After that first experience abroad, many people find themselves addicted to the thrill of living overseas and traveling.
For some people, this taste for adventure leads to teaching English abroad, pursuing a Graduate Degree in a different country, interning, seeking out a paid position, or volunteering abroad.
After trying my hand at most of the aforementioned avenues to international living/travel, I decided to join the Peace Corps. For me, it was the logical next step, but it is a big commitment that requires much thought and soul searching.
Joining the Peace Corps is a big decision, but there are many resources out there to help you decide if it is right for you. You can find most information on the official website. You can also search for individual Peace Corps Volunteer’s blogs/journals, visit/join groups on face book, attend informational meetings in your area, or get in touch with a Peace Corps recruiter. PCVs or Peace Corps Volunteers have served in over 139 developing countries- and are generally assigned to work in sectors such as Education, Small Business, Agriculture, Youth Development, and Environment just to name a few. All assignments are for 27 months-most include an initial three month training period followed by two years of official service.
Becoming a Volunteer:
The length of time it takes to receive an assignment varies greatly from person to person, but everyone follows the same steps. I highly recommend attending at least one informational event or connecting with a past volunteer before making a final decision. Basically, you will fill out many applications, write several short essays, participate in either a phone or in person interview with a recruiter, await your nomination for a specific program, and then pass a multitude of medical examinations. After much anticipation and checking your application status obsessively, you will receive your official invitation to serve along with more detailed information about your particular program.
Tips for applying:
- Need to have volunteer experience; this can be any variety of experience such as tutoring, mentoring, working in a garden, or participating in local clean up days etc…
- Patience and open-mindedness. Also, it is worth mentioning that even when you know your country of service and departure date, you will not find out your placement/where you will actually be living for 2 years until you are well into your first 3 months of training.
Any past volunteer will tell you that no two volunteers have the same experience, even if they served in the same country or even town! I was fortunate to serve with my husband- and can easily recommend this to other couples if both people are genuinely interested and dedicated.
After our three months of training, we were sent to a very isolated mid-sized agricultural town in the northern mountainous region of Nicaragua. Our primary work assignment was in the Education sector as TEFL Teacher Trainers, but we also participated in many secondary projects as varied as Community English classes, Basketball Youth Group, Reading Hour, and HIV/AIDS Awareness/Training. We also used a grant from USAID to construct a classroom out of recycled materials. As far as having a typical schedule or work day, I can say that I knew some volunteers who had very set and busy schedules and others who sometimes struggled to find interested parties/work. The key is being persistent and really identifying your community’s needs/motivated community leaders- which takes time and effort.
Two-thirds of the Peace Corps Mission is really about cultural exchange. You will be working on these goals all the time- from before you even depart for service, to every second you are in country, and for the rest of your life after your service. These goals are accomplished through every cup of coffee or tea and conversation you share with your neighbors, the talks you have with your family and friends before you go and when you return, through social media and photos, or through more official avenues such as giving presentations/writing articles when you finish your service. My husband and I have very close relationships with many of our local Nicaraguan family and friends, and we know they will last a lifetime. We participated in our local community by attending weddings, birthday parties, local festivals and holidays, dinners, graduations, and also funerals and burials.
Positives and Challenges of Service:
In my opinion, the most rewarding part of being a PCV is the truly one of a kind authentic experience you will have. It is amazing to be a part of a community- to participate in those weddings, holidays, graduations and all kinds of activities that the ordinary traveler would miss. In addition to the personal relationships and bonds you will form, Peace Corps is also an opportunity to gain professional skills in areas such as foreign language fluency, project management, grant writing, teaching, workshop facilitation etc. There are also many different ways to utilize your Peace Corps experience to help with Graduate School costs (visit the official website for more information).
In my opinion, the most challenging part of being a PCV is the same as the most rewarding part- the truly one of kind authentic experience you will have. You will participate in power outages, water shortages, and transportation difficulties. You will most likely fall ill on more than one occasion and miss your friends and family back home more than you can ever imagine. You may grow weary of everyone watching your every move. You may have spells of little work productivity and question your role. The key here is persistence and patience. In the end, for me, the positives of service easily outweighed the challenges.
Tips for Service:
- Keep an open mind and be willing to serve where you are needed.
- Do not compare yourself or your situation to other volunteers or other volunteer’s situations.
- Be patient. Invest in personal relationships built slowly over time.
- Save some money before you go if you plan on traveling (which you should!)
How does Peace Corps Service Differ from more Traditional Abroad Programs?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) you will enjoy many of the same thrills as a student participating in a more traditional study abroad program. You will meet people from another culture, experience new foods, customs, and scenery. You will have the opportunity to explore a new country and/or nearby countries in your free time. You will be challenged daily with overcoming obstacles such as the language barrier and missing your friends and family back home. You will learn, adapt, grow, and change.
The most obvious difference between a more traditional abroad program and Peace Corps Service is the length of commitment- as previously stated, PCVs sign up for a 27-month long period. Next, recall that you may be the only foreigner in your town- many volunteers experience feelings of isolation and loneliness initially and/or throughout their service. When living with a family, you may have to change your habits out of respect- you may have to give up a level of personal freedom/space that most of us living here in the USA take for granted. Basically, be prepared to have the best and worst days of your life- being a PCV is hard, and not always glamorous- but it is, without a doubt, like no other experience out there.
As a former PCV, study abroad student, and English teacher in various countries, I can say that as a PCV you will do more than learn about another culture, you will become a member of a community. You will form bonds that will last a lifetime- you will experience the good and the bad right along-side your community members. And no matter how big or small, you will positively affect those around you. Also keep in mind that no two volunteers have the same experience, and that your service is uniquely yours. Best of luck in your next step, whatever it may be, and if it is the Peace Corps, be sure to enjoy the journey.
*The views and opinions in this article are the author’s own and in no way reflect the views of the US Government or the Peace Corps.
Julie Westerman graduated from Texas Christian University in May 2004 with a BA in Sociology. During college, she studied abroad and interned in London, England. After graduation, she became certified to Teach English as Foreign Language in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Since then, she has taught English in Thailand, volunteered on a farm in Costa Rica, backpacked through much of Central America, worked in Denali National Park in Alaska, and most recently served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin in the hopes of helping others fulfill their dreams.