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A group of Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia. Photo: Tommy and Georgie

It’s said that joining the U.S. Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love.”

IF YOU’RE READY to sign up, pack your bags, and take off on a 27-month assignment, here are five things you should know before you begin the labor-intensive and heart-breaking process of joining the Peace Corps.

1. Be honest with yourself.

Are you really cut out for living in an underdeveloped country on your own for more than two years? Can you handle being surrounded by poverty for an extensive amount of time? Is using a pit toilet (or less) and taking a bucket bath something you can stand?

Have you taken a close look at your skills and abilities? Consider what your strengths and interests are. Just as you wouldn’t be a teacher if you didn’t care for kids in the United States, you shouldn’t accept any position just so you can live and work overseas.

It may take longer to receive an assignment if you have specifications on what you can and can not tolerate or do, but you’ll find a more gratifying experience abroad if you take the time to evaluate yourself upfront.

2. Prepare yourself to adjust to local culture.

Prepare for meetings that begin with prayers, communal food, and afternoons that drift by when there’s work to be done. The world works on a different plane than the United States, so you’ll need to ease your way into a new mindset. Bow your head, wash your hands, and take off your watch.

There’s a reason why Peace Corps service lasts two years. You will spend the first year settling in, and a whole year working on a project. Don’t be surprised if you leave feeling like you’ve achieved nothing. It’s during those long afternoons and your communal meal chats that cultural exchange happens, and that alone meets Peace Corps’ second and third goals of promoting understanding.

“There’s a reason why Peace Corps service lasts two years.”
3. Understand that poverty is real.

When you visit larger cities in your country of service, you will encounter street kids and poverty. But poverty isn’t limited to the visible corners of the world’s largest cities. The sad truth is that your friends, neighbors, and co-workers will also be hungry and poor. They won’t have money to pay for their kids to go to school or take their babies to the doctor. When drought strikes, their crops will dry up, and they will go hungry.

You, on the other hand, will still receive a stipend and will be able to eat. Try explaining that to your community when you’ve already told them you live at their means and are equal to them as a productive member of their society. You will be asked for money to cover the cost of food, medical expenses, travel, school fees, and more.

Consider your stance on if and what you want to give, even to your neighbors and closest friends. Your actions will follow you throughout the rest of your service.

4. Remember: You are an American.

It may sound strange, but you will try hard to fit in with your community and trying to shed your American skin can be difficult. Despite every effort you make to fit in to the local culture, you are still an American.

Learning the language will go a long way to break down barriers. Dress appropriately and abide by traditional standards and you’ll begin to make leeway. And while you may convince your neighbors that you are just like them, most people you encounter in your host country will take you for another American tourist.

“Your actions will follow you throughout the rest of your service.”

Use these opportunities to be yourself and educate people about what it is like to live in the United States. Tell them about your interests, dreams and fears. Break down the “typical American stereotype” and put a friendly face on what most people only see in movies and read in the news.

In your attempt to fit in culturally, you may also struggle with your personal ideals and values. You might feel like you can’t say “no” because it’s not the culturally appropriate thing to do, but if you’ve been singled out and harassed because you clearly aren’t a local, then don’t act like one. Stand up for yourself and move on. Letting people take advantage of you because you are an American while you try desperately to fit in culturally will wear you down and make you feel used long before your service is over.

5. Realize that you will change.

The toughest job you’ll ever love does not end when you complete your service. One of the hardest parts begins when you step back onto American soil. People will ask you about your service, but two years are not easily summarized in two sentences, and people don’t have the time to hear more than two sentences.

You will also find that not much changed in your absence. People will still throw away food they don’t finish. They will waste water, be consumed with stuff, and care too much about Hollywood. People will expect you to get an apartment, get a job, and get on with your life, but it’s not that easy.

Many Peace Corps volunteers make extreme career choices based on their service, not on the college degree they got before they left. This often means that they’ll return to school or take jobs in low-paying service and non-profit sectors. To former volunteers, this makes sense, but family and friends may scratch their heads in confusion.

Readjustment will take time. Stay in touch with your fellow Peace Corps volunteers and join your local Peace Corps alumni group. The hyperactive United States can be very overwhelming for a person who just spent 27 months living by the sun.

