Why you should join the Peace Corps straight out of college

Last week, you heard Dan’s arguments against becoming a digital nomad straight out of college.

It just doesn’t do to talk someone out of something without providing a suggestion for an alternative, so today I’ll tell you about why joining the Peace Corps straight out of college is a great idea if you have a wandering spirit but you don’t think the digital nomad lifestyle is for you.

You have the opportunity to be fully immersed in another culture and lifestyle

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In contrast to the digital nomad lifestyle where you are obligated to keep one virtual foot in your country of origin, Peace Corps service is a great way to jump fully into another culture and potentially leave behind the world of social media and constant emails.

You will be placed in a city, town or village where you could be the only foreigner around (or you may find that there is a group of expats). Either way, your success as a volunteer depends partly on you gaining the trust of the local people and understanding how they see their community – what do they see as strengths and what do they want to change?

You’ll have a chance to learn a new language, new dance moves, and the cultural “do’s and don’ts” of your host community. Your living stipend is roughly equivalent to a salary in your host country, so you’ll be living at the level of the people whose community you are sharing.

Since you will be in your post for two years, you will become a part of the community. You will have many cultural experiences and will probably be invited to events like weddings, funerals, and religious ceremonies, some of which would be difficult to access as a tourist passing through.

You will constantly be challenged and find opportunities to grow as a person

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So many things that would be totally run of the mill for you in your home country become confusing and challenging in a new environment. Full disclosure: this is not always awesome at the time, but in the end it will make you feel a lot stronger as a person.

You will struggle with figuring out the basics – how and where to buy the things you need, culturally appropriate ways to act in different situations, where to go for different services (and how to get there), and most significantly, how to communicate with the people around you who are probably speaking a language you are not fluent in. This may make you feel like a child, not like a professional adult. Additionally, you will be attempting to work (probably with an American-style work ethic), which will cause its own frustrations and struggles.

When I served in Benin, I spent the first year or more of my service trying to get a table to hold my gas stove and other kitchen things for my house. The carpenter I ordered it from would go missing for weeks at a time and then when I would see him, he would promise me that he’d work on it tomorrow, or next week. Sometimes I didn’t even bother asking. In the meantime, I sat on the floor to cook.

When I finally got the table, it was a tiny version of what I envisioned – a mini coffee table of sorts. There had been no shared cultural meaning of the type of table I thought I had ordered. I almost started to cry when I saw it – all that time waiting and it wouldn’t even serve the purpose I needed it to!

Living in another country is full of difficulties of this type. The little things that you think will be easy are not easy and it slowly breaks you down, but you build yourself back up and become stronger for it.

You have a safety net if you need it

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Peace Corps is a government program and while in some ways that means it involves all the bureaucracy that we all dislike, it also means that if something goes wrong, you won’t be left to figure it out yourself.

Peace Corps has a comprehensive medical staff, which is important considering that you may be serving in areas where serious health issues are commonplace (consider malaria, typhoid fever, and motorcycle accidents to start). If you become ill or injured, you just get yourself to the Peace Corps headquarters in your country and you will receive high quality medical care. If you cannot immediately get to Peace Corps headquarters, you call and the Peace Corps doctors will instruct the health facility where you are being treated about what to do. Then you’ll be reimbursed when you are able to get to a Peace Corps facility.

Did I mention that all medical care you receive during your service is free of charge?

Additionally, each Peace Corps country has a safety and security officer who is constantly monitoring the country for safety threats to volunteers and sending out alerts if there is something you need to know. This skilled staff person is also available to help in the case of theft or any other threat to safety at your post.

Finally, Peace Corps can and does evacuate volunteers if the situation in the country (or region of the country) becomes unsafe.

When you arrive in your host country, part of your training will be on safety and best practices to keep yourself safe. You will also learn about evacuation plans and what to do in different potential dangerous situations.

