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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Joining the Peace Corps

Photo by Sally Bull

For anyone perusing the endless opportunities for volunteering abroad, committing to a two year service in the Peace Corps has probably crossed your mind.

In fact, the organization -- started by President Kennedy in 1961 as an outlet for Americans to help with international development and promote cross-cultural exchange -- is probably now the best known volunteer abroad program open to American citizens (and yes, sadly, only American citizens). But despite the attention from the press, TV references, and endless information available about joining the Peace Corps, most of us still wish there were a few things someone had told us about our service before we decided to join.

There are things we all wish we had known before getting ourselves into this crazy but wonderful adventure we call the Peace Corps.

As a current PCV about to finish up my service (or, as we say, ‘about to C.O.S’) and reflecting on my past two years as an education volunteer in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, I know this is true for me and fellow PCVs / RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers). After asking around the Peace Corps network, here are ten things we all wish we had known before getting ourselves into this crazy but wonderful adventure we call the Peace Corps.

1. Talk to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Whether you end up meeting someone who served in the country or region you are interested in serving in or elsewhere, knowing a returned Peace Corps volunteer is a great way to learn about the everyday aspects of being a volunteer and how their expectations measured up to the actual experience.

There are quite a few RPCVs who went on to publish candid books about their service, like Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle or No Hurry in Africa by Theresa Munanga -- it's definitely worth reading these!

Finally, if reading's not your thing, the National Peace Corps Association hosts events in most major cities that connects RPCVs with interested and about-to-depart Peace Corps Volunteers.

2. You're Most Likely to Impact Your Community in Small Ways

Malagasy Girls

I wish I had known I wasn’t going to change the world,” is a common refrain from PCVs and RPCVs alike.

Two years may seem long, but in the overall scheme of development it’s not enough to completely turn around a community’s economic situation or eradicate a health issue. Still, that doesn't mean volunteers don't have an impact. It's just that most PCVs end up affecting their communities and host country in smaller, and often less visible ways.

[A PCV math teacher] helped me with my math problems when I was having trouble in high school. No one else had ever done that and it really meant a lot,” recalled one higher government official in Ghana, “so I decided to study math in university.

Stories like these are more common and PCVs who come in with realistic expectations about how they will impact their community are the most likely to enjoy and succeed in their service. All too often, overzealous PCVs become jaded or ET (terminate their service early) when they realize they aren’t going to swoop in and change the world.

3. Peace Corps Provides You With the Essentials

Don’t even think about bringing Band-Aids and a year's supply of aspirin. Anything that is immediately essential to your health or safety while serving, Peace Corps will provide for you.

That means, if you are in a malaria zone, they’ll give you a mosquito net. If water isn’t drinkable at your site, you’ll get a water filter. If they issue you a bike, you’ll also get tools and a helmet. You can get even smaller stuff from Peace Corps, like sunscreen, bug spray, bandages, and tampons (in some countries where they're inaccessible/expensive).

Two years may seem long, but in the overall scheme of development it’s not enough to completely turn around a community’s economic situation or eradicate a health issue. Most PCVs end up affecting their communities and host country in smaller, and often less visible ways.

They’ll also give you a ‘settling-in allowance’ so you can buy household items once you are in country, so even those shouldn’t be a priority when you’re packing. Instead, save the space in your suitcase for things you love, like your favorite sundress, t-shirt, or delicious American food you know you’ll miss, and personal items you know you'll want, like that ever-coveted external hard drive you will fill with torrented movies and TV shows like a fiend.

P.S. If Peace Corps tells you not to bring a laptop in their official country packing list... ignore it. Tech is rapidly expanding and no matter where you are you'll want your laptop to work on official reports and *ahem* watch TV.

4. Your Fellow PCVs will Become Your Family

“It you're lucky there may be a few people that you would have been friends with back home, but the majority you wouldn't have been friends with back home,” says PCV and blogger Leah Kieff (Moldova 2013-2015).

One of the biggest positives of joining Peace Corps over other volunteer programs is this network of PCVs and RPCVs to draw support from.

But now, despite your differences, they’re your family, and PCVs are generally great at supporting each other and sticking together. The shared experience means you understand each other in ways your friends and family back home and host country nationals don’t. Even just being an English speaker is enough to base a friendship off of. One of the biggest positives of joining Peace Corps over other volunteer programs is this network of PCVs and RPCVs to draw support from.

5. Every Peace Corps Experience is Different

Antananarivo

Even within countries, each individual volunteer has their own, unique experience as a volunteer. Don’t expect your service to be exactly like your friends or that blog you found while going through the excruciatingly long application process.

