So you are thinking of joining the Peace Corps…… and even if you are not view the ‘Videos, Blogs, and Other Resources to Check Out’ about half way down the page for a look at PC life and have a good laugh.
The Basics: What, Who, Where, and Why of Peace Corps
The Peace Corps is a volunteer program through the American government that was started in 1961 by John F. Kennedy to promote world peace and friendship through service abroad.
Excerpt from the Peace Corps Act (22 U.S.C. sec. 2501)
The Congress of the United Sates declares that it is the policy of the United Sates and the purpose of this Act to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United Sates qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of people served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.
The Three Goals of Peace Corps:
- Meet need for trained manpower
- Increase understanding of Americans
- Increase understanding of other people by Americans
Core Expectations of Peace Corps Volunteers:
- Prepare yourself for 27 months
- Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work (share your skills and learn new ones)
- Serve where PC asks, under conditions of hardship, with flexibility
- Integrate yourself into your host community and culture respectfully because successful and sustainable development is based on local trust and confidence
- Be ‘on duty’ 24/7
- Engage with host country partners with cooperation, mutual learning, and respect
- Behave according to PC and local rules and regulations
- Exercise judgement and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety, and wellbeing of others
- Represent the United States
- Represent your host country
“Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us”
– Sargent Shriver (first PC director)
Peace Corps is for American citizens over the age of 18 ready to leave in a year or less.
There have been over 220,000 individuals who have served in the Peace Corps since its start and there are currently around 6900 serving overseas.
Notable RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) are: Bob Vela from Home Improvement, Chris Matthews from MSNBC, Lillian Carter, Reed Hasing of Netflix, Peter Hesseler from NYT and NPR, and China Hudson from WWE
The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28.
There is a wide array of individuals who serve all with different backgrounds, ages, life stages, ethnic groups, races, marital statuses, sexual orientations, etc.
What Do You Do?
As a Peace Corps volunteer you live and work in a community for two years.
There are 6 different sectors in which Peace Corps Volunteers work:
- Youth in Development
- Community and Economic Development
These are very broad categories and what you will actually do on a day to day basis varies greatly not only from program to program but country to country and individual to individual.
Where Do You Serve?
Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 140 countries since the start, and currently serve in 60 to 65 countries depending on the political climate, safety concerns, etc.
Different areas that you can serve:
- Latin America
- North Africa and Middle East
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia
- Pacific Islands
Each country has its own program and while the ultimate goals are the same each program is run very differently. To give you an idea:
Peace Corps Botswana
Peace Corps Botswana started in 1966 when the country gained Independence and lasted until 1997 where volunteers served primarily in educational roles. Then there was a brief break until 2003 when PC was asked back to assist with the AIDS epidemic. There are over 100 volunteers currently serving in Botswana under the health and youth in development sectors. There are 4 different assignment areas: Life skills (who are based in schools but not teaching), Clinic and Health (based in clinic and district level health facilities but not nurses or doctors), Local Government Capacity Building (based in social work and District AIDS Coordinating offices), and NGO Capacity Building (work with NGOs, CBOs, and nonprofit organizations). The framework we work under involves teaching life skills, doing work with HIV prevention, capacity building organizations (i.e. supply chain management), and assisting with programs that provide care and support for individuals living with HIV. Each intake group over the past few years has been between 70 and 80 with a wide range diverse individuals.
Well, Why Would You Do That [Join Peace Corps]?
Why did I join?
- To serve
- Love people and build relationships
- Challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone
- Experience a new culture
- Pursue my passions
I wrote these reasons multiple times before I applied, when I applied, while interviewing, during staging, and even today.
There are benefits to Peace Corps Service:
- Opportunity to serve country by promoting peace and friendship
- Offering your skills and meeting the needs of individuals abroad
- Training (language, cross cultural, etc.) opportunities
- Living stipend, readjustment allowance, and financial assistance
- Opportunities for employment and graduate school
- Chance to see a different part of the world
- Experiencing living in another culture and exposure to new things
- Making friends in a new part of the world
- Chance for personal growth and challenge
Well that sounds like a sweet deal….
There are also some big challenges
- 27 months away from family, friends, and people you love most
- Isolation and feeling alone
- Adaptation of a different life style and culture (pace of life, treatment of animals and children, view of work, different foods, access to resources, gender norms, etc.)
- Emotional stresses such as being different or having to change parts of your identity
- Unwanted attention and harassment
Just to name a few.
Peace Corps is a challenging yet rewarding experience to be sure.
