Often billed as the ultimate volunteer experience, the Peace Corps is well-known to most people from the States. Created in 1961, the Peace Corps boasts over 220,000 alums and 140 countries served to date.
But what is serving with the Peace Corps really like?
Liza Rudd, a Florida native-turned Peace Corps volunteer, shared some insights about her current Peace Corps experience.
Where are you serving?
Guyana, South America. (Not to be confused with Ghana in Africa!) It's a 27-month commitment, consisting of three months of training before two years of service.
I recently passed the year of service mark and have 10 months before my close of service. I am a Community Health Volunteer and was placed at Cheshire Home, a permanent care facility for people with disabilities.
Why did you apply?
I have been interested in traveling and volunteering since a very young age. When when I turned 30 years old, I promised myself I'd apply to Peace Corps to finally pursue my dream of volunteering overseas.
I chose Peace Corps because it was the only program I found that was free of cost and would allow me to live completely immersed in another culture.
How was the application process?
Much like any other except for the lengthy medical clearance and a couple of essays. The application process has changed since I applied, but I was interviewed for about an hour over the phone, nominated at the end of the call, and subsequently received an email that asked me to rate three countries in order of my preference to serve in them.
Once I chose Guyana, I waited around five months for my acceptance into the Guyana Peace Corps program, and then it was another five months before I left. But the process has since changed, and applicants can search available positions on the Peace Corps website and include their top three choices/countries in their application.
I think that anyone thinking of joining should search for a position that best suits them over a country of interest because they have a better chance of being accepted and making the best contribution that way!
What have been some of the most memorable experiences?
Celebrating all of the holidays and religious celebrations. Guyana has a very diverse culture of East Indian, African, Amerindian, and Chinese people. It's wonderful that they recognize the holidays of every culture, and it also makes for a lot of days off! I also really appreciate how some of the holidays are open and enjoyed by the public regardless of religious affiliation.
For Easter, everyone makes kites and some have noise makers on them. In the nights preceding Easter I loved falling asleep to the sound the kites tied up outside, and in the mornings I would check the skies to see how many more were flying.
Pagwah, or Holi, means Festival of Colors and is celebrated by the Hindus to signify the arrival of spring and new beginnings. Families and children take to the streets with paint powder, buckets, and water guns to splash each other with colors. This was a beautiful celebration that was open to all cultures and I loved the idea that one could splash color on their foes in order to start anew!
Any low points?
During the first three months of integrating into my community. Instead of living with or near a host family, I was living at my place of work with another volunteer. Housing was difficult to find in the village, so I tried to remain open and flexible, just as I'd committed to do during service.
But living at work made it hard to integrate with the rest of the community and made finding time for self-care extremely difficult. I was surrounded by the residents and nurses all the time, and felt guilty for not giving them 100% due to my own struggle for space. In the end, I made it through and learned a lot about myself. Because I was living there, I was able to form bonds more quickly with the nurses and residents as well as learn about the facility which helped me long-term. I finally got my own housing and I've gratefully made it a safe space where I can put my needs first in order to be a better volunteer.
What advice do you have for people considering the Peace Corps?
Research heavily anything you are curious about. There are an abundance of Peace Corps blogs and videos online that can give you a glimpse into the variety of living and working conditions that volunteers may be placed in. A benefit of this is that you can also contact the volunteer directly with any specific questions.
Although it's simply a matter of opinion and individual circumstances, it's also great to find articles and books on the web written by volunteers who completed or even left service early. Every country and placement is such a different experience, and I think it's important to investigate the pros and cons, challenges, and biggest obstacles that others have faced during service to see if you're up for it. If you can imagine yourself living in most of the scenarios that you see, then you are probably flexible and open-minded enough to join!
People join for many different reasons including gaining experience, getting to travel, the desire to help those in need, or the opportunity for continuing education benefits after service. I think it's important to keep in mind that many other volunteer, teaching, and intern positions exist that also meet these criteria.
