Toughening up in the Peace Corps (Peace Corps Part II)

Peace Corps trainees swearing in as volunteers in Madagascar, 26 April 2006. (photo is public domain)


 

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.  

 

Who doesn’t want the chance to see giraffes or elephants strolling through their backyard whilst sipping their morning coffee? Who out there has felt pangs of jealousy as they watch a friend on social media posting photos dressed up in brilliantly colored indigenous garb, with smiling multi-ethnic faces surrounding them?

Peace Corps service is sometimes romanticized in these ways. People imagine what they have seen in movies and think they will be welcomed with open arms, that they will be the brilliant, educated foreigner with all the solutions. Such optimism is not entirely bad, but a healthy dose of realistic expectations and sheer grit will be what really get you through the 24 months of service.

Peace Corps is exactly as one of its more famous slogans describes it: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Peace Corps challenges you in ways that you, very literally, could never imagine. This is not to say other jobs do not challenge you as well, but Peace Corps is on its own level when it comes to challenges. Those who are considering service need to enter into it with realistic goals. They need to know that at some point they are going to feel total and absolute crushing failure, and they must be willing to accept this, not ignore it, deny it, or blame it on someone else (which is much easier said than done), and then move on with Plan B, C or even sometimes D, E or F. When and if you are able to do this, you will then also realize that this trying experience has been a momentous time of growth for you, both professionally and personally.

Getting Field Tested via Peace Corps

In a Ramen IR article I wrote back in August about an NGO I previously worked with called Mercy Corps, I described what NGOs look for in ideal candidates for their international programming staff. NGOs want to see that you truly understand what another country and culture is like, especially if you want to work abroad or work on the teams developing or involved in major international programming. If you will be working overseas, they want to know that you won’t break under the pressures of culture shock and adjusting to a new way of life, a new style of doing business, a new language, etc.

From my experience, and from speaking to numerous Peace Corps Volunteers, the first 6-9 months in country is generally the easiest, though easy is definitely not how one would describe their time. You have good days and bad days, you struggle, but generally feel like you can still tackle all the challenges of your new adventure. You start side projects like building a library, find funding and get lots of donations from family and friends. You enjoy the food, though you begin to miss your American favorites. You do a decent job communicating in the native language. You adjust to not having running water, a shower, and/or a normal stove – and cooking via a fire pit still fits into the romantic traveler experience for you.

Then comes the end of your first year, and everything begins to unravel. You get sick from the food, possibly end up in a hospital because you get so dehydrated and weak – like I did. You begin to see a lack of progress in your work with small businesses or in the students in your classroom and start to question your own abilities to do the job you were sent there to do. One, or all of your side projects begin to crash and burn. Colleagues are too busy to help keep up the new library, books start disappearing, you get fed up with holding meetings that everyone shows up to hours late, or not at all. You miss your family, your friends, your dog, home, American food. All of this can contribute to your demise as a volunteer.

The good news is that, once you experience this – culture shock and adjusting to a new country – you’ll be much better equipped to deal with it again in the future. Essentially, you adjust, and you find ‘hacks’ – though Buzzfeed is not the one providing them to you. You somehow find the strength to pick yourself up and move forward. You reassess the way you’ve been going about your side projects and try to make adjustments to make them more flexible, adaptable, and sustainable with the new information and perspectives you now have. Or, sometimes you just come to terms with the fact that this might be something you enjoy working on while you’re there, and that the community enjoys, but when you leave, there’s a strong possibility it will simply end.

Endlessly Rewarding

Though Peace Corps has its immense challenges, the rewards too are significant. I am currently an international security professional, but while I was in the Peace Corps, my main assignment was teaching English to 5th graders in southern Africa (Namibia). I was worried I might not enjoy the work, but it is probably the single most rewarding job I have ever done or will ever do. I taught about four to five hundred children, and interacted with another five hundred or so in the library I helped establish, in the athletic programs I was involved with, etc. I had so many touching moments with them all both inside and outside the classroom. As I was saying goodbye, I gave each and every one of them a hug – nearly 1,000 hugs in total in one day (no joke!) – and felt my heart break each time, as I recalled each memory of them struggling and succeeding in different ways over the last two years. I’m not particularly sentimental and will likely never teach children again in my career, but those students became my children. They made such a positive impact on my life, and I can only hope that I made even the tiniest of positive impacts on a few of theirs.

Other Peace Corps Perks

No one joins the Peace Corps to make the big bucks, but that’s not why you decided to be a bleeding-heart international development working in the first place, right? There are definitely benefits and incentives outside of the international work experience though. Peace Corps pays for your flights into the country and when you finish will either provide you with flights home, or the cash equivalent if you plan to travel for a while afterwards. You accrue roughly six thousand dollars in readjustment money, which gets paid out to you the last month of service, as you head home. There are federal loan deferral, repayment and assistance programs while in the Peace Corps. There are numerous fellowships offered to volunteers before and after the Peace Corps and some universities offer lower tuition rates to RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers). For federal jobs, RPCVs also receive something called Non-Competitive Eligibility when they complete the full two years of their contract, allowing you to get hired just a bit easier and more quickly into certain government jobs.

A final perk of Peace Corps Service is essentially just bragging rights. People are endlessly impressed that you “gave up” two years of your life to work in disadvantaged communities in another country, which did not have the same level of creature comforts as the US.

Things to Consider

Peace Corps service is a great opportunity and can be very rewarding for people in a wide range of different careers, but as I have mentioned previously, you need to have realistic expectations. There’s a strong chance you may get sick, you will miss home, you will not always be happy, you will fail, you will be giving up more than 2 years of your life and your career, and when you get home, you WILL feel out of place, behind the times, and struggle for a time with knowing where you fit in comparison to other young professionals in your field. But there is hope. Peace Corps skills translate into big selling points in interviews and in applications to graduate school. When you are asked, “Tell me a time when you faced a significant challenge and how you dealt with it” you may actually have too many stories come to mind. You’ll read professional articles and have so much more insight than you once did about the practical application of programs and projects being suggested by other international professionals.

Essentially, Peace Corps is tough, but if you can manage to make it through, it will be the most personally and professionally rewarding experience of your life, hands down.

Kristin Pettersen is a second-year MA candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, focusing on international stability operations, and currently serving as a board chair for the Georgetown Student Veterans Association (GUSVA). Her views are solely her own and do not necessarily represent the views of  the Peace Corps, Mercy Corps, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.

Interested in more stories on the Peace Corps? Check out our first Peace Corps article by Charles Johnson here!

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