It always takes a certain amount of courage to travel, but that’s especially true when it comes to serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. The government agency sends PCVs to local communities in need of trained volunteers, where they spend 27 months immersed in another culture, addressing pressing problems. It’s a unique and life-changing experience, and while perhaps nothing can truly prepare you for it, it’s helpful to get a solid idea of what to expect from the Peace Corps before joining.
I reached out to current and former Peace Corps volunteers -- or “returned” volunteers (RPCVs), as they call themselves -- to learn more about their experiences. I also read a number of blogs and articles written by other PCVs and RPCVs for a fuller picture of what the Peace Corps experience is really like. While no two Peace Corps experiences are the same, their insight is a valuable resource for anyone considering PC service. Based on my research, here's what you need to know before joining the Peace Corps.
Doing Research Before Even Applying Is Important
You’re reading this article, so you’re already doing one of the best things you can do to prepare: seek out information. Speaking to a PCV or an RPCV is very helpful, as is reading their blogs and other articles online. They’ll give you a better sense of what life is like in the Peace Corps and what type of program might best suit you.
Keanna, a PCV in Morocco, highlighted the importance of making an informed decision when ranking your top three choices for country of service. “Go beyond which country you want to be in … and research the type of programs in the country,” she told me. “Since countries have different sectors (youth development, education, agriculture, community business, and so on), make sure that you’ve researched the objectives of each specific program.”
From there, she recommended getting in touch with PCVs or RPCVs and asking them about how the specific programs are run.
Your Expectations Might Not Align With Reality
Many PCVs find that their grand plans of changing the world don’t quite pan out as they imagined. Still, that doesn’t mean that their work isn’t meaningful.
It’s important to be able to adjust to figure out how to get the most out of your experience and be an effective volunteer. Stacy, an RPCV who served in Ecuador, told me that you have to “be realistic about your goals.”
Your Usual Measures of “Success” Might Not Apply
PCVs have very different experiences depending on their location, the community, and a variety of other factors. Stacy also explained that “accomplishing things in another culture can happen on a whole different time schedule.” She recommends that PCVs make a number of small goals (even just one per day) so that they’ll feel more successful.
“Maybe it’s just having tea with your counterpart, or talking to the farmer up the hill about the weather, or going for a run and saying hello to everyone you see, but that one thing is enough to get you into the community and that is really the most important part of the PC,” she said.
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There Are Highs & Lows as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Spending months at a time away from home isn’t easy. PCVs all go through highs and lows, and they have to figure out how to push through the hard times.
“You will consider going home. …There are going to be moments here when you are sad, frustrated, lost -- when you hate it all and are unsure if you can participate in another group activity without having a public meltdown,” RCPV Leah wrote in a blog post during her time in Moldova.
Even so, “you will realize that your attitude is your greatest asset and embrace this truth and love the moments where you are the best version of yourself,” she added.
You’ll Often Be Uncomfortable -- That’s Okay
PCVs are meant to immerse themselves in their communities, but that’s no easy task. There are plenty of what PCV in Morocco Keanna calls “cross-cultural snafus.” She told me that Peace Corps service will often leave you “feeling uneasy, awkward, or unable to communicate -- and quite often all three at once.” You have to “become comfortable being uncomfortable,” she says, and it’ll make you “more resilient.” Some of the ways you can do that, according to Keanna, are “channeling [the uncomfortable and unexpected] into humor, hobbies, and relationships likely dependent on charades.”
The discomfort isn’t all emotional, either. You’ll be physically uncomfortable at times, too. You won’t necessarily have your usual creature comforts from home, and there's always the chance you'll become ill with some ailment you've never experienced before.
“I once got sick during a thunderstorm and only had access to the roof-less latrine,” wrote Abby, an RPCV who served in Panama, for St. Vincent College’s Bearcats on the Road blog.
The Peace Corps Fosters Special Bonds
If you join the Peace Corps, you’ll end up with a group of people you may never have chosen as friends but likely form strong bonds nonetheless. As Leah noted of her fellow RCPVs in Moldova, these friendships started to grow thanks to their common language and similar “existential crises” but become deeper.
“Even though they will get on your last nerve, these people are more interesting, passionate and wise than you could have hoped for,” she wrote.
Similarly, Chantelle, a PCV in Uganda, wrote for Odyssey that “they become the people you call on bad days, on good days, when you have successes, when you fail, and all the times you just need to talk.”
It Helps to Be Self-Directed
While the Peace Corps does have months of training, you shouldn’t expect hand-holding. Depending on your program, you may have a high degree of autonomy and it will be up to you to keep your project(s) moving.
“Your boss might live at the other end of the country, so all of your work is up to you,” Abby wrote of her time in Panama in her blog post. “You will need to assess needs, plan projects, train locals, evaluate your progress, AND ensure that your projects are locally sustainable, all without the physical presence of a boss or coworkers.”
Keep in mind that you may also have a lot of free time, and you’ll have a better experience if you can find ways to fill it.
The Commitment Is Important
It’s common for PCVs to have times when they want to go home, as discussed above, but going into the experience, you should be prepared to see your 27-month commitment through. As Abby noted in her post, communities and training teams invest a lot of time and effort into getting PCVs.
“I don’t know a PCV or RPCV who wasn’t intimidated by the commitment of spending over two whole years in a developing country,” wrote Jessie, a former Go Overseas team member and RPCV who spent her time in Madagascar. “At the same time, two years may not be enough time to accomplish some of the projects that you want to do, and you’ll find yourself at the end of it looking back and wondering how it all flew by.”
If that does seem too long for you, though, there are Peace Corps alternatives. Jessie noted there are shorter-term commitments with organizations like African Impact, Bamboo, or Volunteering Solutions, while Keanna, the PCV in Morocco, suggested options such as the Fulbright Program and Global Health Corps.
Your Experience Will Change You
The Peace Corps refers to the program as a “life-defining experience,” and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s common for PCVs to be able to point to ways they’ve grown, from becoming more confident to more resilient. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the term “former Peace Corps volunteer” isn’t used. As Chantelle, the volunteer in Uganda, explained it, “once a PCV always a PCV just with the returned in front.”
It’s certainly beneficial to do what you can to prepare for the Peace Corps, but as Keanna told me, “at some point, no matter how much you research, you’re not going to be able to know exactly what the future holds. … You can read about host family experiences and watch all the YouTube videos you can find about life in the Peace Corps, but ultimately, you won't fully understand it until you experience it.”
Every Peace Corps volunteer experience is different, but the more you prepare in advance -- but also keep your mind open to the changes that will inevitably occur --, the better the odds are that you’ll get the most out of yours.
This post was originally published in November 2013, and was updated in October 2018.