What makes Peace Corps so different is that it's usually a two-year commitment and you live in the community you serve (without other volunteers, though some may live nearby) for the entire time.
Something I didn't know before serving was how flexible the work would be. I think a lot of us came into Peace Corps thinking we would have a specific job at a school or health center with a defined job description. Some of us came in with our North American work-ethic mentality and then learned to take a step back and spend at least 3 months getting to know the inner workings of the people and the organization we would be assisting. Only then could we start to form an idea of what our role as a volunteer might look like for following years.
What Peace Corps myths have you busted?
The biggest surprise for me during my service has been how connected I've been to the outside world both here and in the States. Despite all of my research, I still had an image of living alone in a straw hut without internet while I journaled away and became an enlightened being. I'm kidding, mostly. But it was a surprise to have internet capability on my cell phone and to be placed in a village that is only an hour from the capital which has restaurants, clubs, and a recently-built mall with a movie theater.
I feel very lucky about where I am placed because it's a very small village and I get the best of feeling remote without actually being remote. I've grown very close with two families in the village, get invited by the community to many ceremonies, run a youth life skills workshop once a month, and just finished volunteering at the local primary school. It's a blessing to be so busy, but I often hide out in my house so that I can have the "straw hut life" I envisioned, even if it's just for the weekend!
Who is the best type of person to apply?
It's hard to pinpoint a "type". I've met about 100 other volunteers and we all come from different backgrounds with a variety of experiences and reasons for joining.
My first thoughts are that the person be adventurous, open to getting to know another culture, and shouldn't mind being away from home. They also shouldn't have too many attachments to material things. Volunteers have to dress culturally appropriate or at least in whatever they don't sweat or freeze in.
We have to get creative with our eating habits, how we exercise, and have the general flexibility to make things work. For example, hanging your clothes on random objects inside to dry, flushing a broken toilet by filling a bucket with water, or putting a couch cushion under the bed mattress to stop you from sinking in the middle. Surprises are always popping up –– even while writing this I had to formulate a plan for how I would later go about getting the live bat out of my toilet.
Although Peace Corps helps you find housing and connects you with a family who can assist you, you are still moving to another country. You have to make it work, adapt, adjust, and settle the same as if you had moved from one state to another, but with significantly less resources. When you arrive in your community, you will be an outsider and it's up to you to create the conditions and circumstances that will make it feel like home.
A good candidate is someone who will say yes to random wedding invitations and lunches at neighbors’ houses. Someone who can stay positive when work doesn't feel productive, a taxi cab rips you off, or men harass you in the street. It's someone who can stay flexible when there is a blackout, the water is turned off, or their ceiling is leaking.
In general, it's someone who wants to be immersed in another culture and way of living so much that when challenges arise they know it's part of and not ruining their experience.
What are your plans for after Peace Corps?
With just 10 months left of service, I wish I had a plan but I don't! I'm looking for more Peace Corps opportunities and considering another 2-year program or a response position, which is a shorter placement open to returned volunteers or new applicants who meet the requirements. I might have the opportunity to extend my service in Guyana with Cheshire Home, which is appealing because there is still a lot we can accomplish here.
Peace Corps has definitely played a role in my decision to want to continue volunteering overseas. It's the first time I've ever had the chance to sit with myself about what I really want from life without outside interference from friends and family, or society's opinion of what that should be. I've been taking time to learn Spanish (Independently, as Guyana is the only English speaking country in South America) and I have interest in pursuing a degree to become an American Sign Language Interpreter.
I left a career in special needs to join the Peace Corps, but that career has become an integral part of my Peace Corps journey and one that I can always return to in the States. For now, I'm exploring the ways in which I can meet some of my other life goals.
Hungry for more? Check out Liza’s blog.
Let's change the world.
Who wrote this?
Gina Edwards, Impact Explorer founder and lover of all pun jokes, making a positive change in the world, Stephen Colbert, Jif Peanut Butter, and staying inside on rainy days. Order may vary.