Peace Corps service is one of the most prestigious programs available to American citizens. The application process is lengthy, the training intensive, and the service itself rigorous. Despite all its challenges, I absolutely loved being in the Peace Corps, and I miss it dearly. Looking back, I wish I knew so many things about what the experience is actually like, but that kind of info just wasn’t out there when I was about to leave for Ukraine.
Part of this is because Peace Corps censors what volunteers can say on their personal blogs, and the official Peace Corps website hesitates to be real about the not-so-great aspects of service. After catching up recently with one of my best friends that I met in Peace Corps, I wanted to be 100% candid about what you should consider before applying.
If any of these five points below apply to you, then maybe Peace Corps isn’t the job for you at this season of life. And that’s completely okay! Part of effective service is being honest with yourself about where you are in life, and if you’re not ready, it’s easier on your mental health to be up front about that now than figure it out later. With all that said, read away!
1 // you don’t view Peace Corps as a real job
This is the biggest misunderstanding about what the Peace Corps is and does. Many people, even those far in the application process, don’t view Peace Corps service as a real job. IT IS. And it’s one of the most difficult, heart-wrenching, beautiful, life-giving jobs in the world.
If you don’t see 27 months of community immersion and volunteer service with a low stipend as a real job, then Peace Corps will blindside you like no other. The first step to understanding whether or not Peace Corps is a good fit for you is knowing that it’s a real job, and could be the most challenging one you’ll ever have. Contrary to popular belief, there are high qualifications for positions in many Peace Corps sectors like Community Economic Development. It’s not called the hardest job you’ll ever love for no reason!
2 // you’re looking for a way to vacation long-term
This one kind of follows from number 1, but Peace Corps is not a way for you to get a 2-year vacation and just chill at your site. I know that many volunteers get to their sites and their organizations do not have any concrete way of using their skills and engaging them in the community. If you’re a volunteer in this situation and you’re reading this right now, I am not talking to you.
Your presence at site and your willingness to be used in whatever way possible makes you a rockstar already. It is so difficult to be in limbo when your org won’t work with you. I know of many volunteers that go through this, but their resilience keeps them available to their communities. Wow, what strength! If you decided that it’s time to move on from Peace Corps due to this, then I’m proud of you for your service, your strength, and your bravery to make the decision that’s best for you. Besides, I think we could all use a pat on the back for being crazy enough to join Peace Corps in the first place!
But some volunteers enter Peace Corps with the mindset that they’re just going to prop their feet up and get by on as little work as possible for the next 27 months. I can think of few larger wastes of a host country organization’s time and U.S. taxpayer dollars. Peace Corps is not a vacation, y’all! If you go into it with that incorrect assumption, you will be unpleasantly surprised.
3 // you’re not ready to stay in one place
This is a big one. Peace Corps is attractive to many people that traveled full-time or plan to do so at some point. For people with the kind of free spirit that wants to roam all over the place, Peace Corps will drain you. It is not a way for you to travel everywhere like you may be thinking.
Service with Peace Corps is a job that will keep you in one place, often separated from other Americans, and it will be isolating.
If your spirit needs to travel all the time to be fulfilled, then this job is not for you. You will be miserable. Many people come into Peace Corps thinking they can just travel at the drop of a hat, which isn’t fully false, but it’s an unrealistic expectation.
The agency does grant two vacation days per month, but the ways and places they can be used can quickly get restricting. One of the first things Peace Corps does is restrict volunteers’ movement. Some Peace Corps country offices don’t even allow their volunteers to travel to the capital city regularly.
If Peace Corps staff considers your absences too frequent, they will most likely reprimand you for that. If that thought depresses you, imagine yourself while living it out. Think very critically about whether or not that will be a situation you can live with. If not, maybe you should postpone applying until you are in a place mentally where that sounds appealing!
4 // you need certainty
Peace Corps is an experience that will be uncertain the whole way through. You will be accepted for a specific country, and you may even apply to a specific country, but you won’t know so many things until you get there. You won’t know where you’re living, who you’re living with, where you’re working, your coworkers, how much money you’re making, or just about anything else until you arrive.
Volunteers have to trust the agency with every single aspect of their lives for two years. I even remember being told by Peace Corps to sign banking papers with my SSN on them that were completely in Ukrainian, before I had any real understanding of the language. That takes a lot of trust.
In my training, one of our supervisors that was in charge of determining our permanent sites even told us, “When you get your site, don’t ask why.” Those kinds of remarks from staff are common. If you’re wondering why you were dealt the hand you got, answers or explanations will be slim to none. This is mostly because the process calls for volunteers to be resilient. But it’s also because staff sometimes doesn’t want to be transparent.
If you need certainty and transparency in order to feel respected and valued, this job may not be a good fit.
People that barely know you and have probably never even done Peace Corps before will make very important decisions that will affect your life for the next two years. And questioning them rarely gets you closure. If anything, it’ll place you on staff’s radar–and not in a good way.
5 // you’re not in a good place to leave family for long stretches of time
If anyone in your family is gravely ill or their health is on the rocks, Peace Corps could cause you to lose time with them. My grandfather was a dementia and Parkinson’s patient with Lewy bodies. I knew before I left that he wouldn’t make it until I could get back to see him. Why? Because Peace Corps doesn’t allow volunteers to leave their country of service at all for the first six months. Everyone that knew him was at his funeral except for me, because I wasn’t allowed to leave Ukraine. Talk about heartbreak.
Here’s the bottom line: when it comes to the inner-workings of the Peace Corps as an agency, volunteers give the most.
The agency may not want to give credit where it’s due, but it’s just the truth. If you have family whose health is in a precarious state, go into service knowing that you may not be allowed to go back for their funeral. That is a lot to give up for a job.
Even if you don’t have family in a difficult health situation, you will spend pretty much every American holiday at work. Volunteers don’t get American holidays off, even though in-country staff (including non-Americans) get both American holidays and host country holidays off. You will trade a lot of time with the people you love for this job. That is not something to take lightly, and you deserve to know the gravity of that up front. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have before leaving.
Chances are, you will spend your favorite holidays with people you barely know, because a Peace Corps staff member decided you’re going to live with them after spending about 15 minutes in their house. Maybe it’ll work out amazingly! But it probably won’t. That’s just the ugly truth.
I know I got a little heated in this post, and I don’t want these points to discourage you from joining up. I do, however, want you to have every piece of information you need before deciding to apply and go serve.
After all the blogs I read and YouTube videos I watched, I feel like I still didn’t get a realistic view of how difficult service can be, and just how much volunteers give for this job.
My intentions with this post are to share my experience: the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.
If you have any questions about Peace Corps, please feel free to reach out. I want to help in any way I can.