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Should I Join the Peace Corps? – Benefits & Drawbacks of Service

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Want to see the world and experience other cultures? The Peace Corps may be right for you. Each year, approximately 15,000 to 18,000 Americans apply to serve. While locales vary from year to year, present opportunities range from the islands of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, to the mountains of Nepal and Peru. Volunteers serve in China, Madagascar, South Africa, and 50 other countries around the world.

Since its founding in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Peace Corps has become the best-known volunteer-abroad program available to American citizens. However, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its share of critics: 1960 presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon claimed it would become a “haven for draft dodgers,” while an editorial in the Harvard Crimson said that “the Peace Corps is arrogant and colonialist in the same way as the government of which it is part.”

However, a 2011 Rasmussen Report survey indicated that almost two-thirds of adult Americans now have a favorable opinion of the Peace Corps. And a 2011 survey of volunteers run in part by the Peace Corps found that the program has had a very positive effect on those who sign up for it:

  • 90% rated their experience as excellent or very good.
  • 92% said it changed their lives.
  • 98% would recommend the Peace Corps to their child, grandchild, or other close family member.

Over the past 50-plus years, young Americans have joined the organization in droves seeking to help others, learn the ways and languages of different cultures, and gain an advantage in the job market when they return.

Origin of the Peace Corps

In 1961, the world’s superpowers were in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States faced off in Berlin, resulting in the Soviets building a wall separating East and West Germany. A CIA-sponsored military invasion to overthrow Cuba’s President Fidel Castro ended with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and set the table for another face-off in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Halfway around the world, Southeast Asia was considered the pivotal point in the war between communism and democracy, leading President John F. Kennedy to commit special forces, military equipment, and financial support to South Vietnam.

While the Peace Corps mission is to “promote world peace and friendship,” the competition between superpowers was a major factor in its creation. President Kennedy recognized that the Soviets “had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, doctors, engineers, and nurses…prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” Kennedy wanted a counter-program that involved “Americans more actively in the cause of global democracy, peace, development, and freedom.”

As a consequence, the Peace Corps was founded by executive order on March 1, 1961, and authorized by Congress later that year. The first group of 51 volunteers arrived in Ghana to begin their service. By the end of 1961, more than 500 volunteers were serving in nine host countries: Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanzania, and Pakistan. By 2015, almost 220,000 Americans had served in 140 separate countries.

Peace Corps Origin

Benefits of Service

For those who want to experience a culture as it is – to live and become part of a foreign community – and make a contribution to the lives of others, the Peace Corps may be the perfect opportunity. Helen Raffel, a three-time volunteer at age 70, has served two-year tours in Uzbekistan, China, and Morocco. According to her, living with a local family and working with local people is the only way to truly get to know a country. Kamila Alexander, a young woman from Dallas who served in Kupa, a small village in Ecuador, and went on to medical school after service, says, “It’s nearly impossible for volunteers to spend two years making a difference in other people’s lives without it making a difference in their own lives.”

In addition to the intangibles volunteers receive from service, there are notable tangible benefits, especially for college graduates who are struggling to find a job and are burdened with student loans. Here are a handful of the many benefits of Peace Corps service.

1. Deferment and Cancellation of Student Loans

Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, volunteers qualify for forgiveness of their federal student loans after 120 months of payment. According to the Peace Corps, those qualifying for an income-driven repayment plan – Pay as You Earn, Income-Based Repayment, or Income Contingent Repayment – may have payments of zero dollars per month for their 24 months of service since their income is so low. In other words, they would get credit for 24 months of payments (if they commence payments at the beginning of their service) even though their actual payments are zero. After that, volunteers would make only eight more years of payments based upon their income earned in the years after leaving the Peace Corps.

Volunteers who do not qualify for an income-driven repayment plan can also elect to defer making loan payments until the end of their service under a financial hardship provision. Following completion of their service, they would make 120 payments based upon their income following Peace Corps service. For most people, it makes more financial sense to begin repayment when they enter Peace Corps service since the monthly financial obligation is minimal.

Volunteers also get an automatic deferment of Stafford, Perkins, or consolidation loans during service. Furthermore, they can qualify for a partial cancellation of their Federal Perkins Loans – 15% for each year of service, up to 70% in total.

2. Foreign Language Instruction

Volunteers receive two to three months of language, technical, and cultural training in the country they will serve before beginning their two-year service. These are all significant assets when seeking employment in a global economy.

