23 October 2011

The Peace Corps experience: Was Peace Corps worth it?

The design I made
for the post T-shirts
The best and worst part about it is not having to think.

Walking into the Peace Corps office several days ago, I met a fellow volunteer frowning at a computer screen. "How's it going?" I asked. "Oh just facing real life again," he said "I'm trying to decide what to do about health insurance next year." It was a topic with which I completely empathized, having just scowled the same scowl at the myriad health insurance options myself the day before. We hadn't made these kinds of decisions in over two years.

Imagine getting a letter in the mail, and for the next two years, you wouldn't have to worry about where you were going to live, what house you would choose, whether or not you could afford the rent, what job you would take, or how to get an employment visa. You wouldn't worry about getting laid off because of a bum economy, and all your medical care would be paid for, 100%, including medical evacuations to the best doctors out of country. The only logistics you'd think about for two years would be where to buy your holiday tickets: Fiji or New Zealand? Or when the irregular bus schedule goes in to town for the weekend. Or how to teach 30 students with no curriculum to refer to.

But also imagine not having control over any of those things either. If there is a problem at work, imagine someone else deciding that you were going to be finding a new job. Faced with a nasty medical problem, imagine being told you had to accept whatever care was approved by doctors half way around the world, no questions asked.

Looking stylish

Most volunteers, us included, gladly give up that control for two years; not having to worry about medical care, rent, utilities, and transportation is worth being in a job where you will get fired if you are caught not wearing your life vest while travelling on a small boat.

This level of reporting to the Peace Corps lends a strange dynamic to the working environment, though. In day-to-day life, the volunteer is essentially an employee of the work site. At least for volunteers in Tonga, you report to work, have a supervisor, and complete tasks during the day (whether those involve teaching primary students or advising small businesses). But although you are an employee in nature, you aren't paid by them. The work site can't fire you for not showing up. And they can't measure your performance or give you incentives- Peace Corps, whom you see an average of once a quarter, does all that. Your work site essentially doesn't have any control over you; as free labour, you almost have control over them.

"Who knows when this volunteer might choose not to show up? What if Peace Corps decides to move them to another job?" a lot of organizations have in the back of their minds, at least in the first year of working with a volunteer. I empathize with the organizations that host volunteers; it's a hard job, made harder by cultural misunderstandings, Peace Corps requirements, and the uncertainty of the volunteer work supply. It ends up being a strange situation for everyone involved, because normal employment relationships usually don't work that way.

Volunteers are taught the three goals of Peace Corps early on (in my own words):

  1. Development activities: Supply trained labour to international communities and organizations
  2. Relational: Teach international communities about Americans
  3. Relational: Teach Americans about the rest of the world

During our pre-service training, I vividly remember one trainer saying "if you sat all day under a tree talking to someone, you'd be accomplishing just as much as if you spent all day teaching class." And in a great sense, it's true: most of the impact volunteers have is relational; the people they work with often remember the personality of the volunteer far more than any of his or her "accomplishments."

But, although two-thirds of the Peace Corps goals are relational, we are mostly measured on the remaining third: the activities. Most of our volunteer reporting has to do with activities; the relational goals 2 and 3 are relegated to two small tabs in a section called "tell your story." From a volunteer perspective, it's confusing. Volunteers navigate a huge number of unrelated performance measures: the goals of their host organizations, the three overall goals of Peace Corps headquarters, and the project objectives of the local Peace Corps office. Often, we feel divided loyalty; "Who am I reporting to, again?"

Leaving aside all the business-talk, after two years of service, ultimately, was Peace Corps worth it? What about saving the world? Isn't part of being a volunteer nobly sacrificing for two years to make the world a better place?

We didn't join Peace Corps to save the world. We knew that as two people only several years out of our degrees, we weren't going to accomplish anything in two years. In fact, I'm not sure Stephen Hawking could accomplish much in two years in a completely different culture, no disrespect to Stephen Hawking. As I wrote previously, it took us a year just to feel like we were at a place to start learning about really what was going on in Tongan culture around us, and with every previous move I've made in my life, it's followed the same slow adaptation pattern.

Instead, we joined because we want long-term international socially responsible careers, and our time in Peace Corps was a good way that we could have a small, positive impact while preparing ourselves for more effective work in the future. Plus, they sent us together- no pesky "dependent visa" for either of us while the other worked in a full time job.

And now as we're moving on, we're making all sorts of decisions about housing, transportation, medical, and visas that we haven't had to think about for two years, and although its been nice not worrying, its also very nice to make decisions for ourselves and feel like adults again. Looking back, we're glad of what Peace Corps intentionally and unintentionally gave us: an international job, experience with a US government organization, an education in development politics, free medical care for two years, and ultimately, the chance to live and work in Tonga.


  1. Great stuff! So.... what are you doing next? Where are you doing it? What is your address?

    Love and Care, Jim and Penny Blackwell

  2. Really enjoy your blog! All the best as you move on to the next chapter.
    Regards from Judy Wehn

  3. great blog, thank you

  4. I am 51 years old, and I am thinking about joining the peace corp. I love what you wrote and it has made me look forward to seeking out this adventure even more. Thanks alot. Trevor, NYC


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