Is the Peace Corps any good?

by on August 15, 2006 at 10:18 am in Education | Permalink

A loyal MR reader writes:

I will be graduating from college next spring with a degree in Economics and fluency in Spanish.  Joining the Peace Corps has always been a half-way serious goal of mine (you get to "make a difference" while effectively putting off entering the real world).  What’s your take on the Peace Corps?  Do they actually do any good?  The idealist in me wants to believe so, but obviously, I’m highly skeptical of any program started by JFK.  If this isn’t the best route, do you know of any alternatives that will still fulfill my aforementioned "goals?"

I neither have experience in this matter nor have I read a good book or paper on The Peace Corps.  Readers? 

bernard Yomtov August 15, 2006 at 11:12 am

Anyone who can write

obviously, I’m highly skeptical of any program started by JFK.

would be well advised to spend some time learning to think before going out and trying to “make a difference.”

Martin August 15, 2006 at 11:17 am

Bernard – absolutely.

chris August 15, 2006 at 11:54 am

My advice as an economist and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer is to evaluate an opportunity to be a Volunteer in the same way you would evaluate any other job offer. There are pluses and minuses to any job. Which job is best for you depends on your particular utility function, and you are the best judge of your utility function.

“Do they do any good?” It depends. I taught high school math as a Volunteer. Do high school math teachers do any good in the U.S?

The most important criteria for having a successful Peace Corps experience is that you have to want to be there. If you are there because you think it will look good on a resume, you will have a very long two years.

Having said that, for me, being a Peace Corps Volunteer was the coolest job ever. I would not have missed it for the world.

Your mileage may vary.

Chris Meisenzahl August 15, 2006 at 12:06 pm

I’m scared of some of the Marxists and their ideas you will undoubtedly encounter.

LizardBreath August 15, 2006 at 12:15 pm

Absolute nonsense. I’d be willing to bet that there’s a huge selection bias in who applies to the Peace Corps — it’s seen as a leftier thing to do — but I’ve never hear of anyone who met the basic objective criteria (college degree or equivalent needed skills) who got turned down for anything other than an obvious reason (criminal record or such.)

Lars Smith August 15, 2006 at 12:29 pm

Do it for yourself and for your country, the U.S. needs people who understand the rest of the world. If you manage to do a bit of good in your work, that is an added bonus.

michael vassar August 15, 2006 at 1:02 pm

I’m a RPCV. Here are my thoughts.

Re: liberal hiring process. I’m fairly Libertarian and graduated from Penn State. My sister is very left and graduated from NYU. I got in. A few years later she didn’t. Frankly, I think that acceptance is fairly random.

I don’t think that it looks good on my resume, though it might if I applied to government jobs.
Having a job lined up when you leave college, a corporate job as high status as possible is essentially the thing to do for your resume however.

Many PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers), about 25%, seem to be long long out of college.

Different Peace Corps locations vary greatly in quality. In Kazakhstan, for instance, the local contacts are very good but the cultural education is grossly inaccurate, basically transferred straight from Africa, and the 8 weeks of Russian language instruction (with 1/3 of the time wasted on cultural nonsense) is good but woefully inadequate for a language as difficult as Russian.

Living in Kazakhstan was a VERY interesting experience, but I would have had a much better time if I had thought to learn more basic “home improvement” electrical and mechanical skills before going, bought a car battery and generator, and wired my house so that I didn’t spend winter nights freezing in the dark from 5:00 on. My stupidity. Note to others, Peace Corps should recommend candidates be strong on language AND mechanical skills.

In terms of producing value, the average Peace Corps volunteer probably doesn’t do much of practical value, but they do make a very large contribution to the English Language skills of recipient nations. As a strong generalization, EVERY competent English speaker in most recipient nations who doesn’t live near the capital learned English first or second hand from a Peace Corps Volunteer.

As noted above, Peace Corps is also very good PR for the US, but more than that, it goes a long way towards improving people’s understanding of the US, which is generally muddled at best.

ESP August 15, 2006 at 1:18 pm

> If the Peace Corps can only say “we will let you know later where
> you will go and what you will be doing when you get there” then it
> seems too speculative.

