The Peace Corps is a volunteer program that the U.S. government operates to provide economic and social development around the world. Its mission is to offer technical assistance and mutual understanding between those who serve and the populations were the work is being done. Executive Order 10924 is responsible for the establishment of this opportunity, which was issued in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Congress would move to authorize it permanently with the Peace Corps Act in September of that year.
Volunteers who serve with the Peace Corps are American citizens. Many of them have a college degree. They work abroad for about two years after receiving three months of training to complete the mission of their program. You can also request an extension of service after completing your initial 24-month period.
People who serve with the Peace Corps will work with schools, non-profits, NGOs, and government agencies to improve communities. They will also work side-by-side with entrepreneurs to create advancements in agriculture, information technology, environmental issues, and educational programs.
Since its creation, over 235,000 people have joined the Peace Corps. Projects in more than 140 different countries have come to a successful conclusion.
List of the Pros of the Peace Corps
1. Joining the Peace Corps gives you the chance to see the world.
If you want to travel the world and experience new cultures, then joining the Peace Corps might be the right fit for you. Up to 18,000 Americans apply to serve in this institution every year. Although the locations for volunteerism change each year, there are typically opportunities available in more than 50 different countries. You might find yourself serving in the mountains of Peru, along the beaches of Jamaica, or somewhere in China or Africa. There is an opportunity to help others while getting to figure out what you want to do in life.
2. Volunteers can qualify for student loan deferment and cancelation.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program allows volunteers with the Peace Corps to qualify for the forgiveness of their federal student loans after 10 years of payment. Anyone who can apply for an income-driven repayment plan, including income-contingent, income-based, or pay as you earn, may have payments of $0 each month during their two years of service with the program. That means you could receive 24 months of credit out of the 120 months of mandatory payments with service.
If you do not qualify for an income-drive repayment plan, then deferments are possible during your time volunteering. Then you would make 120 payments based on your income following your time in the Peace Corps.
3. You receive an automatic deferment of Stafford, Perkins, or consolidation loans.
If you decide to volunteer with the Peace Corps, then you’ll receive an automatic deferment of your Stafford, Perkins, or any consolidation loans that you have from your college or university costs while serving. You can also qualify for a partial cancelation of your Federal Perkins loans, earning 15% for each year of service that you offer – up to a 70% total forgiveness package for that one specific loan.
4. Volunteers receive instruction to learn a new foreign language.
When you join the Peace Corps, then you will receive three months of intensive training in the technical skills needed for your assignment. This instruction includes cultural training opportunities and classes that will help you to start learning another language. This advantage will give you several significant assets that you can use when you’ll eventually seek employment of some type in the global economy. It is provided to you without cost because of the volunteer work that you’ll be doing in return.
5. You may have access to fellowship or graduate-level opportunities in the Peace Corps.
When you decide to start volunteering with the Peace Corps, then you have the option to pursue a graduate-level international degree from one of over 90 different universities throughout the United States during your service. Some of the most prestigious schools in the country are on this list, including Duke, Clemson, and Cornell.
Once you return from your volunteerism with the Peace Corps, you’ll have lifetime eligibility for the Paul D. Coverdale Fellows Program that covers graduate programs. That means you can find help with paid internships, housing assistance, tuition reduction, and student loans so that you can pursue whatever level of education you want.
6. There are expanded career opportunities for you to consider.
When you are ready to come back from the Peace Corps, then you’ll have a specific set of skills that most employers covet. You’ll have creative problem-solving skills that led you to manage a variety of situations with ease. Your volunteerism will also help you to understand what it is like to work well with others while still having an independent spirit to take on whatever challenges come your way.
As an added benefit to this advantage, all alumni from the Peace Corps are granted non-competitive eligibility status for jobs with the federal government. That status, which can extend for up to 36 years, makes it possible for an agency associated with the government to hire someone without going through the usual competitive process.
7. You’ll be joining an elite group of alumni when you serve.
There are several alumni from the Peace Corps that have gone on to change their industries in a variety of ways. People like Reed Hastings, Gordon Radley, Peter Hessler, Robert Haas, and Donna Shalala have all volunteered through this program to help others. Then they came back to carve out a happy and productive life for themselves in part because of what they were able to learn during their 24-month deployment period.
8. You will receive room and board when working with the Peace Corps.
When you volunteer with the Peace Corps, then you’ll receive a housing and living stipend that lets you live in the same manner as the people in the country you serve. Since that means you’ll likely work in the developing world, it is essential to remember that the facilities will not be equal to what you’re used to having in the United States. The living conditions vary by country.