Community Connection:

Not prepared to make the commitment to the Peace Corps? A short-term volunteer placement also requires planning. Read “Five Expectations to Avoid Before Volunteering Abroad” to prepare yourself.

For tips about coping with reverse culture shock, check out “How to Understand (And Beat) Your Homecoming Hangover” or “6 Simple Ways to Beat the Post-Travel Blues.”

And to really get inspired, real Audrey Scott’s interview with Muriel Johnston, in “Seniors in the Peace Corps.”

About The Author

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a freelance writer, former Peace Corps volunteer, globetrotter planning her next great adventure. Journey with her on her travel blog and follow her on Twitter.

  • kefuoe

    This post really piqued my interest. I’ve served as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I’ve served as overseas staff training and supporting volunteers in their work. I’ve got a lot of opinions on what makes a successful volunteer, but your first point is so key, it bears repeating: Be honest with yourself.

    The application and acceptance process can seem very long and very trying. I think many applicants approach it like they would a job search. They attempt to put their best foot forward and present themselves in the best possible light. As a result, they underplay the challenges and overestimate their strengths. Just like you would in a job interview, right?

    My standard advice for people considering Peace Corps is to listen carefully to your recruiter, take advantage of opportunities to talk to returned volunteers, and allow yourself to realize that maybe Peace Corps is not for you.

    • http://www.joannahaugen.com JoAnna

      Kefuoe ~

      Thanks for stopping by and throwing in your two cents as a volunteer and staff member. You’re right … this is definitely not just another job, and working with a recruiter to ensure a proper placement that matches the skills, abilities and interests of a potential volunteer is so important!

      Cheers,
      JoAnna

  • http://www.huevosalamexicana.com Sarah

    Excellent article, JoAnna. I’ve never been in the Peace Corps but have spent the last five years living abroad, mostly in developing countries. Your point about not forgetting that you’re an American is right on–it can be one of the hardest things to do when you really care about a place and its people, and you want so badly to belong.
    But really, at the end of the day, you are an American, and you most likely come from circumstances that are entirely alien to most of the people you’re living with. Belonging or not isn’t so much a choice on your part as it is a process, and one that’s ultimately determined by the local people. If they don’t accept you for a whole host of reasons, than you have to accept that and deal with it.

    I also love this line: “People will ask you about your service, but two years are not easily summarized in two sentences, and people don’t have the time to hear more than two sentences.”

    I feel that way every time I come back to visit friends and family in the states–no matter if my trip was a month or a year, people don’t really know how to deal with it. It’s really hard to accept that, but most people I know in the U.S just can’t relate. That’s why it’s so essential to find friends with similar backgrounds and experiences.

  • http://www.pulkitvasudha.com Pulkit Vasudha

    Is the Peace Corps only open to U.S. citizens?

    • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

      Yup.

  • http://musictravelwrite.wordpress.com Michelle

    Thanks, JoAnna, for a really helpful article. This is great advice.

  • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.wordpress.com JoAnna

    Hi Sarah ~

    Without that group of support, reverse culture shock can almost be worse than the culture shock you experience when you first arrive in a new destination. For me, staying in touch with the friends I made and served with in Peace Corps has been really important because I still get frustrated at the waste and consumerism I see around me, and I know they understand.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Cheers,
    JoAnna

  • http://www.tvrotsyourmindgrapes.com/ Marissa

    Very interesting. I had a friend in the Peace Corps a few years ago doing AIDS awareness projects. He actually felt like he was making more of a difference teaching the local kids computer skills. It’s definitely important to go into it with an open mind, as your expectations may not be met. Luckily, he still felt good about his experience there.

    • http://www.joannahaugen.com JoAnna

      That’s a common reaction, Marissa. Many volunteers find that they’ve been more successful in fostering cultural exchange than completing actual “work” during their service. That cultural exchange takes into account the second and third goals of the Peace Corps.

  • MaryBeth

    I’m just getting my degree, so i still have time to think about if i’d like to join PC or not. a long time actually. this was such a helpful article. thank you! i’ve had so many mixed comments and stories about the Peace Corps and it’s nice that its cleared up and put in raw, simple definition. Definitely makes me think twice, but makes me that much more excited! What are all the expenses you have to cover to recieve an assignment?