Having just returned from Peace Corps service in Uganda, I can say that
this is pretty much how the Peace Corps does things. However, having said
that, most PCVs who I know do end up having enough flexibiity in their
posts to gear their service in a direction that interests them, either
through secondary projects or by molding their primary project in ways
that fit their skills, etc. Overall, if you think Peace Corps service
is something that you would like to do, I’d say go for it. The worst
outcome is that you hate it and choose to come home early.

troy tillis August 15, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Interesting comments from all, I almost have to throw in something as well:

I am actually leaving for my Peace Corps assignment (Macedonia) in 4 weeks, so I may bring forth some valid discussion. Basically, I finished my undergrad and found that I had many unfulfilled wants (a graduate education and traveling the world). The Peace Corps design a program called “Master’s International”, where you can begin a graduate program, finish a required amount of coursework, and receive the final graduate credit for Peace Corps service. When your done, you have a Master’s degree in your field (mine is International Trade and Development) and 2 years of international experience under your belt. This may be a good option for you if you wish to get a graduate degree (and you may want to with an economics degree). Here is a list of schools and programs that you can do as a MIP: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whyvol.eduben.mastersint.partschool

To brush on a few of the comments:

1) The Peace Corps has several different programs in each country. If you go to Africa, you will most likely be doing health education, agriculture, or teaching. you have economics degree and know spanish…You would probably go to a South or Latin American country and work with an NGO or do community / business development. Different programs provide different amounts of satisfaction….go if your interested in learning about another culture and interesting in showing others about American culture. If you’re going to save the world, leave your bags unpacked.

2) Concerning you political affiliation: This is for the birds. You’re accepted based on medical, dental, and legal clearance. have a good interivew. show interest in the world (is that hard?)

3) I mostly agree with Lars Smith: “Do it for yourself and for your country, the U.S. needs people who understand the rest of the world. If you manage to do a bit of good in your work, that is an added bonus.”

The Peace Corps (to me) is about being a diplomat, an ambassador of the country I love, and helping people around the world understand that not everyone lives in New York City, drives a Hummer or fancy car, and enjoys the policies created in this country. We DO need more people in this country who understand the rest of the world. In my opinion, we (as a nation) are sorely out of touch with world affairs, and we need more people to step up, become educated citizens, and promote well-being to our fellow man…across the globe (sorry, that was a little TOO idealist)

Thank you for the post and time…and email me if you have any questions about the MIP program.

David Zetland August 15, 2006 at 1:53 pm

I have met a number of PCV in my 6 years of world travel, and my overall impression is that the PC is good for them more than anything. (Teaching English is very helpful, but newbies to PC WAY overestimate the culture shock, hence learning, that they encounter.)
You will meet Marxists and their “scary” ideas, you will meet lefties and marines working at the embassy. You will meet and speak to many locals (The language facet of PC is its strongest suit — if all soldiers in Iraq spoke Arabic things would be better.)
If you are doing it for your CV, you are wasting your time. (If you do ANYTHING for your CV, you are wasting your time, IMO. What’s life about? Getting a job? Come on!) I met a girl in El Salvador who said “I’ve been here 9 months – that’s good enough for my CV so I am quitting” She sucks, since she missed the best opportunity to get out of the US and actually understand another part of the world. Soooo few Americans actually do that. (Conferences abroad, Paris and Rome, and/or Mexican beaches do NOT count as understanding.)
So – to reiterate – PC is about you: how much do you want to grow as a person? Are you willing to change your view of the world — not for others, but because you make a choice to do so when confronted with facts? If you want to stay a libertarian and build a CV or salary, work as an intern at an investment bank. If you want to be a world citizen, try the PC.

David Zetland August 15, 2006 at 1:59 pm

Typo: “newbies to PC WAY overestimate” s/b “underestimate”. Sorry!

Mr. Econotarian August 15, 2006 at 2:29 pm

No doubt the PC is the best way to learn to appreciate the important of a functioning market economy.

Jake August 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm

Back in ’83 I interviewed with both the Peace Corps and the Marine Corps (guess the corp thing was attractive). Picked the Marine Corps after some Marxist ranting on the part of the Peace Corp interviewer. Never regretted that choice. Then in the early ’90s I spent a lot of time with Peace Corps volunteers in backwater cities in Russia. Their impact seemed to me to be very low. My best buddy spent most of his time hitting on Russian girls and setting up a consultancy gig with PW. And along with the journalists who flitted about Russia at the time, I believe the Peace Corps volunteers’ politics really got in the way. How do you convert a communist country to capitalism when you really think Marxism is the way to go? It all seemed like a waste of tax payer money to me.

