On October 14, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy presented a challenge to the 10,000 University of Michigan students gathered at the student union. How many of them would be willing to serve their country and support the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world? Six months later, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed into law an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis with Congress passing the Peace Corps Act on September 21, 1961. This Act declares the purpose is:
“…to promote world peace and friendship through Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower…”
The Peace Corps Mission is to promote this purpose by fulfilling three goals:
• To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
• To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
• To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Since then, more than 230,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries.
As of today, there are currently 7,376 volunteers serving in 64 countries and participating in one of 6 sectors. These sectors include: agriculture, environment, education, health, community economic development, and youth in development, however, not all sectors are in every country. For example, in Guyana, where I serve, there are three sectors: education, health, and the environment.
How to apply?
The application process has changed since I applied to the Peace Corps, however, when you look at the website, there is a red “apply” button which will take you through the process. The first step is to select a job; a traditional 27 month Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) or a response volunteer (PCRV) who works for a shorter period of time, and then apply for that job. Once you have done this, you wait. You will be notified if you have been selected for an interview or not. Don’t worry if this takes a long time, some people’s application process takes a year while others are 6 months. If all goes well with the interview, you will be sent an invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a list of medical and legal requirements which must be fulfilled. It can be a lot, but every PCV in every site has gone through the same process.
Once you receive your invitation, you will need to accept and complete all of the requirements. When you have done this, providing everything checks out, you will be emailed a plane ticket to staging where you will meet the rest of your cohort before flying to your country! What you do when you get in the country varies from post to post, but you will eventually end up in training for up to 3 months. During training, you will have sessions related to technical skills (your sector i.e., education, health), cross-cultural, health, and safety and security. You may also be able to apply what you are learning to mock situations (in Guyana, we have a model school where everyone is assigned a small class and teaches for two weeks). If applicable, there is language training which is provided for you to learn basic survival communication skills. This is on top of some country’s requirement of language proficiency skills to be accepted at their post. In addition, you will be living with a host family; tasked with helping you integrate into the community, learn and understand the language, and introduce you to all the food; and support you in learning how to live in your host community.
At the end of training and based on an outlined performance criteria, you will either be invited to swear-in or not. If you are invited, you will attend the swearing-in ceremony to officially become a Peace Corps Volunteer. From there, you will travel to your site to begin your two years of service. Again, depending on the country in which you serve, you will either be in a host family or living on your own. In Guyana, we are required to spend the first 5 months after swearing-in with a host family before moving into our own place.
As a PCV, you are held to a high standard because you are representing your country. Because of this, there are rules and codes of conduct we must adhere to. If a PCV is caught participating in anything contrary to those rules and codes, they can be administratively separated (i.e., not wearing a helmet is approved to ride on a motorcycle, being arrested, not using a life jacking on any type of boat, drug use etc.). PCV’s are also required to live at the same level as the community in which we serve. This means, while we do not get paid, we receive a living wage stipend once a month. The amount varies from country to country and is dependent on the resources available at your site and in your community; the cost of food, clothing, supplies, and housing.
When your two years comes to a close, you will be provided the opportunity to extend your service from 3 months to a year in order to finish seeing a project through or to take on another position offered such as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL), if available. Some PCV’s have even extended for a 4th year. Typically, you will not serve for more than 5 years in the same country, however, you are free to serve in a different country and in a different capacity as many times as you would like, you just need to reapply.
There are many reasons someone would strive to become a Peace Corps Volunteer; public service, international development, they are unsure of where to go after college, it is something they have always wanted to do, and even, it looks good on a resume. For me, it was a combination of wanting something new, looking for adventure, and a push from my family.
In February of 2016, I, along with 29 other people from around the country, gathered in Miami, FL to begin our Peace Corps experience. We had one day of introduction to Peace Corps and Guyana before we were taken to the airport to begin our long journey to Guyana, via Trinidad and Tobago. We touched down at the Cheddi Jagan Airport in the middle of the night where we were met by the smiling faces of Peace Corps Guyana staff. Our 27 months had begun.
Moving to a different country and living in a different culture, in the beginning, is scary and exciting all at once. You can research the country and its people and feel totally prepared, yet when you get off that plane, the heat hits your face (at least in Guyana it did) and as you start your training, you realize you have no idea what is going on. While we are not totally alone in our experience, it can be a bit isolating; especially for those who serve in small and far away communities (hinterland) with little access to phone service or other PCV’s. Suddenly, you are in a new country living in a new culture and trying to find your way.
As previously stated, I was required to live with a host family for the training period, then for the first 6 months (requirement later changed to 5) at the site. However, once that time was completed, I moved to independent housing. There are some villages in Guyana where independent living is not a viable option therefore, the PCV would need to live with a family for the entire 2 years. There are also PCV’s who choose to remain with their host family for their entire tour. Regardless of what type of place you are living, you are never truly alone. Everyone in the community knows where you live and people will stop by to say hi or bring you food. The students I taught would ride by on their bikes yelling “Miss. Becca!” just to say hi.
The work we do at the site and with whom will vary and the sector you are attached to determines the work you will be doing. I was a community education specialist attached to a primary school working to improve the literacy rates of students as well provide teacher training. However, my friend who is in the health sector is attached to the regional hospital but also teaching Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) at the primary school.
While we are not specifically “assigned” to work with another PCV, we do use each other as resources to help achieve our goals and objectives. For example, during my first year of service, I worked with my Head Mistress and organized a day to build a playground at my school with the community. In addition to community members, there were also PCV’s who helped dig holes and put equipment in the ground. In another example, the same PCV mentioned above was coordinating a health fair in our area. There were multiple PCV’s who came from all over the country to help facilitate conversations and engage with local Guyanese about health, food, exercise and stress/coping strategies. In addition, local nurses were providing free blood pressure readings and selling items made by patients from the psychiatric hospital.
This experience has definitely changed my perspective on the world and what I feel is valuable. As I sit here in my third year of service (I extended for one more year as a PCVL), I reflect on how differently I think compared to before I boarded that plane 2 ½ years ago. I realize we do not come to a different country to “fix” things; there is nothing to fix. We are here to learn and grow as people while instilling the knowledge we have on host country nationals (HCN). We learn just as much as they do through cultural exchange and job knowledge. There is a profound amount of materialism in America which is not present in Guyana. The valuable pieces of most Guyanese are their immediate and extended families, sharing with others, and making people feel welcome in their homes.
Some of the ways I have changed and grown were not evident until I visited America for the first time since becoming a PCV. While I sat in the Ft. Lauderdale airport waiting for my next flight, I overheard two men having a conversation. I distinctly remember thinking, “really, that’s what is important to you?” however, I quickly checked myself and shook the judgment from my mind. This was the first time I actually realized I had changed. After that, it was the supermarkets. There are so many choices! I would stand in an aisle for 10 minutes just trying to figure out which peanut butter I was going to buy! And, I was constantly freezing everywhere. You don’t realize how accustom you become to the heat until you have air conditioning again! Guyana is close to the equator and has a Caribbean climate, meaning, there are two seasons, dry and wet, and it is always hot a humid.
To close, I highly recommend anyone who can to serve in some way or another. If not Peace Corps, then another volunteer organization. I have truly learned so much about myself and the world and wouldn’t trade it for anything