    • http://www.joannahaugen.com JoAnna

      You will need to undergo a series of medical, dental and (for some people) psychological exams to make sure you are physically fit to serve, and to make sure that any medical limitations you might have can be serviced in the country in which you are placed. You are reimbursed for all of this, but you are dealing with the government here, so follow the rules carefully and expect possible delays in getting your reimbursements. The only other expenses you might incur are phone calls to your recruiter, paying for college transcripts to be sent and other small charges along those lines.

      Good luck!

  • http://www.uncorneredmarket.com Audrey

    JoAnna, a well-written and accurate piece. I was a Peace Corps volunteer about ten years ago in a more “developed” Peace Corps assignment (Estonia), but I think what you wrote applies to all Peace Corps experiences.

    To add on to the discussion you and Marissa were having about assignments and expectations, I wanted to say that PCVs should not expect that their “job” will be fully defined when they arrive. Many times the host organization, especially if it is the first time hosting a PCV, will not really know how to use the PCV’s skills. It usually takes up to 6 months at site to find your role and how you can best contribute to the community (not just your host organization). For example, I was a small business development volunteer attached to a small municipal government. However, I feel that I most contributed to the community via my “outside activities” – the business classes I taught at the high school and English I taught to enterprising adults.

    • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.wordpress.com JoAnna

      Great point Audrey. I know a lot of PCVs (myself included) who felt more “successful” in the undefined projects they encountered (often the secondary projects they picked up or started in their second year of service).

      On a related note, it’s really important for PCVs to take the time to step back and really get a feel for what’s going on in the community. I spent a lot of time meeting people, drinking chai and making connections before doing any actual “work.” A lot of times there are people in the community more skilled in the “job” that PCVs are assigned to do, and it’s so important to work with the community and take advantage of the skills and abilities of neighbors who can be a huge asset to a project. Of course, this also helps in leaving behind a project that is sustainable once Peace Corps service has ended as well.

  • http://marneweb.com Bill Graham

    JoAnna, your five points are just as timely as when I served upcountry in Sierra Leone in 62-64 as a teacher.

    Especially your last point – be prepared that few except other RPCVs will want to hear about your experiences. When I came back in ’64 the only “welcoming arms” were those of the Selective Service ;-) Some will recall there was a little strife back then called “Vietnam”.

    I stopped by here checking for ideas in planning a photography trip to Zimbabwe (mostly upcountry) next Jan/Feb 2009 in case any of you have thoughts on that.

    Thanks, Bill

  • http://www.myspace.com/bocollins88 Bo

    What a great article! I haven’t been in the Peace Corps myself, but I did a kind solo venture volunteering through parts of North Eastern Thailand for nearly a year and a half.
    All of these points you’ve made can easily filter over into my experience.
    Especially number 5, about going home….Once I went back to the States after that period in the Thai countryside, and like you say, an extended period of time like that is not so easy to summarize in 2 sentences, I found myself sometimes overwhelmed and out of place. It was much more difficult to get back in the flow of the American lifestyle than I had originally thought it be.
    This is a fantastic article for anyone considering long term humanitarian work anywhere in the world!
    Thanks again for sharing :)

  • Scott

    Thank you for the informative article, JoAnna. It was very helpful. However, I have one question concerning the Peace Corps that I haven’t been able to get answered elsewhere: are individuals with tattoos allowed to volunteer?

    • http://www.joannahaugen.com JoAnna

      Hi Scott,

      There is no rule that a Peace Corps volunteer can’t have a tattoo, but just like traveling overseas, you should be mindful of what they mean in a social and cultural context. Depending on where you are placed, you may need to cover your tattoos up.

      Actually, there are some countries where tattooing is a Peace Corps volunteer tradition. In a recent issue of WorldView, the publication of the National Peace Corps Association, there was an article about how many volunteers placed in Samoa get traditional tribal tattoos to commemorate their service.

      Hope this helps! Good luck!

      • Scott

        Well, the problem is that I have numerous tattoos, mostly on my two arms and on my neck. Nothing profane or vulgar, just ideas and beliefs that I’ve found to define me and have expressed so through the art of tattoos. Whether or not they’d be considered to be unacceptable would depend upon the Peace Corps and the location where I’d be sent.