The Application Process
Before you even begin the application process I would suggest:
- Doing an internal inventory on why you want to join the Peace Corps
- Doing your research: look at online resources, speak to a recruiter, talk to currently serving volunteers about what their experience is like, and connect with RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) to hear about what their service meant to them
- Check out the different opportunities available on https://peacecorps.gov
Once you have contemplated whether you want to join the application process begins. The application is shorter and asks your basic information and qualifications, has a brief essay, and asks for two individuals (one personal and one professional) to act as references. Over all it is pretty painless compared to what it used to be.
In the application you get to view all the open service opportunities: what the job description is, where it is, when you would leave, etc. and you rank your choices and submit…..
Then you wait. I waited months which is probably because I applied over a year in advance.
Finally, you will get a nomination which will specify the service opportunity and country, neither of which are guaranteed. Then you will have an interview (mine was an over an hour skype conversation) where I was asked about why I wanted to join the Peace Corps, which one of the core expectations I may have difficulty fulfilling, and various aspects of my ability to adapt like: are you willing to live without electricity and/or running water? or what are your normal coping mechanisms and how would you go about coping if you couldn’t cope in your normal way? Then you thank the interviewer for their time, ask them some questions, and say goodbye.
It took less than a week for me to get my acceptance but that varies from individual to individual.
Videos, Blogs, and Other Resources to Check Out
Poop in a Hole – video
So you want to Join the Peace Corps – video
10 Things I Wish I knew Before Joining Peace Corps
Reasons you shouldn’t and should join Peace Corps
PC Bots Blogs
Facebook pages for PCVs are great. Here in Botswana we have a PCV Bots page as well as a group for each group i.e. Bots 15, 16, 17, etc.
Lessons Learned and Words of Wisdom from Current PCVs
- “Own your service”
- “It will be the hardest job you will ever love”
- “Learn to laugh at yourself”
- “Laugh even when you want to cry”
- “Peace Corps is 90% psychological”
- “Be flexible”
- “Just keep swimming”/ “Preserve”/ “Anything temporary is doable”
- “Stay positive”
- “Prioritize self-care”/ “Learn your limits and stick to them” / “Prepare coping skills accordingly”
- “Remember you are in a controlled environment”
- When packing remember that “you are not going on a camping trip” (although you may go on a few camping trips)
- “You will have to adjust to a new climate (both culturally and geographically) so come prepared”
- “Download your VRF” (Volunteer Reporting Form) and anything you could want to download (aps, computer programs, videos, music, etc) for that matter before coming
- “Eat all the taco bell” (or your food of choice aka enjoy your favorite things before you leave)
- “Pay your private loans” and “figure out your student loans” and “save money for vacations”
The Acceptance Process
I got the acceptance email while I was at work. Then after reading the email multiple times and having a wide range of emotions flood my being from euphoria to terror within 5 minuets I decided to call it a day early. Then, I called people to share the news of the acceptance. My family and friends were very supportive. I had prepped them before time so they were aware of the commitment and accepted my news with bitter sweet feelings.
You have to officially accept the nomination, but that is the only beginning. From there you begin a series of portals: medical, background, safety, and a bunch I don’t even remember.
This is a LONG process and Peace Corps needs to clear you on a TON of fields before you can be officially ready to depart. I think I blocked a lot of it from my memory to be honest as I was finishing my last semester of college while doing this, but here is what I remember.
- A barrage of questions
- A medical appointment that covers every aspect of you possible (doctor signature needed)
- A dentist appointment with papers to sign, xrays to upload, and multiple fillings
- A eye appointment (new glasses and contacts….. shhh don’t tell Peace Corps as they recommend not bringing contacts)
- Vaccines: Rabies, Boosters, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hep A, B, and/or C, Meningitis, etc – basically everything and what you don’t get now you will get in country
- Medications: We did not need to get malaria medications for Botswana because only volunteers in the North need them (I am now on malaria meds) however you will need at least a 3 month supply of any medication.
- Get fingerprinted and pass
Various learning portals:
- I truly do not remember the specifics but I know there was a safety and security and a country specific that covers whether or not you need to get a visa and such
- You get a Peace Corps passport (got my pictures taken at Walgreens), upload an updated resume, write an aspiration statement, a mini bio, and probably a few more things that I truly don’t remember.
- You book a flight from your home of record to what’s called your staging site
Then once you get that all done comes the important stuff…. Your personal life
Preparing Your Personal Life
Student loans, Finances, Banking, etc. aka everyone’s favorite topic….
Banking: keep your bank accounts at home because you will use them for travel but know that you will be given one in country. Contact your bank(s) and tell them the situation (that you will be living abroad for 27 months and where exactly you will be), and make sure there is someone on your account who can access it if need be.
