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