        I’d hate to think that I would, as a human being who yearns to help others in the world, be denied the opportunity to volunteer, based solely upon my skin art. Is there someone I could talk to within the Peace Corps to help me gauge my situation?

        Thank you so much for your patience and help!

        • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.wordpress.com JoAnna

          Hey Scott,

          I would suggest you talk to your regional recruiter. You can find out who that person would be here: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=meet.regrec. This is the person who would help you through the entire application process, and part of a recruiter’s job is to available to answer potential volunteers’ questions. Try emailing your local recruiter, or find a local Peace Corps event where you’ll be able to meet with the recruiter face-to-face to talk about your situation.

          Cheers,
          JoAnna

  • http://travelvice.com craig | travelvice.com

    I still have no idea how it is that people are joining this organization — must be the tag line. Most every Peace Corps person I met in Eastern Europe was miserable, and being treated like children.

    More here:
    http://travelogue.travelvice.com/romania/peace-corps-people/

  • http://mivoz-myvoice.blogspot.com MiVozBlog

    Amazing. Loved this post. I am actually a PC nominee so I am still going thru the process (it’s been a year already) and like you said…it takes time. I don’t think PC was kidding when they said, “we need two things from you: patience and flexibility” and boy they’re right.

    I am actually very excited and if I was offered to depart next week, it’d be a dream come true. But, people also have to keep in mind that those that want to volunteer cannot just ‘want to help’. PC needs people that want to do more than that and that can endure what it truly means to live like those you serve… to me the living conditions is not a concern for me; I was born and raised in a developing country…but I am sure there’s more I need to be prepared for…

    • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

      Congrats on your nomination!

      There’s no way to truly prep for your service, but going in with an open mind is key. Have fun!

      • http://mivoz-myvoice.blogspot.com MiVozBlog

        Thanks JoAnna. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Matthew

    I had a question, I have a friend leaving for the Ukraine in a few days and wondered what I could get her for her trip. I know it is off topic, but I wanted to get her something to help support her on her trip. She mentioned that she has very limited space to pack things. So is there one thing that you wish you had when you arrived in your new country? Thanks!

    • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

      Hi Matthew ~

      What a great question! It’s funny you should ask this, because, in my experience, the things I never would have anticipated the things I would have wanted the most. Peace Corps volunteers go through 8-12 weeks of training before being placed at their sites. In those couple months, there wasn’t much that I needed or wanted because I had a lot of support through the training staff and my homestay family.

      Once we were placed at our sites, however, I discovered that what I craved were certain food-related items. I’m sure this is a country-specific issue, so I’m not sure exactly how to advise you based on the fact that I served in West Africa whereas your friend is going to Eastern Europe, but I could not get enough of spices. What I loved more than anything from friends and family in care packages were seasonings and spices and – this might sounds strange – those packets of cheese from macaroni and cheese packages. I could buy noodles, but having that cheese flavor to add to it made all the difference. Like I said, this might be a country-specific thing, but this may be something you’d like to consider giving your friend as spice packets are small and she may not realize yet how much she’ll appreciate them.

      I hope this helps. Let me know what you decide to do.

      Cheers,
      JoAnna

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/alainaob Alaina O’Brien

    What an honest article. Very helpful, pointing out important points I had never before considered.

  • http://marneweb.Com Bill Graham

    Good summary of the PC experience. During my two years in Sierra Leone (’62-64) I had no problems adjusting, getting along, doing my job and the rest. Joanna’s point 5 was the sticker though:

    When you return “People will ask you about your service, but two years are not easily summarized in two sentences, and people don’t have the time to hear more than two sentences.”

    Did I ever discover that fast. Keep your replies to well intentioned family or friends down to one sentence: “I learned a lot”. If they want to draw you out, fine, but don’t push it. Their eyes glaze over two words into the third sentence!

  • John

    What specific skills do we need to be excepted into PC? I’m a liberal arts and social science major so anything technical I lack. I don’t even have a ESL certificate, but I am completing an internship that involves working with adolescents in impoverish neighborhoods, so I guess that stands for something. Right? I have a feeling I’m lacking in the “experience” column, so I’m not sure I’ll be accepted.