Finances: This depends on the individual but make sure you just communicate with whoever is managing them
Student Loans: This also depends, private or government, interest rates, ability to pay, future plans, etc. There are a few options like pay them off (either all at once if you can do that or schedule automatic payments), defer (talk to your loan provider but PC service should be a condition to defer them), or PSLF (Public Service Loan Forgiveness). I opted for PSLF because it just makes sense for me. You can get more information about it at the PSLF website. Getting my loans taken care of was a hassle because there are certain time frames that papers need to be signed and turned in (grace periods, dates you start working for the company, etc). My advice on student loans is try to work it out before you go and get power of attorney (I printed the POA sheets from my home states government page) so you can have someone back in the States sort things out for you if need be.
Insurance: I am a personal believer in being over prepared rather than under prepared. I got life insurance through Peace Corps as well as personal property insurance (for what? Because its not like I have much but I got it anyway) through Clements.
Phone: Call your company. Your options will probably be to cancel your plan or pay for the cell company to save your number. I would suggest unlocking your phone so that you can get a sim card in country, getting a life proof phone case, and choosing carefully what aps you have on it because it is VERY difficult to find strong enough wifi to download or update aps (I would HIGHLY recommend having whats ap, facebook lite, gmail or whatever email you use, and facebook messanger – there are other aps that I only use occasionally such as regular facebook and skype for when I get wifi, google maps for when I am traveling, wordpress for my blog, maps.me for mapping projects, and google drive)
Computer: I got a cheap basic computer with antivirus and Microsoft office and I am so glad I did because viruses are rampant, the environment is hard on technology, and replacement parts for apple products are difficult to come by.
What to buy: 1 TB external storage hard drive because you will want it then put things on it (music, workout videos, movies, tv shows, personal videos of family and friends, books, things you want to work on, cook books, etc), ereader like a Kindle (the batteries last forever), find what adapters your host country uses and get them before you leave the US, bring extra chargers and headphones, and download everything you could possible want before you come and put it on your hard drive
Female things: I would recommend ecofriendly tampons, reusable cups like the diva cup, or an IUD but be warned with an IUD though that there are implication with Peace Corps medical requirements so check into it before you make a decision.
Relationships: I spent the three months after graduation and before leaving for the Peace Corps spending time with friends and family, writing letters to everyone, and preparing myself and the people I love most for goodbye. It was great being able to spend time with the people and enjoy some of my favorite things before I left. I am also in a long distance relationship while in Peace Corps. The best advice I have for relationships back home is to prep them well in advance about your desire to join Peace Corps, spend ample time with one another before you leave, and then be patient when figuring out what the best mode of communication is in your host country.
Other: Spend time just enjoying amenities of the USA before you leave – eat your favorite foods, do your favorite activities, etc.
You are packing up your life for two years which is not the easiest task in the world. Some people can leave their stuff right where it is, others sell everything, some get storage units, I packed all my stuff in boxes and stored it in a relative’s building. The bigger question is what do I bring?
I will start by saying that what you bring wholly depends on you as a person bring what you need to be comfortable. My items that I am so glad I brought:
- Computer (one that is not top of the line)
- Smart phone (should have unlocked it before I left)
- Kindle (I am a reader)
- Chacos (I brought two pairs and wear them all the time)
- Tennis shoes (running is part of my coping)
- French Press (jet boil is like a French press for camping)
- Kitchen Knives (good ones are hard to come by here)
- Sleeping bag (I like to camp)
- Yoga mat (aka hobbies to pick up as well as a good coping mechanism)
- Personal items (pictures, letters, maps, Bible, Journal, and things that I enjoy)
Bring things you can work on like hobbies (gardening, exercise, knitting, computer programs, language books, musical instrument, etc)
Also Take advantage of discounts for PCVs. There is a wiki out there which has all the stores you can get a discount or perk for being a PCV (think Chacos, Kelty, etc).
My Packing List
Peace Corps Packing List
- 1 suitcase and 1 backpack (two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length + width + height) should not exceed 100 pounds total with a maximum weight of 50 pounds per bag)
- 1 carry on (45 in max)
- 1 personal item
- With luggage tags and locks
(A range of casual to proper dress wear – summer and winter, bring clothes you LIKE to wear, wrinkle free, prem press, that can stand up to handwashing and keep in mind you want to be culturally appropriate aka no miniskirts, short shorts, etc.)