3. Graduate and Fellowship Opportunities

Volunteers can pursue a Master’s International degree from more than 90 universities throughout the U.S. during their service. A representative list of schools includes Arizona State University, Boston University, Clemson, Cornell, Duke, Purdue, Rutgers, and Texas A&M. Returned volunteers have a lifetime eligibility for the Paul D. Coverdale Fellows Program for graduate degrees that may include loans, tuition reduction, paid internships, and assistance with housing.

4. Expanded Career Opportunities

According to CNN, employers seek workers with creative problem-solving skills and an ability to work well with others. Returning Peace Corps volunteers have developed a unique set of skills and proof that they can overcome challenges that set them apart from others. Also, alumni are granted noncompetitive eligibility status for Federal Government jobs. This status, extendable to three years, allows federal agencies to hire a returned volunteer without going through the normal competitive process.

Alumni of the program have achieved success in a variety of different fields from business to the arts and entertainment:

  • Reed Hastings: CEO and Founder of Netflix
  • Robert Haas: Chairman of Board of Levi Strauss
  • Gordon Radley: President of Lucas Films
  • Paul Theroux: author of “Mosquito Coast
  • Peter Hessler: author of “River Town” (New York Times Bestseller)
  • Jay Hooker: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times
  • Donald Mosley: co-founder of Habitat for Humanity
  • Donna Shalala: president, University of Miami and former Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services

5. Pay and Living Expenses

Volunteers receive housing and living stipends that enable them to live in a manner similar to the people in the country they serve. Since most volunteers serve in underdeveloped countries, facilities are not on par with those in the United States.

Wendy Lee, a volunteer in Cameroon from June 2008 to July 2010, explained, “In Cameroon, living on an income level similar to that of the locals forced me to take crowded buses instead of hiring a private driver, to eat local food instead of frequenting Western restaurants, and to experience the inconvenience of living with shoddy electricity and without running water.”

Living conditions vary from country to country. Volunteers serving in Africa may live in mud houses with thatch or tin roofs furnished with a bed, mattress, desk or table, a straight chair, and a cupboard for hanging clothes. In China, volunteers live in local housing units or apartments with a living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and sometimes a study. Transportation to and from the United States to the volunteer’s post is provided via commercial airlines.

6. Medical Benefits

Volunteers have full medical insurance coverage and dental benefits for 100% of primary care, hospitalization, medical evacuation, and all prescriptions (including birth control). Each post has a “medical officer” to cover basic care.

Due to complaints about the quality of medical service, the Peace Corps has made extensive changes since 2014 in its procedures including implementing new standards for medical personnel and responses to sexual assault. Approximately 60% of volunteers are young, single, white females.

7. Liberal Vacation Benefits

Volunteers receive two vacation days per month or 48 days over two years. This time is typically used to travel throughout the host country or nearby countries.

8. Readjustment Allowance

Volunteers completing their service receive a cash payment of $8,000 to transition back into life in the United States. There are no restrictions on the use of the funds.

9. Voluntary Resignation

Volunteers have the right to resign from service at any time for any reason. If possible, resigning volunteers are returned to their home of record by commercial air (economy class) within 72 hours of resignation. Some early terminating volunteers may be eligible for a $200 readjustment allowance.

Since 2008, approximately 7% to 10% of volunteers have elected to end their service early, although the rate has fallen more than 25% since 2008.

Voluntary Service Resignation

Cautions About Service

Peace Corps service is not for everyone. Even the most ardent volunteers concede that serving in an impoverished country can overwhelm a volunteer physically, mentally, and emotionally from time to time.

As Michael Waidmann, a volunteer working in Ethiopia, cautions, “Life here is completely different. It is another world, lost in time and space. It is hard, and the little annoyances can manifest themselves into a black cloud… [The] Peace Corps really is a roller coaster. An exhilarating and scary ride that completely sucks and totally kicks ass.”

Drawbacks to Peace Corps service include the following.

1. Physical Isolation From Family and Friends

Volunteers typically serve alone in remote areas, far from loved ones and with inconsistent communication. As Shawn Grund, a volunteer teaching English in Huye, Rwanda from 2010 to 2012, blogged during his assignment, “For all intents and purposes, you will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt being in your entire life… Some days you will not want to get out of bed (and it’s not because you’re too comfortable, trust me), some days you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how many drugs you take or how early you have to teach in the morning. The only constant in this life is that nothing is as it seems it was, is, or should be.”

On the other hand, according to “The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go,” many volunteers see loneliness as “part of the Peace Corps package – part of what makes the experience both meaningful and rewarding when you come out the other end after two years… You’ll learn a lot about yourself.”