J. August 15, 2006 at 3:29 pm

In response to this question, I’d like to ask another one. What volunteering opportunity would be most beneficial to others, i.e., what volunteering would allow me to maximize the positive difference I make? Could I make more of a difference working in some job instead?

(P.S., I’m asking out of curiosity. I’m going to be an academic regardless.)

RWB August 15, 2006 at 3:58 pm

I was never in the Peace Corps, but I did 2 years of grunt work in fairly remote 3rd world locations for a seismic company. I would say that anything that gets a young person out of the comfortable cocoon of middleclass American life will be useful–at the very least, that person will understand that the way he or she thinks the world should be understood is not universal.

As for the resume aspect, I do know a friend who was a PCV in Mali who is now getting his MBA, and that experience is not hurting him with employers. There is a sense that a guy who can get a bunch of Malians to build a school might be a good manager.

As for the possibility that one may have to rub shoulders with people (American and foreign) who have different political and/or economic views, well, I don’t see how this is anything but a plus. It sharpens your thinking, as well as forcing you to learn to get along and compromise on shared goals.

So I think being a PCV or taking some other job that plunks one into a place far from one’s comfort zone is a net plus, especially if one is still young and vital.

mickslam August 15, 2006 at 5:02 pm

The most important impact:

You’re more attractive to top 5 legal programs.

arel August 15, 2006 at 8:27 pm

I think pc jobs are like any other. You have an assignment and described task. Then you get there and discover what you can actually do that might be useful. You are not likely to change the world but as you define smallish useful effective goals, suddenly they will add up. ar

James August 15, 2006 at 11:05 pm

Brookings just came with a study evaluating the Peace Corps. It’s available online.

judy August 16, 2006 at 3:46 am

An EXCELLENT book in the Peace Corps experience is River Town by Peter Hesseler.

kyle August 16, 2006 at 9:50 am

I second Judy’s comment. Just finished it myself.

Auto August 16, 2006 at 10:59 am

The PC veterans I’ve encountered strike me as so dangerously naive that I doubt they ever accomplished much. A friend who worked in Moscow over a decade ago told me that what the Russians needed and wanted was capital and technical expertise. What we sent them was 22-year olds who had just graduated from Oberlin. With predictable results.

As for using PC experience to fatten a resume, in my experience the people who are most likely to disappoint are PC vets. And ex-CIA analysts. Listing either on a resume is a red flag.

Scott W August 16, 2006 at 11:48 am

Why don’t you join a company (or start one) that produces goods or services that people want to buy? That will help people too, just in a greedy capitalist sense.

John S. August 16, 2006 at 12:30 pm

I worked in Latin America for many years and came in contact with a lot of Peace Corps volunteers. My impression is that like most foreign aid, the Peace Corps provides more benefits to the donors than to the recipients. The kids get to spend time in a foreign country, learn the language, expand their horizons, and make contacts for the future (as someone else wrote, if you’re planning a career in international development, the Peace Corps is a great way to get your foot in the door). The benefit to the recipients is harder to discern.

I came to the conclusion that there is something paternalistic about the whole organization. The local people I worked with (engineers and economists) all had degrees from universities in the U.S. — the same schools that produced the volunteers. Yes, these were the “elites” of their countries — just as many of the Peace Corps volunteers are the elites of our country. So you have local people with the same education as the volunteers, who already know the language, and have an intimate understanding of the local culture. Aren’t they much more qualified to do whatever it is a Peace Corps volunteer does? What I don’t like about the Peace Corps is that it implies that there is some special knowledge than only an American twentysomething can impart.

Andres I August 16, 2006 at 5:09 pm

I live in Latin America. I did a lot of volunteer work in my youth. As some of the previous comments stated: most of the benefit goes to the volunteer himself. But what’s wrong with that? It’s a little frustrating that you don’t actually make a big change in the world, but if you begin to change yourself it makes a pretty good start. Unless you give up some other things you might be doing at the time. Since you’re making the question, it’s fair to think you aren’t giving up much, so go for it! There’s nothing like experience to learn.

bhauth August 17, 2006 at 8:47 pm

From what I hear from people who went: If you just want an adventure, backpacking around Europe for a year is good. If you want to understand what things are like in some poorer areas, and are still happy with helping on a very small scale, PC is good. If you expect to do grand things and eat and sleep like you have, then run away quickly.

