Back in 1995, I was a new college graduate. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in English and no real work experience, I found it hard to find a good job. I longed to get “launched” and see places I had never seen before and I knew the military wasn’t an option for me. Then I remembered that my oldest sister, Betsy, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco back in the 1980s.
The Peace Corps is an agency run by the United States government that sends volunteer American citizens to work in developing countries who have requested services. Volunteers typically spend 27 months, that’s two years of service and three months of training, in country. The Peace Corps sends volunteers all over the world. Since 1961, over 187,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps Volunteers in 139 different countries, doing everything from teaching English to building schools. But one of the best parts of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is having the chance to create relationships with people from other cultures and exchanging new ideas.
Peace Corps Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, though there is no upper age limit. The vast majority of applicants have college degrees, though it’s not unheard of for people without degrees to get assignments. Married couples can apply to serve together as long as they don’t have children. Additionally, married couples can also serve without their spouses. I knew several older Americans who joined the Peace Corps while their spouses stayed home.
I ponder crossing the pond
To be honest, joining the Peace Corps had never been something I had considered doing after I got out of college. Betsy had always had an adventurous travel bug, but I never felt the urge to go abroad. Sure, our family had spent time abroad because my dad was in the Air Force and his last duty station was in England, but I had never felt the need to work abroad myself. On the other hand, living with my parents at 22 years old was definitely getting very old. Working at unchallenging jobs was also not very satisfying. So one day, I decided to call the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC for an application.
When I got the application a few days later, I was immediately daunted by the size of it. These were the days before the Internet was really conducive to filling out online applications. I had to answer a lot of questions about my motives for wanting to join the Peace Corps as well as my preferences as to where I wanted to serve. I knew that the Peace Corps, at least circa 1995, was selective. I threw the application away, since I didn’t think they’d accept me. Two weeks later, I realized that I had nothing to lose by applying. I requested another application and when it arrived, I immediately started to fill it out.
The toughest job I’ll ever love?
The night in January 1995 that I filled out my Peace Corps application, I got word that my Aunt Jeanne had passed away from a brain tumor. I knew at that point that I needed to go through with the application process. On the way to Jeanne’s funeral, I dropped the application in the mail. Two weeks after that, I was invited to an interview at a regional Peace Corps office in Arlington, Virginia.
If you don’t live near a regional office, phone interviews can be done. Luckily, my sister lived within walking distance of the Peace Corps Office, so I arranged to go in for a face to face interview with a recruiter. I spent the night with my sister, then showed up the next morning for the interview. Dressed professionally for the interview, I felt pretty sharp when I talked to Bethe, my recruiter. We had a nice chat. She had been a volunteer in Thailand. Although she was very positive about her time in the Peace Corps, she was also realistic. The Peace Corps can be a very tough undertaking. It means living in a country where the creature comforts and conveniences Americans are used to can be in very short supply. On the other hand, it can also mean discovering new creature comforts and learning how to adapt to new things. Bethe gave me a choice of three regions where I could serve. Since my degree was in English, she said I qualified to teach English as a foreign language and could go to Europe, Central Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, or Asia Pacific. I could not go to Latin America, which is where I thought I wanted to go. Bethe told me to think about my decision and call her if I wanted her to nominate me for an assignment.
It didn’t take much time for me to make a decision. The more I thought about the Peace Corps, the more I wanted to go ahead with it. I was fully on board when I called Bethe and told her I wished to be nominated for a Peace Corps assignment somewhere in Europe, Central Asia, or the Mediterranean.
Bethe nominated me for an assignment in my chosen area. I had heard from other people that getting a Peace Corps assignment could take as long as a year or two, so I didn’t feel too much of a sense of urgency. In my case, however, I got word about a month after my interview that I had been invited to serve as an English teacher in the Republic of Armenia! What’s more, I would be leaving the country on May 31st! I had to round up six references, undergo legal and medical screenings, and turn in tons of paperwork related to passport and visa applications.
