Peace Corps: Seniors Are Showing Up
By Tricia Herban
Remember the old expression, “Join the Navy to see the world?” That’s a good slogan and self-explanatory. But what about the Peace Corps? Recently, the Peace Corps came to Annapolis on a recruiting trip and OutLook had the opportunity to speak with two regional recruiters, Janet Schuhl and Jessica Lampron.
For an answer to the question, Who joins the Peace Corps? We looked around as the room filled: nine men and 14 women. Four heads were conspicuously gray! We wondered how common this was.
OutLook: Give us a brief history of the Peace Corps? Didn’t it begin with President Kennedy?
Peace Corps: Yes. Kennedy first mentioned the idea in a campaign speech at the University of Michigan in the early ‘60s and the thought was to engage recent college graduates in a mission of peace and friendship throughout the world. Kennedy felt that it was important to provide sustainable assistance on a very basic level, working person to person, not through government bureaucracies.
OutLook: And the basic facts today are?
Peace Corps: There are more than 4,000 volunteers. The commitment is for 27 months, the first three of which are spent in intensive cultural and linguistic training. Over the life of the program, there have been more than 200,000 volunteers.
OutLook: Do recruits get to “request” a particular location? For example, if I am fluent in French, could I expect to go to a French-speaking country? Or if I wanted to learn a new language, such as Spanish, could I go to a country where Spanish is the native language?
Peace Corps: That is a very common question because, of course, it is natural to want to use the language skills that you have and it is also natural to want to “get something out of” the experience of serving. However, the answer is that you can “request,” but in fact, decisions about placement are primarily based on your skill set and the needs of the developing countries.
OutLook: Would you explain how that sorts out?
Peace Corps: Well, for starters, we currently serve in 77 countries. Our programs fall into six broad categories: education (33 percent), youth and community development (18 percent), health and HIV/Aids (18 percent), business and information and communication technology (17 percent ), agriculture (8 percent), and environment (7 percent). So, to get specific, you can see that if your professional background was in health care, the overriding placement decision would be to locate you in an area requesting help with health care.
OutLook: Which parts of the world have the greatest needs for Peace Corps support?
Peace Corps: 41 percent of our efforts are dedicated to the African continent. Latin America receives 23 percent, followed by Eastern Europe and Central Asia at 17 percent. The least aid goes to the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, North Africa and the Middle East. It is important to bear in mind that we only go where we are invited. Beyond that, the country must be safe for our volunteers and offer an appropriate opportunity for our programs to be successful. This is critical because we are not giving money, we are giving skilled aid on a personal basis.
OutLook: If I were thinking about joining up, what would you tell me?
Peace Corps: First, I would encourage you with the fact that about 20 percent of our volunteers are over 50. Our oldest current volunteer is 85 and serving in Morocco. Next, I would ask if you are a flexible and adaptable person who is comfortable with all sorts of people. Then, I would stress that success is very dependent on being able to “listen first, act second.” Finally, I would point out the benefits of serving as an “elder.” You frequently are treated with great respect and you can count on having an adventure beyond your imagining, an experience that will keep you young!
OutLook: So what is the process for applying?
Peace Corps: The application is submitted online. You will receive a response in three to 12 months.
OutLook: So this is a long process?
Peace Corps: Yes. The entire program will be close to a five-year commitment.
OutLook: If I qualify on the basis of my paper application, what happens next?
Peace Corps: You will have a personal interview. If you pass that, an intensive physical review will follow, which can take three to six months. Your health is critical because you may be located in an area with no medical support or health care facilities. Once you receive medical approval, you will have one more personal interview which will be followed by an “invitation to serve.” This is the moment of truth. You will be told the location of your assignment and the program service area. You have 10 days to accept or refuse.
OutLook: Eureka! I get accepted and I decide to go. But I don’t speak the language, I have scarcely heard of the country. What next?
Peace Corps: First you have a one-day session with your fellow volunteers, usually a group of 30 to 50 others who are going to the same country. Then you pack your bags and spend three months in your host country, staying with a local family who will provide you with a 24/7 language immersion experience. Your days will be filled with language classes and cross-cultural training, which will tell you what you need to know for your safety, security and health. During this time, you will become part of the community and you will already be representing America.
OutLook: Then I go on my assignment?
Peace Corps: Yes. You will move to another location where you may be the only volunteer. But you will have the support of a community contact who speaks English and can help you make connections within the community. You will live like a native and you will begin to define your job: what you can do and with whom.
OutLook: This sounds rather vague.
Peace Corps: It is. Unless you are specifically tasked with teaching English as a foreign language or something high-tech, you will need to assess how best to address the needs you have been requested to help meet. You have two years in which to work yourself into and out of a job, as the goal is always to develop sustainability within the community so that needs can be met locally without ongoing support.
OutLook: It sounds overwhelming.
Peace Corps: In one way, it is a big assignment, one worthy of the best you have to offer. However, it is the experience of a lifetime. We have volunteers who keep in touch with their host families or communities over many years. We also have volunteers who re-up for additional assignments. The Peace Corps is best described as an adventure — “The toughest job you’ll ever love!”
Tricia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peace Corps contact information:
Main number: 800 424.8580
1525 Wilson Boulevard – Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22209