Five Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps

Many travelers have considered—even just for a moment—joining Peace Corps. The allure of two years abroad and the chance to integrate into new and exciting cultures has tempted some 200,000 volunteers into a life of service in 139 different countries. Whether it’s a post-college move or a mid-career shift, Peace Corps provides a unique way to experience places in a way no typical trip allows.

If you're not joining the Peace Corps, take a RTW trip instead.
If you're not joining the Peace Corps, take a RTW trip instead.

Sure, a sense of adventure and a bit of independence are requirements for the job, but that’s where parallels to travel end. Peace Corps isn’t for every globetrotter or international jetsetter. There are hundreds of reasons to join the Corps—but here are the top five reasons not to.

Because traveling for two years sounds like fun

It goes without saying that Peace Corps Volunteers see the world: from the Caribbean Islands to Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, too. Volunteer projects extend to the far reaches of the globe. Yet despite this international presence, the happiest volunteers are typically those most content to stay at home. (Their new home, that is.)

Peace Corps Volunteers are brought in to do a job. Whether it’s to build fisheries in a remote region of Zambia, train teachers in computer skills in Eastern Europe or combat HIV/AIDS in China, Peace Corps work is a full-time gig. To be effective, volunteers must integrate into their communities, adapt to new cultures and become familiar with customs and traditions. This means that when the job ends, the hard work of getting to know a place and its people really begins. Only volunteers who stay at site and dedicate time and effort to cultivating relationships actually succeed.

Like most jobs, Peace Corps has vacation and holidays, too. However tight volunteer budgets mean travel is anything but glamorous. Modes of transport usually include hitchhiking, bike taxis, donkey carts, canoes and banana trucks. And that’s if those options even exist. For volunteers in the Pacific Islands it can take days to get to the nearest major land mass. And in Mozambique, some volunteers are placed in stations so remote they must be flown to meetings in the capital.

Because it’s a great resume builder

Face it. Cashier at the SuperSave just doesn’t hold the clout of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer when it comes to resumes. The latter title sends a message to potential employers that the job applicant is serious, that he or she can live and adapt to life in a foreign land, and to new cultures and social norms as well. Peace Corps on a resume is proof of adaptability, tolerance and a unique worldview. Not to mention the fact it should provide more interesting answers to the dry interview favorite, “Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge…”

Resume building might provide enough motivation to get through the Peace Corps application process (which can take up to a year), but it’s unlikely that one-page, single-spaced, watermarked paper will be enough to get you through the really tough days—let alone two years of them. So while it may be tempting to follow in the footsteps of Peace Corps alum like novelist Paul Theroux or TV journalist Chris Matthews, the best volunteers are those committed to sustainable development, not their career development.

Because you never lived abroad in college

There’s something romantic about spending a year abroad. The excitement of a new culture. The beauty of a language. The potential for foreign love. While these opportunities exist in a Peace Corps world, the realities of daily life are anything but romantic. There are children climbing up windows, rabid dogs on morning runs, beyond-basic accommodations and more often than not, no toilets or running water. This is not a semester at sea or a year in Paris. For people looking to revisit those days of binge drinking with coeds, Peace Corps service will be a serious disappointment.

Volunteers are sent to developing countries and placed in remote villages and tiny towns. They live like locals—in terms of both income and housing. From cement houses to mud huts, volunteers learn to live without the “necessities” like running water and toilets. In places like Mali, access to fresh foods is extremely limited, which means meals are often the same morning, noon and night. And unlike a semester at sea or study abroad, Peace Corps offers no tour guide or set schedule, which means figuring out the pace of life and a balance with work is left up to the volunteer.

Because two years is perfect for learning Spanish

Peace Corps Volunteers are placed all over the world, but just 24 percent end up in Central and South American countries. Because the demand for Spanish speakers is high and the desire to be placed in those countries is great, Peace Corps usually sends volunteers who are already fluent in the language. (And yes, there is a test to prove it.) For this reason, taking an immersion class or traveling long-term in a Spanish-speaking country might be a better approach for those only interested in mastering the romance language.

The lengthy application process leaves no room for requests when it comes to country placement. Potential volunteers can rank regions—like Sub-Sahara Africa or Asia—in terms of interest, but ultimately Peace Corps calls the shots when it comes to final placement. Most volunteers do become proficient in a language while serving overseas, and while it may not be one of the most widely spoken tongues, there are some pretty cool bragging rights associated with knowing a language just .05 percent of the world’s population speaks.

Because you want to change the world

Changing the world is a pretty tall order, and while most volunteers join Peace Corps because they want to do good, having such lofty ambitions can be a dangerous thing.

In reality, having an impact takes a lot of time, work and a serious amount of effort. But it is possible—just usually on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, focusing on the macro often results in forgetting about the micro, and most Peace Corps Volunteers’ biggest contributions happen on a much smaller scale.

Whether it’s teaching one man to fish so that his family and village have enough to eat, helping a women’s collective to set up and run their own small business, or improving test scores in a class of grade threes, Peace Corps Volunteers touch the lives of individuals more than they change entire worlds.

Joining the Peace Corps is an amazing way to integrate into a new community, explore a culture and understand a people. The experience creates a familiarity that is nearly impossible to match with more typical travel. While there’s an opportunity to see new countries and explore far away destinations during service (and even after), the biggest challenges and rewards come from the time spent at home, in the village, with members of the community. It may be impossible to change the world, but living in a tiny corner of it is a reminder that it is possible to change individuals, circumstances and ourselves.