Likewise, not all advice you get from other volunteers will necessarily apply to you. We all joined the Peace Corps for different reasons.

"We all have different histories. We all have different lenses through which we've seen the world and through which we're seeing this experience.” Says Leah, “the best advice I've heard so far is from someone who is about to COS; ‘It's your experience, so find your own wisdom.’”

In short, hear other volunteers out, but take advice with a grain of salt.

6. Every Peace Corps Country Program is Run Differently

The quality of each Peace Corps program varies between countries. If a country has had volunteers, uninterrupted, for a long period of time, then chances are they’ve had time to work out the kinks to successfully train volunteers or more specifically meet the needs of the host country. However, if they have just opened or reopened (because of previous political instability and evacuation, for example) you may be entering a work in progress. Information on program quality can be found by looking at survey results for each country on Peace Corps Wiki. Departure dates can be found for each country as well.

Don't expect your service to be exactly like your friends or that blog you found while going through the excruciatingly long application process. Likewise, not all advice you get from other volunteers will necessarily apply to you.

7. You'll Have More Free Time than You're Used To

Especially in the months following pre-service training (PST), you will find yourself with little to do as you learn the language, integrate into your community, and figure out what projects you want to start (the main exception being for education volunteers who are set up with a more structured and regular teaching gig).

This is all essential to your success as a PCV, but it doesn’t exactly feel like work. Even as your service progresses and you get a few projects started, you may still be surprised with the large amounts of free time you have, and the creative ways you start to fill it. Consider bringing an instrument or hobby you’ve always thought of trying but never had the time to do so. Chances are, you’ll certainly have the time in the Peace Corps.

8. Life as a PCV is Different from Your Life Back Home

Peace corps volunteers in Madagascar

There are some very talented Peace Corps bloggers out there -- with surprisingly good internet connections, it seems -- humorously documenting the weird, everyday quirks of being a PCV. My personal favorites are How a PCV Puts it Gently, What Should PCVs Call Me and Peace Corps 101. Others tend to be country specific.

There are even some Youtube videos, like Poop in a Hole, that I wish I had seen before my departure. They capture the fact that our lives as PCVs are different from what we had at home. In most Peace Corps countries, you may stand out and get an unusual amount of attention for it.

You’ll suffer a lack of privacy or be faced with different work ethics. You’ll have to give up some hobbies or habits and exchange them for others. You may have to poop in a hole. In short, you will have to integrate not only into a different culture, but a different lifestyle, which can be difficult but is all part of the challenge of doing Peace Corps.

9. Two Years is Both a Long Time, and a Short Time

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. You’ll undoubtedly miss some important events back home, which makes it seem like a dauntingly long amount of time. 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.

That said, definitely don’t be put off by how long the commitment seems at first. It’s really doable, and Peace Corps gives you enough vacation days to fly home for a bit if two years is too long for you to spend away from family and friends (though you are responsible for buying the ticket yourself and should save up before you leave – an average PCV stipend is somewhere around $200-800 a month).

No matter if you have two years to commit or only two weeks, there are organizations out there that can help you contribute to a meaningful volunteer project abroad. While there are some key differences between short and long term projects, the underlying importance is that you DO move abroad to volunteer. People need help! Organizations like African Impact or Volunteering Solutions can help altruistic travelers that can't commit to a 2 year stint.

10. Peace Corps Allows for Flexibility in the Projects You Do

Although you are assigned to one, primary assignment, volunteers have a lot of freedom to branch out and work on other, secondary projects. That means even if you are an agriculture volunteer, for example, you could still teach yoga to kids, run a weekly English club, or work with women’s groups to start a community loans and savings service.

We all joined the Peace Corps for different reasons. We all have different histories. We all have different lenses through which we've seen the world and through which we're seeing this experience. It's your experience, so find your own wisdom.

Your service is a great way to take the things you are passionate about and apply them to your work. As long as you do your assigned job, Peace Corps allows for (and encourages) its volunteers to branch out and take on multiple projects.

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

Deciding to join the Peace Corps is no light decision, but it was one of the best ones I have made. It can be a tough, challenging experience that drives you crazy some days, but at the same time allows you to grow in ways you didn’t think possible and make some of the best friends of your life.

Although there are things we all wish we had known before applying for or departing for our service in the Peace Corps, figuring out these little things along the way was all part of the adventure and challenge of being a PCV. After all, they don’t call it ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’ for nothing!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions reflected in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the position of the United States government or the Peace Corps.

Photo Credits: Sally Bull and The Nomadic Beat.
Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. Find her on her personal blog, Beat Nomad.