On September 24 and 25, the Peace Corps’ regional recruiter from Seattle, Melissa Lawent, was on campus raising awareness about the organization and providing information on recruitment. Lawent spoke both on campus and at the Loussac Library, where she spoke about her personal experience as a former volunteer as well as the misconceptions about the organization and its lengthy application process.
It is vital for recruiters to fully inform interested volunteers on joining the Peace Corps. Generally, many misconceptions cloud peoples’ views of the Peace Corps. Lawent listed the three most common misconceptions of the Peace Corps. Firstly, she negated the idea that the Peace Corps is a reason to travel the world; “it is in fact an experience, not a vacation,” Lawent stated. It is a professional organization in which skilled volunteers travel abroad to make use of their talents in Peace Corps’ specialized programs.
Secondly, many believe that “volunteers are in some way sort of ‘Americanizing’ the nations that it aids,” Lawent noted. This, however, is not the case. When a volunteer takes part in his or her service, he or she must learn to adapt within the culture by learning the local language and by assimilating into the local culture and living as the people do. Volunteers by no means push their own culture and beliefs upon those they help. If anything, volunteers learn more about their host country’s culture than that country learns about our culture.
“We are a volunteer organization. People think you can work in any skill,” Lawent commented. This is not true. Volunteers are chosen based on the skill set that they have prior to their involvement in Peace Corps. They are chosen based on their experience and/or degree.
The application process is quite a lengthy process and probably the most difficult part of becoming a volunteer. First, an application must be submitted and if relevant experience and areas of study are adequate, an interview with a recruiter is then scheduled. From there, volunteers are nominated to a program, and then take part in a lengthy medical and legal review. This makes up the majority of the process. Follow-ups on medical and law issues are dealt with, and once completed, the Peace Corps formally invites the volunteer to the program. From there, all that is left is preparation for departure.
One in three volunteer applicants are accepted, however this number includes students who select-out for their own personal reasons. The typical reasons why a volunteer would not be accepted include: inadequate experience or economic/medical reasons. Because the Peace Corps’ mission is to aid other nations, providing volunteers with adequate work and volunteer experience is vital. In many cases, the Peace Corps will give applicants more time to gain that work and volunteer experience before reapplying.
Lawent suggested that any student who plans to join the Peace Corps after college graduation should submit his or her application during his or her junior year, because the application process takes approximately a year to complete. Future volunteers should first do their homework and research Peace Corps by browsing the detailed website, attending local events, and talking to a former volunteers. By doing so, future volunteers can obtain insight into the program and decide which program is right for them. By volunteering in the Anchorage community and obtaining work experience in a relevant field, students can prepare for the application process.
When asked about the experience, skills, and knowledge the ideal applicant must have, Lawent stated that he or she must be flexible about their geographical preference and assignment area, have both a sense of theory and hands-on experience, and also have a sense of adventure and a willingness to learn about other cultures. “For applicants that are thinking about Peace Corps, what I always stress is be flexible about where it is that you’re willing to serve, because typically the reality is you may serve in a part of the world that you have very little experience or knowledge of,” Lawent said.
Regarding service, the Peace Corps only serves in areas of the world where help is requested, and anytime when they are asked to leave, the country’s request is granted. The mission of the Peace Corps service is to share the American perspective, but to not convert nations to the “American” ways. Individual volunteer service lasts for 27 months and provides volunteers with not only a way to see various regions of the world but also provides a sense of culture to all involved.
Lawent is a former volunteer who spent 2003 to 2005 in Romania, where she worked at an after school center and taught grades K-4 English as well as bilingual high school students. She aided these high school students in preparing for their Cambridge exams, which those students could then use to show universities and employers in their future. She spoke of her service with enthusiasm and discussed the many things she learned and people she met while overseas.
Needless to say, with an organization as large and involved as the Peace Corps, there is much to learn. Interested students can visit the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov and keep an eye out for local events in Anchorage.