2. Cultural Shock

While living conditions are worse than most volunteers are used to in the United States, the differences between life in America and a poor nation can be more traumatic. Hygiene standards may be different, for starters. Toilet facilities could very well mean a hole in the ground. Water may require treatment before drinking. Food will likely cause intestinal disturbances such as vomiting, severe diarrhea, and constipation.

According to Brad Nehring, a volunteer in Zambia from 2006 to 2008, “you’ll encounter a lot of bugs, reptiles, and otherwise undesirable housemates during your tour.” However, it should be noted that in even the more remote parts of the world living conditions have improved relative to conditions in the 1960s and 1970s. Televisions, cell phones, computers, and the Internet are now generally available to volunteers. Technology has also improved the quality and amounts of potable water, fuels for cooking and warmth, and medical treatments.

While living conditions have improved considerably for volunteers, they are still less than typically found in an industrialized country. Strangers may not respect your personal space or may ask you personal questions about your income, appearance, or sex life. Michael Waidmann warns potential volunteers that “the pace of life… is slow, methodical, cyclical. Everything takes a long time. If you aren’t a patient person, you will become one.”

For a good primer, Alan Toth’s 2012 documentary film Posh Corps illustrates the lives of many volunteers today and is worthwhile viewing for anyone considering signing up.

3. Lack of Supervision

Volunteers are expected to work independently with little supervision from the country’s head Peace Corps office. After the three-month training period, volunteers are expected to know what to do and then to do it without significant oversight.

Abby Bryant, a volunteer currently serving in Panama, notes that her supervisor lives a 12-hour bus ride away from her village. “Not only do I have no fellow coworkers (in terms of other volunteers) but I also have no day-to-day supervision.”

Some potential volunteers equate the lack of supervision with a lack of support generally. Emily Best resigned after a year of service in Senegal and returned home in 2012. According to Ms. Best, volunteers drink too much, lash out at locals, and act in ways they wouldn’t dare at home. She blames the Peace Corps culture that places the onus of success solely on the volunteer.

Despite the lack of direction, many volunteers are glad they served in the Peace Corps. Matt Brown, a volunteer in Guinea from 2001 to 2003, recommends it “to anyone with an adventurous spirit, giving heart, and two spare years on their hands.”

4. Sexual Harassment and Assaults

Many of the countries served by the Peace Corps are male-dominated societies. According to the Peace Corps, “Differences in gender relations may be one of the most sensitive and difficult lessons to learn.”

During 2014, via Peace Corps, female volunteers reported 43 rapes or 1.03 incidents per 100 female volunteers. Male volunteers reported four rapes during the same year. There were 156 incidents of female and 12 male sexual assaults (defined as groping, touching, or kissing) during 2014.

The Peace Corps implemented a comprehensive Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program that same year. While the Peace Corps makes every effort to protect volunteers, it notes that it cannot eliminate every risk a volunteer may face. According to the Peace Corps, “Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as financially well-off are some of the factors that put volunteers at risk.”

5. Lengthy Approval Period

Becoming a volunteer requires completing an extensive online application, a complete medical history, choosing a potential volunteer site, and completing a second online questionnaire about current work style and environment. If approved, you are invited to interview with a Peace Corps officer to discuss your skills and interests. Those approved receive an invitation to serve within six months of interviewing.

Prior to changes in 2014, the process from application to approval could take a year or more to complete. Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, a former volunteer, expects that the new application reforms and ability to choose where one serves will encourage more people, especially minorities, to apply for service.

Lengthy Approval PeriodFinal Word

At best, the Peace Corps challenges volunteers physically, emotionally, and mentally. According to Matador Network, returning volunteers claim it is the “toughest job you’ll ever love” and will affect your life for years after service. Ross Szabo, a volunteer serving in Botswana, notes that the reality for most volunteers is more downtime than we are used to [as Americans], which can be spent staring at the dirt or fascinated by what ants can carry across the room. “All of that time to think can take people to many places.”

While some have questioned the value of the Peace Corps in modern times, supporters – and the vast majority of returned volunteers – believe that the Corps is essential to producing a better understanding of America and the people of the 139 nations served. The need for understanding between nations is as great today as any time in the past which is why Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a New York Times columnist, opened his talk at the Millennium Campus Conference in 2014 with a plea: “We need the young people, we need you desperately to step up and take action because the world is at a turning point. There are so many bad things and the good people have to stand up and we have to fight and we have to fight really hard.”

Are you one of those who seek adventure, to do good, or to learn your limits? If so, consider the Peace Corps.

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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