If you’re considering joining the Peace Corps, you probably have grand visions of backpacking across Africa or helping beautiful little children learn English. And while you will get to do some pretty amazing and noble things while serving as a volunteer, let me tell you that it isn’t all Kumbaya and saving the world.
I would know. I spent three years working as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English and arts programs in rural Azerbaijan. It was the most rewarding experience of my life, but it certainly wasn’t easy. And when people ask me if they should join the Peace Corps—well, I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone.
Before you take the leap and sign up, it’s important to consider the challenges of Peace Corps life and whether or not you’re ready for them. To get you thinking, here are a few good reasons not to go.
Reason #1: You Can’t Stand Being Away From Friends and Family
The Peace Corps is a significant commitment, requiring three months of training in your host country, followed by two years of service at your permanent site. You accrue two days off for every month you work, but the Peace Corps will not pay for your travels. This makes it difficult to return for a visit, and you feel very, very far from home.
So it’s important to consider ahead of time if you’re comfortable being away from your loved ones for this long. Is there anything that’s going to happen at home that you will regret missing? Is your sister going to have a baby? Is your best friend planning to get married? One night I stayed up until 4 AM so I could Skype into my father’s 50th birthday party, where family and friends surrounded him. When I closed the computer, I was left in the total darkness of my rural village, and I cried. There was nothing else to do. If you choose to join the Peace Corps, there will be moments that you will miss, and you have to decide if you’re okay with that.
Reason #2: Sleeping on the Couch (Read: Being Poor and at the Mercy of Friends) Doesn’t Appeal to You
The position is called “volunteer” for a reason. The Peace Corps gives you a monthly stipend that allows you to work alongside the people of your community. While this is plenty to live on in a developing country, it is not enough to save for your return. You receive a readjustment allowance upon finishing your service, but it’s only intended to get you an apartment and hold you over until you get a job. If you want to see the world on your way home (and this is a great opportunity to do so) you won’t be left with much at all.
When I came back to the States, I plunged right into graduate school. With no savings to back me up, I had to get a part-time job to supplement my full-time education, find an apartment an hour away from campus where rent is cheaper, and haul my childhood furniture up to sleep on (I now crash on an air mattress when I go home). My life is a little bit harder now because of my service, but I’m also much more equipped to handle those challenges. On that note:
Reason #3: You Suffer from Separation Anxiety When You Leave Your iPhone at Home
Being a Peace Corps volunteer is not a comfortable job. In fact, one of the core expectations is that you will “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary.” Living conditions typically involve no electricity or running water, your Peace Corps-issued cell phone will be an expensive relic from last century, and showering is enjoyed cold and once a week.
These are the things that most people are concerned about, but they’re also the first you’ll adjust to. Psychological hardships are a different story. You will be stared at often, and likely verbally harassed. Your hair color, skin color, and even the way you dress will make you stand out. If you’re a woman, you’ll face extra oppression in countries where gender roles are still very distinct compared to America. On top of all this, you will be facing these challenges without your familiar creature comforts or support network within reach.
That being said, the Peace Corps does a great job of offering support resources to volunteers who need it. In-country support from licensed physicians, as well as informal peer counseling, are all free options at your disposal should you need them. But don’t think you’ll get free therapy every week—most of these consultations happen remotely.
Reason #4: You Don’t Know What You Want to Do
No matter where the Peace Corps sends you, if you are running from the decision of what to do with your life, it will find you and rear its big ugly head. Yes, the Peace Corps is a good choice when you’re finishing school and have nothing but time and freedom, but you shouldn’t go just because you’re afraid of having nothing else lined up. There were 60 other volunteers in my group in Azerbaijan, and many of them joined because they didn’t know what else to do with their lives. Within the first six months, 13 members of my group had left, and I believe it was because they joined for the wrong reasons.
In case I haven’t convinced you already, being a Peace Corps volunteer isn’t an easy job. You shouldn’t join unless you’re truly committed to serve.
The Reason Why You Should Join
Now, if you’ve thought through all of these factors and are still ready to sign on to be a volunteer—congratulations! You’re in for one of the most valuable experiences of your life. I owe the person I am today to those three years in Azerbaijan. I finally feel comfortable in my own skin, and I’m confident that I am capable of doing almost anything.
Being a volunteer is a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week job. You’ll love it with every fiber of your being one moment, and hate it with the same intensity the next. But you’ll return with some of the best friends you’ve ever had, and some of the greatest stories you’ll ever tell. Stay tuned for the next two installments of this series to hear some of mine.
Think the Peace Corps is for you? Get started with the application process today (it will take about a year from starting the application to getting on the plane). Looking for a smaller commitment? Check out Peace Corps Response. You can apply directly to a project, based entirely on your qualifications, and work for anywhere from 3-12 months.