you can’t get a job without experience, but in order to get that experience you have to have a job” conundrum that recent graduates often face. Also, you will totally rock that classic interview question: “Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge in your life….”

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer benefits: I wasn’t really that familiar with all of RPCV benefits when I was applying to Peace Corps, but there are actually a lot! You can postpone some student loans during your PC service. You get a readjustment allowance when you finish your service so you’re not completely destitute. Through the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, you can get a graduate degree in many different fields with scholarships, grants, and tuition remission. And if you’re sure of what you want to study before Peace Corps, you can do the Master International program for graduate school. We also have non-competitive eligibility in getting jobs in the federal government.

Cons

It’s part of the U.S. government, and has some limitations that come with being a government bureaucracy (read: rules, rules, and more rules). Even more fun: each country has a different set of rules. During our two-month training, we had a 6:30 pm curfew. You’re not allowed to bicycle on main roads, ride on motorcycles in Kigali, ever drive any kind of vehicle or moto, accept any kind of payment for services, travel at night, or leave the country without permission. And these are just a few examples! And breaking the rules can have serious consequences, including getting kicked out of Peace Corps. Peace Corps also has a lot of processes, paperwork, acronyms, and it can be slow to adjust/react/change. Additionally, you may be seen as some kind of agent of the US (like a CIA agent or something) instead of the lowly volunteer that you obviously are. (While we are technically considered government employees, it’s illegal for us to have any connection to spying/CIA/FBI…just fyi). This hasn’t been an issue for me at all in Rwanda, but in countries that have tenuous relationships with the U.S., it isn’t uncommon, and it can negatively impact your Peace Corps service if you and your community don’t trust one another.
Be aware that beyond just Peace Corps rules, cultural customs may demand that you behave a certain way. At site, I never wear skirts, dresses, or pants above my knees. In the village, I don’t drink unless it’s at a community event or with the nuns I live with. I don’t really go out of my compound after dark at all in my village.

“It’s dangerous.” I would say that fear of the unknown is the biggest deterrent for most people. Honestly, since Peace Corps is a part of the federal government, Peace Corps staff do try to ensure your safety as best as possible. But, it also depends on your definition of safety, and it depends on where you’re placed. Is doing Peace Corps more dangerous than staying in America? Maybe. Is choosing to live your normal life in America more dangerous than forever living in a bomb shelter? Maybe. But you’d probably say that it’s worth it. I think it’s important to look at the actual facts about safety in Peace Corps. It varies a lot country by country, and reports about crimes committed against volunteers is available online. I’d seriously recommend taking a look at the statistics.

It can get lonely and you will miss America. Peace Corps Volunteers who tell you they’re never lonely are either lying or have too many imaginary best friends. For me, this is the hardest. I have no problem being alone for extended periods of time. I’m an introvert, and it’s nice to have some time to process things, do yoga, and catch up on reading some great books. But it’s really difficult to see pictures of my friends hanging out together, to miss good friends’weddings, new babies, and birthdays. It’s definitely not as fun to have to read about Notre Dame football online the day after instead of going to a game or a game-watch. This will be my first Christmas away from my family. I will never be able to go back and be there to see my friend walk down the aisle, or to be there when Notre Dame wins the national championship this year :) Sometimes America can seem so close, given today’s telecommunications, and other days it seems like a different planet. You will also miss certain comforts of home, especially if they help you cope with stressful situations.
I do worry about what my some of my relationships will be like when I get back. Will I still have the same connection to my friends? Will I be that annoying person who always begins sentences with something like, “Well, let me tell you about this time in Rwanda...” For me it’s not really the “things” about America I miss. It’s the people. Friends and family: you are sorely missed.

It’s a long time. This almost turned me off Peace Corps completely, and it’s still a significant hurdle volunteers have to make. When I was thinking about Peace Corps, I had a job. I was in a serious relationship. There’s a lot of pressure to “get ahead” “climb the ladder”, etc. etc. I had people advise me to get a grad degree first (even though I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to study), and people who flat-out told me it’s a waste of two years. But you know what? Things at rest stay at rest. Life sometimes has a way of making it difficult to try crazy new things and have adventures. Loans, mortgages, relationships, jobs, kids, bills, cars, houses. I just knew that if I said no to my Peace Corps offer, I’d regret it as I got older. So I’m not saying not to take those things seriously. But time has a funny way of passing quickly here, and many of those things will be most likely be waiting for you when you get back. And two years really is necessary for you to have time to integrate into your community, and to have time to work on your projects. To quote Ferris Bueller,  “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

It’s not for everyone. One of the things that scared me about Peace Corps when I was deciding to do it or not was the fact that quite a few volunteers leave the program before their two years are up, for various reasons: the above reasons, family members getting sick or dying, deciding their time and talents are better used elsewhere. I’ve asked pretty much every Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve met if they’ve thought about leaving (or in Peace Corps speak, “Early-Terminating”/ET-ing). Almost every single PCV said yes, and this was oddly comforting to me. One of Peace Corps’ mottos is “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and I’ve found that to be pretty accurate for me. Most countries will lose about 20-30% of each cohort that enters; my group of Health volunteers started with 26 and at 5 months we’re down to 22 volunteers. It’s worth taking a look at the Peace Corps Wiki page to get a sense of ET rates—an extremely high one could be a red flag that the program isn’t doing so well. Sometimes Peace Corps just isn’t the right fit. I wish (and Peace Corps probably wishes even more) that there was a simple test that could let you know if Peace Corps is right for you, but there’s not. It’s a leap of faith.