If you want to make a difference on a shorter trip, consider voluntourism.

Read more about voluntourism and extended travel:

Photos by: 1 – Jill Nawrocki , 2 – Jeanette Warner , 3 – Jill Nowrocki, 4 – K. Sawyer, 5 – CaMiLo11


Leave a Comment

Older comments on Five Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps

David N. Berger
02 September 2010

Thanks for posting this. Especially raising awareness for voluntourism. I’m currently applying to the Peace Corps and these five reasons were some of the primary reality checks that I needed to hear to make sure I was making the proper choice. I’m trying to break into International Development and International Community development, NGO formation and Cultural Interface programs overseas. Without entry level experience I’ve found that I’m awash in an ocean of opportunity without the capital to gain the experience to bring me on-board.

For me the Peace Corps represents hard work, a significant challenge, and a 2 year gut check to make sure ID, ICD, and NGO dev. is really what I want or need.

Again, great article and extremely important questions to ask yourself before you consider the Peace Corps.

Cornelius Aesop
02 September 2010

While I agree with most of these I think that if you tweak the reasons just slightly that can give you enough reason. Point being, the reasons one would join Peace Corps are different once they are knee deep in it and will be different once again after they have finished.

The peace corps is a jump into the unknown, but as long as your heart is in the right place and your head has had a reality check then I think that is enough reason to make a change. Regardless if your quest is to change the world, one man or just yourself.

05 September 2010

Here are some reasons not to engage in ‘voluntourism’. If you actually want to change the world, it isn’t the way to go.

A brilliant blog post entitled ‘Voluntourism: What could go wrong’ ( outlines that often, the projects set up for volunteers are unnecessary, and created to give volunteers the sense that they’re doing something. They’re actually a waste of time and money for all involved, and actually counterproductive for the people you want to help. I think everybody considering this should investigate and do their research into whether what they’re planning on doing is really going to be beneficial, and where their efforts and money could best be spent. Once I started reading, my eyes were completely opened, and I now view these things very differently.

The website has a number of great articles which will make you think twice.

Sam D-G
14 September 2010

As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, it’s all a matter of your point of view. The PC ads are correct, it is a super-tough job. But if you go into it realizing that, seeking a challenging and life-altering experience instead of 2-years of a government subsidized party, each of these five reasons are valid ones for joining Peace Corps.
1. You will get to travel in your country and your region. True, you won’t be taking air-conditioned tourist busses, but for some of us, there is joy in meeting a taxi driver in a 1973 Lada with a DVD player who insists you take his cellphone number so you can call him for a pickup anytime, even if you’ll also ride along with his sons and some of his chickens. To get from the capital to my site, I have the choice of an overloaded marshutney (shared van) or a beautiful 1950’s Soviet train with great views of Mt. Ararat. Both cost about $2 for the hour and a half ride.
2. There are other, easier resume builders out there. If you have the chops to get into PC, you probably have the chops to get into another program in the field of your choice. But like David Berger said, it’s a great way to see if you’re interested in an international lifestyle and development work. There are also certain agencies (State, USAID) for which it’s practically a feeder program. There are also many free or reduced tuition graduate school programs available for alums. It’s also a great way to teach for 2 years without having to commit to a M. Ed. If, as happens to many PCVs, you fall in love with your country or region, you’ll have the language and contacts to start your career there.
3. Peace Corps is indeed farther from the college study-abroad experience as your first job is from freshman year of college. If you want to drink and hookup with euro-types, consider bumming it around Europe for 3 months instead. If you want to become deeply immersed in a language and culture and make deep, intense friendships with your fellow volunteers and host country nationals (HCN), then Peace Corps is for you. That said, PCVs do party, both with HCNs and each other.
4. Okay, I’m learning the language of a country with a population less than Brooklyn. Even the Armenians are surprised that I’m learning Armenian before bothering to learn Russian, which is the lingua franca of the region. That said, I get a lot of love for speaking Armenian. At four months, I still get a thrill every time I get directions or have a conversation about someone’s family in Armenian. A lot of the languages PCVs learn, like Swahili, Indonesian and Arabic are very important and under-spoken by Americans. Even if you’re learning an obscure language like Azeri, Fijian or indigenous Mayan, learning another language is still a valuable and thrilling experience.
5. Ever hear that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity? You’re not going to change the world in the Peace Corps. But if you work hard and you’re lucky, you’ll see an impact at your site. You’ll see kids learn English, grow plants, help businesses develop. Peace Corps is a grassroots organization. Your impact will be on the people you meet and interact with on a daily basis. Many PCVs become frustrated because their assignments don’t work out. That’s life. Ultimately, the biggest change you’ll notice will be in yourself, in what you are capable of and how you see and understand the world.

To sum up, if you want to try your hand at living in a village no one has heard of, speaking a language you don’t know a word of now, giving up running water and maybe electricity, being the only American or maybe foreigner for hours or maybe days journey, relying on yourself to help people you would never otherwise meet, Peace Corps is the ultimate experience for you.

24 January 2011

Allikins, I don’t think those are reasons not to engage in voluntourism. Those are just reasons to do your research carefully.

Joan McKniff
25 January 2011

AMEN!, except for bit of desire to change the world, even if it turns out to be yours! thanks for writing and posting. RPCV, Colombia 63-65