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masika Henry September 10, 2008 at 4:30 pm

My name is Masika Henry. I graduated from Kent State University, in Ohio, Last August. I obtained a Bachelors of Arts, major psychology, minor criminal justice, and a TEFL Certificate.
I cannot remember why, where I heard or thought of joining the Peace Corps. I applied in September of 2006 during my last year at my University.
My initial application, which is very lengthy, was accepted in a timely fashion and I was granted an interview about a month later. After the hour long interview with the recruiter for my area, he suggested that I should pick an area of interest and then get more volunteer experience. I initially picked HIV and AIDS awareness. I figured that trying to help people with a chronic illness and stigma would be most challenging for me. I then proceeded to find organizations that I could volunteer with. It was quit difficult, as I don’t have a skill to work with that population. Most of the volunteer experience I could gain was not direct enough for the Peace Corps qaulifcation. I still did some volunteer work in that field though. I informed the Peace Corps recruiter of my dilemma and he then suggested getting certified with a TEFL, Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
I began searching ways to get certified and ran into an amazing program at my University, which pairs an overseas experience while teaching. I made the decision to do this program; it sounded like a great opportunity regardless which way the Peace Corps would take me. The recruiter completely encouraged me of doing this, as it would make me that much more of a competitive nominee. So we made the decision that it would be best to wait until June 2008 for me to go. I also took the advantage of my TESL organization at my University and delegated a conversational coffee hour once a week as well as extracurricular activities for the TOEFL students.
During the time I was in Europe, from May-August 2007 they put my application on hold. I also must say that I do have a background. I was arrested in Florida on a Spring Break in 2005 for a drug charge. This did create some problems with the application process, but not that much. This was also why the recruiter suggested I wait until 2008. It is farther away from the arrest date etc…
Once I returned in August they sent me the Medical Package. This is an exhaustive examination regarding ones health. Every aspect of your health history is considered. After being away for almost four months and returning with no money and no health insurance, this was not an easy process. After much investigation I was able to get free medical insurance in my county based off of my income, which was and is next to nothing. I finally completed the health package at the end of May of 2008, knowing very well that I would not be leaving in June.
The entire process of the Peace Corps is very much unorganized. I was initially assigned a placement officer, a medical officer and some other random people that really never helped me out. My assigned medical officer, never answered his calls, it always went to voicemails. I felt lucky at one point to talk to a human being, and not get an answering machine. After they received the Medical Package, they sent more stuff back to me. Making me go to the Doctor again. They suspected I had asthma, bad circulation, due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and I do suffer from a genetic eye disease. More delay! I also must say that I would consider myself to a relatively healthy person. In August I was finally medically clear.
A fill in placement officer, as my original was no longer there, informed me that I needed to complete more paper work. Re-writing my essays, completing another Professional Resume, and get one more references, even though I had submitted 4. I tried to conduct these request in a reasonable time. It took me about two to three weeks. At this point, I am wondering if this is worth it. I was so motivated in 2006 to dedicate EVERYTHING of my life to get into to the Peace Corps. After this two year process my morale decreased, as it would in any situation. The constant calling, emailing, working, putting forth effort, knowing that this could all be useless in the end. Many people would say that they would have given up by this point. I was struggling with letting go of something that I wanted so badly and that essentially does good things. I weighed the pro\’s and con\’s and realized that there were many more good things that will come of the Peace Corps than bad.
I also had to consider other options. I applied for many other teaching jobs all over the world. Rejecting Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Puerto Rico. I could not put all my eggs in one basket. It was very frustrating, because the Peace Corps has you in the frame of mind that you will be leaving with them from the time they accept you. Figuring out your finances and your expected departure month, But yet they discourage you from doing anything drastic, such as quitting your job.
Three weeks pass without hearing anything from the placement office. I wanted to call for such a long time prior to when I finally did. I was so angry at the entire Peace Program and I did not want this frustration and anger to reflect my likelihood of getting in. I also felt like this is such a big commitment and I did not want to seem like I was rushing it. But once again it is now August of 2008 and I applied in September of 2006. So I called and vented. The individual I spoke with was very supportive and made me feel that I am not the only prospective volunteer that feels this way. She also informed me that this is the typical length of all applicants. She was definitely responsive and tentative toward my concerns. I also felt that the Peace Corps had decided months ago that I would not be the best candidate and did not want me, but made me go through the actions to satisfy some quota. I felt like having a background was the real reason, but Peace Corps did not want to seem like they were discriminating against anyone. I expressed this to her as I had expressed it before to someone, and she encouraged me to believe that this was not the case. I have already had many obstacles with my background. Not being able to find an adequate job and this mistake constantly haunting me. I feel like society has branded me a bad person because of one mistake. I don’t have anything else on my record. Either way ironically after I vented to this fill in placement person that same week the real placement person called me to do a phone interview.
She mainly asked me about my coping strategies while volunteering, my drug and alcohol usage, my expectations and my frustrations I had expressed to the previous individual. I Of course being the honest individual that I am told her exactly what I said to the first person. She responds with a comment like, you must realize that the Peace Corps is a unique experience and we only take the best of the best, and have you considered other options. I told her yes I have, I couldn’t risk something not working out with the Peace Corps and not having a plan B. She then expressed her opinion that maybe we should wait a week and then I can get back to her to see if this is still something I really want to do. I told her we could and should continue with the process. So now they have a Counselor do a Drug and alcohol assessment.
This was a two hour phone call, where they asked me how many times I had participated in any drug behavior, how many times, how frequently, for how many hours. Essentially they asked me how many times I drank, smoked or \”drugged\” since I was freshman in High School. It was a very frustrating phone conversation. Despite the intensity I felt like it went well. I am not an addict; I participate in drinking just as much as the average American. So this was three weeks ago. I have yet to hear anything from the Corps.
I ask myself what type of a non profit organization rejects ‘volunteers?’ I have worked hard thus far in my life with the Peace Corps as one of my ambitions since 2005.
I now am in this weird position, with arrangements to take a paid teaching job at the end of the month. I feel like the Peace Corps really isn’t a non profit agency at all, but some cover up for the government. I feel like I am exactly what they are looking for; dedicated, hard working, responsible, adaptable, and willing to sacrifice two years of my time away from my family to help and make a difference in a country that could benefit from my efforts. So I guess those qualities are not enough for the Peace Corps, I guess I am not the best of the best.