The legal screening was easy. I got fingerprinted at the local police station so that an FBI check could be done. I submitted financial papers that proved that I didn’t owe tons of money to anyone, nor did I have anyone depending on me. I had student loans but I was able to get them deferred while I served as a volunteer.
The medical screening was harder. I had to undergo a very thorough medical screening which included my very first gynecological exam. I also had to get a dental screening done. Thankfully, I still had military health insurance at the time, so it didn’t cost me a lot of money to complete the physical. The Peace Corps will reimburse for some of the costs related to getting the physical. Applicants can also go to a federal medical facility to get the physical completed. I didn’t have any significant medical problems back then, aside from being overweight. I managed to get everything completed within a few visits.
Some of my colleagues who had medical issues had to have more testing done. Having medical issues doesn’t necessarily disqualify you for service, but it does narrow down the places where you can serve. The Peace Corps works hard to place volunteers in countries where adequate medical facilities are available to take care of special medical needs. And it’s true that some medical conditions will be disqualifying outright or may have to be resolved before an assignment can be made. The Peace Corps has relationships with local medical facilities and employs Peace Corps Medical Officers to take care of volunteers’ minor medical problems. Volunteers with more severe medical problems usually get sent to Washington, DC for treatment.
Now all the paperwork is done and I’m on my way…
It took less than two months for me to be accepted for my Peace Corps assignment. I didn’t have much time to tie up loose ends or dwell on life during that time period. Less than four months after I got my invitation, I was due to be in country. While I waited for travel day to arrive, I started stocking up on things I would need for my tour overseas. Volunteers from Armenia sent letters to the new group, letting us know what was available in country and what wasn’t. I bought myself new boots in anticipation of harsh winters and baby wipes in anticipation of having no running water!
I was allowed to bring 110 pounds of luggage including two suitcases and a carry on. My parents were allowed to send me two boxes of goods after I finished training.
On May 30th, I reported to a nice hotel in Washington, DC, where I met the 31 people who would be accompanying me to Armenia for the following two years. I spent all day in logistical meetings with my new colleagues, then the next day, we took off to Yerevan, Armenia with a twelve hour layover in Paris, France. That flight was jus the beginning of seeing the world. In the course of the next two years, I saw eleven different countries.
Seeing the world…
I came to Armenia with no savings to speak of. I used my savings to buy supplies and pay off my credit card bills. Still, while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, I managed to visit Georgia, Turkey, and Bulgaria by bus when I took a three week vacation over the course of my second summer there. At the end of my tour, I opted to get the cash equivalent of my ticket home, plus 1/3 of what’s called the readjustment allowance. When I was a volunteer, I got $200 for every month I served in Armenia, which added up to about $5400. By now, the allowance has gone up. I took the cash for my ticket and the 1/3 of my readjustment allowance, bought a one month second class Eurrail pass and flew from Yerevan to Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I took spent a month traveling around Europe, visiting Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. It was the experience of a lifetime, and that’s not even including what I actually did as a volunteer.
Should you join the Peace Corps?
Make no mistake about it, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is hard work. It can also be dangerous. People have died while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. On the other hand, the Peace Corps has also been a life altering event for some people. Seven people in my group, for instance, ended up marrying Armenian locals during our tour. Lots of other folks I knew when I was a volunteer later got great jobs working with international aid organizations or the government. A number of my former colleagues are still living and working overseas. Others, myself included, ended up going to graduate school after the Peace Corps.
People who are considering joining the Peace Corps should not do it just because they want to see the world. However, seeing the world is a great perk related to being a volunteer. Had I not been a volunteer, I doubt I would have seen as many countries as I have. Besides seeing a lot of the world, I also got the chance to learn a new language and live in an environment that is not so cushy. It does a lot for my self esteem to know that I can survive without cars, air conditioning, hot water, or electricity. In fact, not only did I survive, but I did so quite comfortably.
My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer wasn’t always smooth sailing, but I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything. I would recommend it to anyone who can spare two years, has a sense of adventure, likes roughing it, and wants to see the world. On a related note, I never thought I’d be living abroad again, but it turns out this summer my husband and I will be heading to Europe again… this time to Germany, courtesy of the U.S. Army!