The Gig: Peace Corps Volunteer
The Work: If you’re from the U.S., and you’ve had that urge to live and work abroad, chances are you’ve considered the Peace Corps. Since 1961, the service agency created by President John F. Kennedy has sent some 161,000 volunteers to 134 countries to take on — you guessed it — the toughest job they’ll ever love. Toughest job? Former PCV (Peace Corps volunteer) Francesca Minikon doesn’t see her stint in West Africa that way: “I was having too much fun to consider what I did merely a job!” The Peace Corps places volunteers throughout every major region of the world and has an extensive map highlighting international volunteer assignments ranging from agriculture, business, and education to the environment, health, and community development.
Francesca served in Burkina Faso, West Africa, as a health volunteer who saw a unique opportunity to return to her African roots (her parents are from Liberia) and explore that culture from within.
Renée Bouvion served as an agricultural extension agent with the Peace Corps in a small village in Hamdallye, Mauritania, primarily helping with a women’s cooperative doing vegetable gardening and occasionally assisting with some health and sanitation education.
Training/Education/Requirements: It’s true. Peace Corps volunteer positions are reserved for U.S. citizens only. Do not be dispirited though if you have a burning desire to help and live in another part of the world; the Peace Corps website offers suggestions for other volunteer organizations geared toward non–U.S. citizens.
Most PCV positions require a bachelor’s degree, and individuals must meet certain work experience requirements explained in more detail on the site. Within certain regions additional experience or an ability to speak another language, like French or Spanish, might be required. Renée’s previous gardening expertise was limited to “just a backyard vegetable garden,” but that was enough to earn her a placement.
The Peace Corps has a reputation for being hard to get into, with stiff competition and the continued popularity of the program creating a waiting list for openings. According to Returned Volunteer Services stats, approximately 11,000 applications are received annually with only 4,000 volunteer positions available overseas each year. Those numbers suggest that even qualified applicants might find themselves on hold.
Once you’ve scored a placement and have landed “in country,” you will go through 3 months of intensive training with American and local country instructors. You’ll take courses in the language dialect for that region, receive education in the cultural and sociological expectations of the community, as well as obtain guidance in your specific area of expertise (business, health, agriculture, etc.). Volunteers live with a host family during this time and get their first dose of the challenges ahead.
The Peace Corps boasts a consideration for the “‘whole person’ including your life experiences, community involvement, volunteer work, motivations, and even your hobbies.” It is — by most accounts — an experience that transforms you. Renée recounts with a smile how far from her little apartment in Seattle her Peace Corps experience was. She lived in a mud house with no running water or electricity, where sheep and goats would wander in and out periodically — and where she found previously undiscovered personal strengths.
After the standard two-year completed service, the Peace Corps helps volunteers to transition back home, with job-hunting or graduate school assistance in the Returned Volunteer Services program.
The Pay: No one considers it a salary, not even the Peace Corps, but you do get paid! It’s more like a stipend or living allowance that provides for basics — food, local transportation, and housing. Volunteers also receive a “readjustment allowance” at the end of their service, which is currently $225 for each month of completed service, totaling $6075 for the entire two years.
Okay, so all the visitors to her little mud hut weren’t goats; the children in the village loved to visit with Renée.
Best Part: Like many volunteers, Francesca saw real opportunities within her community to make a tangible difference: “Garden projects and a soap fabrication project were important because of the ability to establish a small business in the community… The money always flowed back into the community.” After a pause, Francesca adds, “If I had to identify my most important accomplishment from the two years in Burkina, it would have to be the fact that I was able to mature so much as a human being.”
Downside: For Renée, this part is simple: “At times, two years seem like forever, but I can’t imagine getting as much from a shorter amount of time.”
jobs for the restless
"Not only did I have the satisfaction of doing something really worthwhile, I also discovered that I had personal strength that I otherwise would have never known.” — former volunteer Renée Bouvion