sam October 26, 2008 at 6:51 pm

rpcv in paraguay. not a good experience. admin was too beauracratic.

espcam November 9, 2008 at 7:56 pm

p.s. One more thing– when we were all getting ready to ship out, PC specifically said “Do NOT bring tampons or vitamins. These will be provided by Peace Corps.” I had prepared to bring these items but left them at home. When we got there, guess what? No tampons, no vitamins. Why? Budget cuts. When we (especially the women) objected to this, seeing as how our diet would be limited to rice and bread for3 months, the PC trainers said we can deal with it because the locals don’t have vitamins or tampons. On top of that, the PCMOs said not to call them on their direct lines unless we were about to die or something.

Nathan April 21, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I’m apt to reinforce the belief that the Peace Corps hiring is slightly biased. I wore a suit and tie to my interview, which was located at a prominent liberal arts college. The interviewer, to say the least, appeared cold and unemotional. At the end of the interview, I was told that she, the interviewer, still didn’t know why I wanted to join and that my answers to the written questions on the application lacked emotion. Rather than re-write answers to the essay questions a third time, I’ll concede defeat. Afterall, the sole purpose of the interview is to weed out and discourage applicants. In my case, the goal was achieved.

sam fernandez May 18, 2009 at 7:56 pm

on paper, the peace corps seems like a great program. reality, however, is quite different. many of the posters make good comments about the program such as more benefit to the volunteer than the host country, hit or miss invitations, etc. the peace corps in paraguay (where i was at) was unorganized, useless, underfunded (or cheap?), and, honestly, a big waste of time and taxpayer money. having said that, it really depends on the volunteer’s assigned country. it would appear that some countries are much better organized and, as such, have a greater impact on, both, volunteers’ lives and the host country itself.

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