- 2 bras
- 5 sport bras
- 20-30 pairs of underwear
- 3 wool socks
- 2 liner socks
- 5 regular socks
- 2 flat socks
- 2 spandex
- 3 tanks
- 5 shirts
- 3 running shirts
- 2 pjs
- 2 dressy shirts (bus cas)
- 3 dress
- 2 slacks (bus cas)
- 4 leggings
- 2 skirts
- 3 shorts (running)
- 3 pants
- 2 sweatshirts
- 1 flannel
- 2 sweater
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 Jacket (warm)
- 1 Rain gear
- 1 hiking boots
- 1 tennis shoes
- 2 pair of dress shoes
- 1 extra pair of niceish shoes
- 2 chacos
- gloves/hat/scarf material (I plan to learn to knit)
- 2 tights
- smart phone
- adaptor cords
- extra chargers
- external hard drive (1.5 TB)
- flash drives (32 G)
- Adaptors (M and G)
- Headphones (multiple pairs)
- Head lamp/flashlights with extra batteries
- portable charger
- JetBoil french press
- wine opener
- 10 in nonstick pan
- knives (paring, chopping, serrated cutting)
- spices (cinnamon, garlic, pepper, salt, curry, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, paprika, chili powder)
- Insulated coffee mug or thermos with lid (double as wine glass in evenings)
- tea and coffee
- Travel/American snacks (granola bars, trail mix, beef jerky)
- 3-month supply of: Sunscreen, old spice fiji deodorant, lotion, qtip, shampoo, soap, conditioner, medication
- facewash (gentle because of the harsh and dry environment)
- face moisturizer
- toothbrush, tooth paste, floss, mouthwash
- nail clippers, tweezers
- small mirror
- night guard
- hand sanitizer, wipes,
- feminine hygiene products
- quick dry towel
- 2 washcloths
- 2 pair glasses
- contact solution
- makeup basics (mascara, foundation – darker than usual)
- Hair clips/hair ties/headbands/bobby pins/comb
- Chap stick
- dry shampoo
- Sleeping bag
- Hammock with tarp
- Leatherman multi-tool
- dry bag
- small rope2 water bottles
- good pens
- duct tape
- Ziploc bags
- stationery/envelopes (for writing home)
- Reusable shopping bags
- 2 sunglasses
- Some paper books (Bible)
- Yoga mat
- Games (cards, dice, Frisbee, soccer ball, ball pump, etc.)
- forms (loan, immunizations, passport copies, pc invitation, etc.)
- bank cards
- host family gifts (USA maps and pictures)
- maps/picture book
- travel pillow
- money belt
- passport photos
My Thoughts, Updates, and Additions
Think consumable vs long term – do you want to bring things that will last two years or things (like food) that you truly enjoy and will be a great temporary pick me up
- I love command strips for hanging things on the wall
- Art supplies is always great for yourself or for the kiddos
- Bring good pens because they are always hard to come by
- Snacks and coffee are great always but are consumable
- Local maps are super fun
- I like camping so I wish I would have brought my full array of camping stuff
You can always buy more things but it just may take some patience because you may not be able to get them right away Also be warned that a lot of the things you buy will be of lesser quality. Your favorite brands may also be harder to get.
You will also have the opportunity to get traditional clothing made so don’t freak out too much.
Peace Corps does provide things but it depends on your program when you will get them. In Botswana you will get: a fully stocked medical kit, medications although it may not be your brand of choice, blanket, sheet set, pillow (of questionable quality), bucket, soap, laundry detergent, towel, money for each stage of service (PST walk around allowance, settling in allowance help buy one time things when you first get to site like curtains, official Peace Corps travel fund, etc), fire extinguisher, air horn, water filter, and in Botswana we got flash drives with a bunch of resources on them.
Then when you have everything packed, your flights to your staging set, it’s time to hop on a place to begin your adventure.
Staging is a whirlwind. It is basically how Peace Corps get everyone in same place (and does a little crash course) before you leave the country. You all consolidate at a hotel (mine was in NJ), then you spend time getting to know each other, you have a few sessions on what Peace Corps is, what to expect, etc., you get all your papers signed, go over logistics from when you leave the hotel to when you arrive in country, and you have your last meal and night in the States.
Staging is also a time to reflect on what you want for your Peace Corps experience and decide if service is truly for you.
My feelings during staging:
Anxieties – not loving people back home enough, not giving enough of myself to those I am serving, and language
Aspirations – build relationships, learn a lot, speak a new language, learn new skills, serve in whatever capacity is required of me, challenge myself, explore a different country, travel Africa, and go to traditional gatherings
It was an exhilarating time for sure.
