Sep2520095:54 pm

Not everyone thrives in the Peace Corps

At the Georgetown Dean’s Lunch Seminar I spoke at on Wednesday, one of the participants, a freshman, asked if I thought a “gap year” between graduation and, in his example, law school would be beneficial. I responded that, while everyone is different, a year abroad after graduation before entering grad school was tremendously beneficial for me—not only because it allowed me to recharge my scholarly batteries, but also because it broadened me, allowed me an experience I may not have been able to have at any other time and that has helped me tremendously since, both personally and professionally. So yes, I said, I think a “gap year” can be terrific for many, especially if it is spent abroad gaining international exposure and language skills.

A young woman, a senior, followed up by saying that in her research into possible international opportunities following graduation, she was having trouble winnowing out those that might be right for her. For example, she said, should I do the Peace Corps, do a Fulbright, teach English?How do I know what’s right for me? After we discussed the difficulties of knowing what is “right” for her or anyone else, I brought the conversation back around to the fact that she had just lumped the Peace Corps and “doing a Fulbright” into the same category. I thought it was very important for her and the other students to realize first, “doing a Fulbright” does not mean just one thing—there are many different ways to be involved with Fulbright.

But second, I said, it seems to me that the Peace Corps is not just another abroad experience. Though I wasn’t a PC volunteer, I know many who were, and from what they’ve told me, the Peace Corps is a very specific, and often very difficult, experience, one that is not right for everyone. I relayed to them the story of someone I know who, despite being one of the more idealistically gung-ho people I’ve ever met, just resigned his Peace Corps position a year and a half early. His reasons for resigning were: he wasn’t doing the work he wanted to do; he didn’t believe he was effecting any positive change; he was not enjoying the culture he was living in; and he no longer wanted to, in his words, “help reinforce a system that only hurts the people I want to help.”

While I didn’t quite know how to interpret this reasoning, again not having been a PCer myself, a good friend who completed the Peace Corps in a similar region wasn’t terribly surprised: “There are inevitably those who thrive and those who quit. The Peace Corps isn’t for everyone.”

If you’re interested in the Peace Corps, try to talk to as many people as possible who have done it before. Get a clear picture of what it really is. Because the Peace Corps is not just “going abroad,” and it’s not for everyone.

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3 Responses to “Not everyone thrives in the Peace Corps”

  1. norryam says:

    Thank you for posting this. I was in West Africa and left before my term was up for several reasons. So many people serve in the Peace Corps, have a great time, and encourage everyone to do it because you’ll be able to “quit your job and save the world.” It’s VITAL that everyone who is considering this weighs the pros and cons. Here are a few cons I came up against:

    1. Not everybody in your PC Training/Volunteer group will be like you, i.e. a good person wanting to help. There was a male PCV in the country who got to his village, promptly got a girlfriend from the village, and beat her publicly. The powerful men in the village loved him for it. There was a woman PCV whose sole purpose for joining was to get impregnated by a local and have a black baby. She wanted an African baby that much, and that was it. The less-than-quality people sometimes do get past the Peace Corps radar. If you take over a post from one of these people, it will be twice as difficult to build a good relationship with the village.

    2. Not all of the PC staff will be helpful. The PCMO (peace corps medical officer) in my country was an a**hole. I had gone through all the required medical testing prior to being invited to serve, just like everybody else. PC washington left out some of my records from his file, but instead of working with me to fix the issue, he and his assistant accused me of lying and being manipulative (in front of my training group, no less). When I frantically had my mother fax over the records to verify that I was right, I did not receive an apology. I was told that I should have never been invited anyway. I spent a year and a half and my own money getting these tests done.

    3. If you are in a seriously underdeveloped country or area, you will see things that enrage you everyday. You will notice that towns that have hosted PCVs for decades look and feel exactly the same as towns that have not had PCVs there to help. Fields that PCVs had cleared for sustainable agriculture were again fallow. AIDS clinics were looted and turned into placed for people to meet for affairs. The group of people you tirelessly tried to inform about AIDS (”No, drinking a red fanta does not cure AIDS.” “Sleeping with a virgin does not cure AIDS.” “taking a cold shower does not cure AIDS.”) have not taken a word to heart. You will feel completely useless and you will want to give up–why forego a hot shower, decent food, safety, police that actually protect you, etc., for people who not only do not care that you’re there, but they are constantly looking for ways to steal from you, and they will smile and nod when you try to increase awareness, only to get their life advice from the village chief.

    4. Everybody already knows about AIDS. They know what causes AIDS. You will not be the first person to tell them what causes AIDS and how to treat it/prevent it. You will be the 10,000th person to tell them about AIDS, if you’re even lucky enough to break ground on that subject with anybody. If you’re a female volunteer, you will have a very hard time getting people to listen to you. I’m a female who worked hard to learn enough of the language prior to my service that I could carry on conversations with people. I was asked by my host brother what I thought of 9/11. After a few minutes of giving my thoughts, I was sent to my room.

