What Its Like to Serve in the Peace Corps: Patience, Failures and the Weird
President John F. Kennedy greets Peace Corps Volunteers on the White House Lawn
Chef’s Table is a section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
Apart from perpetually winning all barroom bets on “weirdest thing ever eaten” and “longest time without a shower” the Peace Corps can offer a powerful launch-pad for budding young international specialists, a two-year respite for those getting cabin fever in their fluorescent lit cubicle, or even a great way to switch careers or begin retired life. I served as an education and youth development volunteer in the Republic of Georgia from 2011-13. This article is by no means an advertisement for my host country or English language instruction, but more so a discussion about axioms of Peace Corps service that most likely exist in all posts, and what makes service unique among jobs abroad. Many people live abroad for extended periods, but I would say that Peace Corps is unique, or in a small club, of organizations when it comes to immersive experiences abroad. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) are not your ordinary ex-pats, so let’s take a look at what every PCV needs and what you can expect.
- Patience and Flexibility is not Just a Public Service Announcement
Patience begins the moment you start filling out your application. It is long, tedious, and often requires a certain degree of disclosure about your personal life (They are unlikely to invest in a volunteer who is going to get cold feet and return home to a significant-other four weeks into service). While the application process is no longer as bureaucratically clunky as it was when I applied, it is still quite the undertaking. A PCV must be physically, mentally, and professionally sound, given the rigor of service in each of these areas. It took me 15 months to go from application to departure, so serving with the Peace Corps requires a lot of forethought.
Fast-forward to several months later. Once you get on the ground in your country, you will understand the full meaning of patience and flexibility. Pre-Service Training (PST) is an intense multiple-week long crash course in how to be a working professional in your country’s rural areas and small towns. You will live with a host family that does not speak English and attend 6-8 hours of training each day in language and professional skills. Where patience and flexibility is required is merely existing in your new home. PST and service posts are typically in regions seldom visited by foreigners, so you will stand out like a sore thumb. You also use this time to learn how to walk a line between trying to enact positive change, but not to encroach on the cultural norms of your community. Honestly, it took me a year to learn how to do this delicately enough. Peace Corps goes a long way in its training to teach you how to jump this hurdle but for Game of Thrones Fans out there, you figuratively become Jon Snow the moment he became Lord Commander: Everyone looks to you to fix things, while still insisting that you know nothing. The most important thing you can do at this point is to embrace your weirdness and make the best of it. Being weird never stops during your service (and sometimes continues after service as well).
- You Must Learn How to Fail, Just as Much as You Strive to Succeed
When I tell people that “learning how to fail” was my most important lesson from Peace Corps, it is always greeted with a “huh?” American culture is legalistic, competitive, and very much results-oriented. During my two years in Georgia, my fellow volunteers and I has numerous projects fall flat on their face: grants were not awarded, or long-term initiatives were 180’d by local partners. It was hard not to get frustrated. Once I tried to write a proposal to USAID to renovate a portion of my school. A lack of structured project management and accountability caused my application to be rejected. Working at the school was tense for some time after this since schools and organizations are often told that being awarded a volunteer is followed by grants and money. It took me months to gain enough clout with the school to try and lead another project, one that was ultimately successful. However, this failure was of critical importance to me and the school itself. I was able to sit down with my colleagues and explain why the process did not work. They then explained to me that in Georgia, during and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, if you had direct access to grant money, it was awarded without question. Professional development was just as important as physical infrastructure in this context. There are also numerous other failures associated with living between cultures, living with a host family, etc. You must be prepared for failure at any day of service, but also learn how to use it to your advantage.
- For the rest of your life you will always be a little weird, but people will appreciate you
Let’s be blunt. Peace Corps makes you weird. Many soon-to-depart volunteers spend months psyching themselves up for the integration process. Everyone tries their best to prepare for a life of seclusion and poverty, but it typically does not work. You have to do your best to remake yourself into a weird blend of foreigner and local in your new site. However, often overlooked is the equally, if not more, difficult task of coming home. When you return to the American land of plenty, you will have to remake yourself once more. Some fellow volunteers disagree with me in this regard, and it is certainly easier if you go into service with more experience abroad than I had, but coming home is undoubtedly difficult. The most potent reverse cultural shock beyond hot showers, tacos, and feeling bare feet on clean carpet again, was the burden of choice. Having American variety was unexpectedly stressful and grocery stores became overwhelming. Take coffee for example: In Georgia there was just coffee, not light, bold, Columbian, or long-haul overload triple caffeinated extreme. The “weird” is inevitable, but I have learned to embrace it and it has made post-service life better. Here are a few examples: I hate grass (it is unnecessary and we could be growing food on our lawns), I walk everywhere and rarely drive unless the walk would take over an hour, I sometimes annoyingly check people’s privilege, I get antsy if I am living in one place for too long, and I never, ever, take access to hot sauce for granted. It is just who I am now.
Should you join the Peace Corps? Maybe, maybe not… It is not a decision to make lightly. Service is an extremely difficult two years fraught with potential health issues, project failure, and personal isolation at times. However, service leaves a profound mark on most of those who are ready to make the commitment. I have life-long friends in Georgia, and now I am back here living and working in Tbilisi. I truly love this country and consider it a second home. Professionally, the benefits were more than expected. I have not had a job interview yet that did not ask about my Peace Corps service. Whether it is an NGO or the Pentagon, people recognize and respect what it takes to finish two years of Peace Corps service.
I would be remiss not to end my pitch to future volunteers without a reminder of the context from which the Corps was born. At a time when the world and the United States was deeply divided, communist vs. capitalist, racial segregation, economic inequality, John F. Kennedy looked for a more human approach to foreign policy and development work. By offering up America’s very best for free to the countries that needed their skills the most, we have committed ourselves to the world beyond politics, racial, and religious barriers. And we have a population of 200,000+ dedicated and worldly returned volunteers to share the lessons of their service. Peace Corps represents that which makes me the most patriotic. Every country I have been to, even China and Russia, the people recognize that the United States is deeply committed to the development of world-wide human capacity, regardless of whether or not they agree with our foreign policy. We are not a nation without faults, but service in the Peace Corps lets you participate in what might be our country’s best idea in its 239-year history. I will end with the words of Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, who said, “It is well to be prepared for life as is, but better to be prepared to make life better than it is.”
Charles Johnson served in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia from 2011 to 2013. His views are solely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Peace Corps, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.
Photo is public domain.