Arriving in Country
Props to Peace Corps for handling the movement of almost 80 people and over 160 pieces of luggage to a different continent because that is a logistical nightmare. Travel was long, that is all I have to say. Arriving in country was exciting though. We were received right away by a Peace Corps Botswana member who guided us through immigration, customs, getting our baggage, and transporting us to our accommodations.
We spent a few days recovering from jet lag and getting acclimated in a hotel. During those few days we got an orientation, met staff, bonded with fellow volunteers, retrieved all our luggage, had medical interviews, got emergency language lessons, received basic in-country needs like a phone, got bank accounts and immigration stamps, etc.
Then after all was said and done we headed to our training village to begin PST.
Pre Service Training (PST)
My training village was Molepolole which is the largest village in Botswana 70,000 home to the Bakwena tribe.
Matching Ceremony for Host Families: Upon arrival we attended the matching ceremony where we were paired with a host family. It was all very fast and before I knew it I was at my host families house. The purpose of living with a host family is to learn cultural norms, attend celebrations and traditional gatherings, assist with language, learn to cook and prepare traditional foods, learn to clean and laundry, assist with community integration, etc. Now I had the best host family I could ever ask for, but not everyone’s experience is such. Amenities vary at each residence and everyone experiences different stressors living with a host family in a new culture. I truly enjoyed my host family experience. Some PCVs live with a host family for the entirety of their service while others only live with host families for a short period of time.
PST Logistics: you get a food basket (with dietary restrictions) to supplement your families food supply, you get a LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) which is a host country national who assists you with language acquisition, cultural understanding, and assist with any issues you encounter. You get a small walk around allowance but for the most part you are dirt poor. The internet access and communication with the outside world is next to none so prepare yourself for patience while you get that figured out.
Daily Life: Training for us was from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday with a half day of language or full day event on Saturdays. They really liked to keep us occupied. The mornings for me usually started around 6 am where I would bucket bath, eat breakfast, and prepare for the day. Then a group of us who had host families close to one another would head to our training site. We had language for at least 2 hours a day, sessions on PACA, VRF/MRE, framework, HIV/AIDS, program specific, resiliency, cultural competency, gender, diversity, PC approach to development, we had interviews with programming, medical, etc., healthy outlets which was time for us to just do things we enjoyed like Zumba, yoga, music, etc. Then we would head home. The sun set around 6:30 pm and we were told that we needed to be home before dark. Sometimes we would get together as PCVs and exercise or just hang out before our curfew or on weekends. I spent a lot of time with my host family: learning and practicing Setswana, making meals, doing cultural activities, getting to know one another, learning to do laundry by hand, etc.
Site Announcement: One of the most exciting part of PST is site announcement. This is a ceremony when you learn where your home will be the next few years. It happens about half way through PST.
Site Visit: Not every program does a site visit but we did. Our counterparts from our sites came for a brief introduction then we were off and traveling (some with and some without our counterparts). We spent two weeks where we were introduced to our host organizations, local leadership, and stakeholders in the community. I spent a lot of time just walking around introducing myself, familiarizing myself with my village, locating local resources, shadowing a current PCV, and taking notes about my community.
The Last Leg of PST: after site visit we only had a few weeks to hang out with PCVs, finish training, have language interviews (LPIs where we had to get Intermediate Low in Setswana in order to go to site), spent time with host families, and prepared for site aka shopped.
Swearing in: This is where you officially commit to being a PCV. There will be people who decide Peace Corps is not for them from before getting on the plane at staging to a few days before the swearing in ceremony (as well as after), but swearing in is a time where you take an oath of service vowing to serve the people of Botswana and represent America. It is pretty great. Then you spend your last bit of time with your host family, PC staff, and fellow PCVs before moving to your home for the next 2 years.
Community Integration AKA Lock Down
There are two periods of time where your traveling is restricted. One is right before you complete your service and the other is right when you move to your site. This is so you get accustomed to your site and become integrated into the community. There is a lot of alone time. My advice is to use this to your advantage. Don’t worry about finding your spot at work or starting projects, but use this time to build social capital in your community. Help out at your host organization, take community walks, spend time using your PACA tools, get settled, introduce yourself to EVERYONE, stop by random peoples houses to say hello, go to community cultural events, and just get out into your community so people get to know you and you get to know people.
There. That’s all I have. Thus far Peace Corps has been a challenging and rewarding experience. I have formed new relationships and become part of a new community, learned a lot and had a lot of personal growth, experienced a new cultures and different ways of life, traveled and seen amazing things, and continue to be excited to face each day whether it brings a challenge or success.