    5. They say that the PC staff makes sure that host families have adequate room and a relatively good family dynamic before they drop you off. My first homestay family had a feud between the first and second wives. As a result, the only person who could speak French refused to translate for me. I spent the first three days of service without a bath, without access to drinkable water, and without anybody to talk to. After I was relocated, I was told by villagers that the first family was notorious for stealing from volunteers. The PC staff in charge of housing thought this was funny.

    6. Your training will not prepare you to help people when you’re a volunteer. You may spend weeks on team-building exercises, skits, etc., to help prepare you for the cultural differences between countries. You might not learn anything that helps you for your actual volunteer work, or you might be trained incorrectly. I worked for a year in the area I volunteered with prior to serving, and the trainers had more things wrong than right.

    7. You might be surrounded by people fresh out of college who think everything, no matter what, that has anything to do with the country is “cool.” They will not think critically of what they are doing, how they are helping, how they might be hurting, what we as Americans can teach the people. They will think everything American is “lame,” and everything from Country X is “cool” or “real.” I was repeatedly told that my anger over the way women are treated sexually was a form of “cultural imperialism.”

    8. When you return, you will be able to get the Peace Corps health insurance. It is a SERIOUS waste of money. The PCMO will tell you to get a full physical at the Peace Corps’s expense. You will get the physical (you might have schistosomiasis, after all) and then spend 6 months trying to get PC to pay for it. No matter what your ailment is, they will deny your claim for at least the first 3 months. Once you are back home, you’re not important.

    However, there ARE some very good things about this program.
    1. I learned more about Africa in the time I was there than in 8 years of graduate and undergraduate study of Africa. It is truly enlightening and informative.
    2. Sometimes, every so often, a PCV gets some truly remarkable stuff accomplished.
    3. The children are absolutely adorable. You will fall in love with them every day. They lifted my spirits constantly.
    4. Nothing–I mean NOTHING–will faze you about travel, waiting in lines, crappy food, etc., when you are done with this.
    5. You will always have some great stories (but people will get tired of hearing about “back when I was in the Peace Corps…” faster than you think)
    6. If you are lucky enough to get sent to a more developed country like Thailand (they call it “Posh Corps” because you can buy an iPhone, get pizza delivered, and take a short bus ride to pristine beaches and tourist hotspots) you will most likely have an easier time getting funding for projects and getting things accomplished. It won’t be the same kind of “roughing it” as in West Africa or other Asian locales, but it’s still Peace Corps.

    If you’re considering doing PC, please keep in mind the fact that there are MILLIONS of ways to serve the developing world, be a patriotic, productive citizen, and travel. They might not have the same exposure as the Peace Corps, but if you really want to KNOW that what you’re doing is helping (as opposed to just doing it for your CV or for “a cool experience,”) then, honestly, Peace Corps might not be for you. That was what my main problem was. Maybe it was vain of me, I don’t know, but when you make that leap and go over there to help people–call me crazy, but don’t you want to help people? Isn’t that the point?

    I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Like I said, everyone’s experiences will vary. Just don’t take things at face value. I did and the rose-colored glasses came off real fast.

  2. Bekka says:

    Thank you so much.

    I’m riding the fence right now on how far to take my Peace Corps service. The country is wonderful and I have really enjoyed living on this side of the world, in fact, I may stay abroad for quite a while. However, I feel more and more like we shouldn’t be here. I understand a big part of PC is to improve the image of America abroad, but for me the main goal was to help. I didn’t think I had unrealistic expectations about what we would accomplish, but I did think we could help with SOMETHING. Finding myself in yet another office job where I feel like my skills aren’t needed (and even worse not wanted) is incredibly frustrating.

    Sure I could ride it out for the full two years and enjoy a “vacation” at the US’s expense, but like you said, isn’t the point to help people? If I’m not doing that I could be doing a dead-end job anywhere, with different goals.

    And the even worse thought is, what if our involvement makes things even worse down the road? Are we really helping this country by bringing in “free grant money” and cheap technology? Not that it can be stopped at this point, but still…what if we’re making things worse?

    ARGH! Never in a million years did I think I would be the one thinking about ETing!

  3. Meli says:

    When I first started to read the 2 comments above i was thing ” Oh Please”. But then again….thank you! I think it’s incredibly important to get both sides of the story, especially from a person thinking about early termination. I found it really opened my eyes. I have been nominated , and hopefully will be leaving soon, and I always worry about the “right” decision. This has given me an incredible insight. Thanks!

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