You will have a group of instant friends

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Your Peace Corps service will start with 3 months of training where you will spend most of your waking hours with the other Peace Corps Trainees who arrived. Training is generally not the favorite part of the Peace Corps experience, so you will bond over these months and enter into your two years of service with strong friendships.

As you relocate to your individual posts, you will share the struggles of living and working in a foreign country and this will bring you closer. You may find that other PCVs are eerily similar to yourself and you’ll probably get along great with lots of the folks that you serve with.

The other volunteers will also be your support network – the people you call when you are frustrated, feeling lonely, or sick. They will understand the linguistic and cultural struggles, the difficulties with work, and why you are so upset about the debacle you had attempting to buy peanut butter in the market. Sometimes it’s a relief to just speak English with someone to remind yourself that you are actually able to communicate at times when you are feeling defeated about your language skills.

And as a general rule, other volunteers are always up for grabbing a drink and having some fun!

Some Peace Corps volunteers find their life partners during their service, and many more find life-long friends.

You might actually make a difference in the world

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It’s hard to determine “how much” you accomplish during your Peace Corps service because so many of the things volunteers are trying to do are not really measurable.

Peace Corps has three official goals: two of them center on cultural exchange and one relates to assisting with development in the host countries.

I guarantee you that you will “succeed” in at least one of these three areas.

Maybe you will build strong relationships with people in your host country who previously had a negative image of Americans. Or maybe you can educate your friends and family at home about the people you met in your host country and illustrate your common humanity. These are your small contributions to world peace. Individual citizens of the world who meet each other and build relationships across cultural boundaries.

Or maybe you will team up with your community to accomplish something more concrete: tweaking farming methods to achieve a greater yield, working with a women’s group to sell a better product, putting in two years of teaching a subject you’re great at, running camps for girls or boys, or maybe building more classrooms for a school so that more students can make it past 8th grade.

Either way, I personally am a believer in the Peace Corps model of making a difference.

(Side note: The classroom project is happening in my former Peace Corps post and desperately needs $800 more funding in the next week or the project won’t happen. If you can spare a donation of any size, it would really make a difference to the current volunteer and the community. Read more here.)

It’s great for building your resume

It’s hard to explain just how great Peace Corps service is for your resume, but I’ll try.

First, being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer means that you are skilled in adapting to circumstances, making use of what you have, and persisting through difficulty. Employers love to see applications from RPCVs as we have a reputation for being good hires.

Second, you will likely have a lot of time and freedom to choose projects that interest you during your Peace Corps service. You will likely find yourself working on projects in many different areas (you could easily dabble in education/youth, health/nutrition, economic development, and more within your two-year service). This means that most jobs you’ll apply for after Peace Corps will have some component that is directly related to what you did abroad.

Third, Peace Corps gives you many opportunities to hold leadership roles and manage projects, probably at a higher level than in a job you would typically be able to secure right out of college. This gives you valuable experience that will come in handy later.

Finally, you will return from your service with improved interpersonal skills and lots of great stories that can be woven into the answer to nearly any interview question. This makes you more fun to interview and also more memorable as a candidate.

And as an added bonus, Peace Corps has revamped its application process to make it easier!

When I applied in 2010, it took an entire year to get through the process and I had no say in where I was placed. The waiting was interminable and finally I received an invitation to serve in a specific country and role, which I could accept or decline.

The new process is significantly shorter and also gives the applicant more power to choose the country and the position that are most compelling to them. It’s still a competitive process and probably not the easiest, but it’s worth it!

Here’s a goat to wrap up the article, because the main thing about Peace Corps (at least in my experience) is that you learn that goats are awesome!

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4 thoughts on “Why you should join the Peace Corps straight out of college

  1. awesome! i applied to serve and got invited to serve in paraguay because i speak spanish but rejected after some thought because honestly i did not wanted to learn guarani and right now im studying portugues.

  2. This sounds like such a great experience, not only the travelling and experiencing other cultures but also the opportunity to develop as a person before potentially “settling down” in the real world! Great post!

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