  • John

    I mean accepted. It’s been a long day.

    • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

      There are needs for volunteers from a diverse array of backgrounds. Having volunteer experience is a great asset to your application. There are a lot of volunteers with a liberal arts background (myself included), but that doesn’t make them any less able to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Chances are you won’t be placed in a business-related program, but you may be able to work as a health educator or in a youth development-related position. Don’t let your background hold you back; your recruiter will help you find the best fit for your skills and background.

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  • http://beatnomad.wordpress.com Jessie

    I just stumbled on this article after searching for something completely different but wanted to thank you for the insight! I’m on the last step of joining the Peace Corps (just waiting for that recruiter phone call…) and things are beginning to feel very real. Even though I’ve already made the decision and thought about it a lot, I feel like your points are great to keep in mind even after beginning service, especially the part about being honest with yourself.

    Thank you!

  • http://beatnomad.wordpress.com Jessie

    Also, maybe we should add weird illnesses (i.e. diarreha) as a normal aspect of life to the list? Erm… not looking forward to that one…

    • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

      Congratulations! Waiting for that final phone call can be a nail-biting experience!

      You’re right, weird illnesses do sneak up on you. I don’t know if it’s fair to say they’re all illnesses, but your body will go through a lot of changes as you adjust to the stress, new foods, new routines, etc. Stay on top of your hygiene and let your medical director know if anything feels off. He / she will be a great resource while you’re in-country.

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  • Quintero A01

    Hey my name is Angelique and I an very interested in joining the Peace Corps. I was wondering who I would contact for more information if you could help me with this that would be great! :)

  • Brittany Adams

    This is good advice for those friends and students of mine who have been asking me about the Peace Corps.

  • Jolanar Fyora

    interesting, but I need to understand how can this related to tourism.

  • Dante’ Nicole Miller

    I’m thinking of joining the peace corps after I get my bachelors degree in 2014 or 2015 :) This is help out a lot.

  • Dante’ Nicole Miller

    I’m thinking of joining the peace corps after I get my bachelors degree in 2014 or 2015 :) This is help out a lot.

  • Chloe Stegall

    I’m thinking about joining but is all you do is teach? I thought it was rebuilding stuff but I’m getting out of the army cus I was in a car accident would that matter?

  • Raul E Lorenzoni

    I want to assist those in need, that’s the reason that I went back to college to achieve a degree in nursing. I am a survivor, I have been in the third world countries. I am ready for this challenge, and even better I have plenty to give.

  • Jaclyn

    I’m 36yrs old and I will be completely honest with you… I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 14, anxiety disorder, and in 2010, ADD. These may seem as set backs to everyone, but for something like the Peace Corps, it makes me the perfect canidate. I live below poverty levels as is with my SSDI. This may sound strange, but in order to explain my “qualifications” the only way I can explain it is the whole left/right brained thing kind of, my family members I guess a way to put it is, they think in a way of “numbers”, where as I think of life in “colors”. I am a very emotional person and although I am poor, I am the type of person who will “give the shirt off my back” to someone who I feel needs it more than myself, this is the BEST/GREATEST feeling that I’ve ever had. I want more of those feelings. I need to put others ahead of myself, in order for me to be positive and care about myself. I don’t have any degree in psychology, etc. and the degree I do have, wouldn’t be of any use. What I do have is personal experience and the understanding of people who are called “lazy”, because of mental/psychological set backs. It has the same type of association as why former drug and alcohol abusers, become AODA counselors. I actually started to take some courses to begin a psych degree, but at the time I was not aware of my ADD and I have a very hard time learning through reading and lectures. I need to learn by actually doing the task.
    Just with this short bit of information, I need to know what I have to do to become involved in something as the Peace Corps or something to help people in need and spread our Lord’s blessings around to those who need it more than me.
    Thank you
    &
    God bless,
    Jaclyn

  • Jennifer Hsu

    Hi, I am interested in joining the peace corps but I just graduated from nursing school and have a big student loan to pay off. just wondering how will this affect me if I need to be away fro 2 years? Any other suggestions will be appreciated : )

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