General Advice

Don’t worry too much if you’ve never lived/worked/travelled to a developing country before. I would guess that a majority of Peace Corps Volunteers haven’t. I was definitely worried about being “inexperienced” in this area and had my doubts about giving up developed-world comforts (running clean water, hot showers, toilets, CHEESE, so much more), but you really can get used to it. Eventually. Except for the not having cheese part. That being said, I don’t know if I would have accepted my Peace Corps assignment if I hadn’t received it when I was in the middle of travelling and studying solo in Costa Rica for two months. That experience really gave me the confidence that I can travel as a single female, figure things out for myself, and do fine. And keep in mind; you don’t really know what your exact situation will be like before coming. There are people who have never left the US who do Peace Corps successfully, and people who have had experience living in developing countries who quit, for various reasons.

Do Peace Corps at a time that is right for you. I can’t stress this enough. I actually filled out my Peace Corps application and had my interview in the fall of my senior year at Notre Dame and was on track to leave right after graduation. While it was tempting to have a quick answer to family and friends who asked me what I was doing with a political science and peace studies degree after graduation, I knew deep down it wasn’t right. So I just didn’t turn in one of my medical forms, and instead I took a job at Oxfam America in Boston for a few months. It was a fantastic experience, it taught me a lot, and it made me realize that I probably want to work in the field of international affairs/development. I turned in my medical form and promised myself I’d just see where I got placed. And the rest is history. But I’m so glad I had a little time in “the real world” outside of college before coming to Peace Corps, and that I decided Peace Corps was something I really, really wanted to do it: I wasn’t doing it because I didn’t have any other options or just wanted to delay the job search for two years or something. And for any older adults who might be reading this: there’s no upper age limit for Peace Corps, and you can do it as a married couple!

Play to your strengths. Do you speak a second language? Have you had significant experience tutoring, or working with a health NGO back home? Make sure to make it really clear in your application and in your interview. Knowing French has been a huge asset to me here in Rwanda when my kinyarwanda skills fail me. And if you're a Spanish speaking teacher back home, you may not want to end up as an economic development volunteer in, say, Turkmenistan. 

Don’t compare yourself to other volunteers. Peace Corps Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, we have different skill sets, and we’re all placed in different sites. It can be tempting to look at how well other people have learned the language/integrated into their community/how many secondary projects they’ve started. Don’t do it. Your experience is your own, and Peace Corps isn’t a competition.

You get a good amount of vacation time (48 days over 27 months), but don’t join Peace Corps expecting to have some kind of extended paid vacation. For the most part, you’re at your assigned site, working (and you have to get all vacation pre-approved by Peace Corps). Sure, I’ll be able to see some parts of Africa that I would never have been able to beforehand (I’m heading to Zanzibar, Tanzania this December, and hoping for a trip to Morocco at some point), but there’s so much I want to see and do here that I know I’ll never have the time and money for. C’est la vie.

Every Peace Corps experience is unique. That’s the exciting and scary part. Peace Corps is currently in 76 countries, and there are a bunch of different areas volunteers work in (youth development, agriculture, education, health, environment, business development…). My experience as a health volunteer in southwestern Rwanda is really different from an education volunteer in eastern Rwanda, even though Rwanda is a really small country (the size of Massachusetts). The closest volunteer to me is about 20 minutes away, but if you’re in a huge country, you might be the only volunteer for more than a day’s journey. I remember asking friends and acquaintances that are Returned Peace Corps for lots of advice before leaving, and because they had all served in different countries, at different times, in different areas of work, all of their advice was different, except for “enjoy it.” I remember getting advice from a friend who had done PC in West Africa to make sure to pack flip-flops because I would wear nothing else, but in Rwanda they call flip-flops “shower shoes” and unless you’re very poor, they aren’t appropriate to wear outside the house (weird, right?). So that’s my advice to anyone headed into the Peace Corps: enjoy it.



And some resources:
And just for fun, a trailer for the movie “Volunteers”, with Tom Hanks playing a PCV in Thailand (you can watch the whole thing on Youtube!)


3 comments:

  1. Loved this post! Very useful information. By the way, I'm eating extra cheese here in France just for you. :-)

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  2. I was recently invited to serve as a TEFL Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. I am really excited about the opportunity, but am definitely second guessing whether or not I really want to go. Thanks for your post- it has given me some really good things to consider in my decision :)

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  3. Thanks! This was helpful. I leave for Guyana in Feb.

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