If you volunteer in Africa, then the stipend might let you live in a mud house with a tin roof with a bed, a table, and a place for clothing. Those who serve in China live in a local apartment or housing United. A volunteer in Cameroon described the experience as being required to eat local food, experience the inconvenience of living without running water, and needing to travel on crowded buses.
9. Peace Corps volunteers receive medical benefits.
If you decide to volunteer with the Peace Corps, then you’ll have full medical insurance coverage and dental benefits for almost any situation you might encounter while serving. This includes 100% coverage for primary care needs, medical evacuation, hospitalization, and whatever prescriptions you might require. A medical officer at each post covers your basic care needs.
Since 2014, the Peace Corps has also made improvements to its procedures for medical personnel standards and responses to sexual assault.
10. You’ll receive transportation to and from your post.
If you decide to volunteer with the Peace Corps, then commercial airlines will provide you with the transportation needed to get you to or from your post. This expense is covered by the government program as well. That means you won’t be flying first class, but you will at least enjoy the fact that the flight is free.
11. You have the right to resign from the service at any time.
Volunteers retain the right to resign from the Peace Corps at any time during their service. You can quit for any reason, even if you are at a post somewhere in a foreign country. You’ll then be returned to your home of record by a commercial air flight within 72 hours of choosing this option. Since 2008, about 10% of the people who decide to join this program elect to end their service early – but that rate is 25% lower than what it was back then.
When you leave the program early, you might qualify for a $200 readjustment allowance to transition toward your new life. It helps to complete your service with the Peace Corps if you can because a 24-month period qualifies you for an $8,000 payment with no restrictions on how you decide to use the funds. Before quitting, you might want to use the vacation time you’ve accumulated (at 2 days per month) to think about your decision.
12. You don’t need to have extensive traveling experience to be successful.
You shouldn’t worry much about what will happen if you join the Peace Corps. The training portion of your experience will help you to adapt to what life is like in a developing country. Everyone has something that they end up missing during their period of service, ranging from hot showers to the availability of cheese. You might never really know what your exact situation will be like until you receive the assignment, so there might even be an opportunity to serve stateside. It all depends on your skillset and what the government program requires at the time you finish your application.
List of the Cons of the Peace Corps
1. You will experience high levels of physical isolation.
Most volunteers with the Peace Corps serve alone in remote areas of the world. You’re going to be a long way away from all of your loved ones. Because most of the positions in this program are in the developing world, you may have inconsistent communication opportunities with them as well. It is not unusual for volunteers to feel more alone than they have ever been in their lives. The only constant that many who have served say that exists during your time volunteering is that nothing is as it seems it should be or was in your life.
Some say that this experience of being on your own is part of what makes serving in the Peace Corps such a rewarding and meaningful experience. This disadvantage is also one of the primary reasons why volunteers decide to resign from the service before their 24-month commitment period expires.
2. You will encounter a significant amount of culture shock.
The living conditions that you’ll encounter while serving in the Peace Corps are much worse than what most volunteers experience in the United States. Life as an American is very different than what people experience when living in a poor nation afflicted by extreme poverty, and the shock of this knowledge can be traumatic to some people. Hygiene standards are almost always different. Your toilet might be nothing more than a hole in the ground. All of your water might require filtering and treatment so that you don’t get sick.
Even the foods you eat will likely cause constipation, diarrhea, or vomiting until you get used to the conditions – a process that can take 2-3 weeks for most people.
3. There are different wildlife issues for you to think about during your service.
When you decide to join the Peace Corps, then you will encounter several different reptiles, bugs, and other undesirable housemates during your time abroad. That means needing to worry about mosquitoes since they can carry several harmful diseases. You’ll need to speak with your doctor here at home about your assignment before leaving because there is an excellent chance that you’ll need vaccinations for several health concerns that are not issues in the United States.
Technology has improved dramatically in many parts of the world since the beginning of the Peace Corps. Some remote areas even have computers, online access, and television available for volunteers. You will still encounter numerous intrusions into your personal space.
4. Volunteers must know how to work independently.
Everyone who decides to serve in the Peace Corps must work independently without much supervision from the head office in each country. After you go through the three-month training period, there is an expectation that you’ll know what to do and how to do it correctly without receiving direct oversight. Your direct supervisor might be more than 12 hours away, which means daily supervision doesn’t exist.
Some people equate this disadvantage as receiving a lack of support for their efforts. Your success is dependent on the drive that you have to make the world a better place. If you have a giving heart and an adventurous spirit, then you’ll find a way to persevere when other volunteers might lash out or decide to take advantage of the lack of supervision to do nothing at all.
5. There is a significant problem with sexual assault in the Peace Corps.
About 3 out of every 5 volunteers in the Peace Corps are women. In 2014, there were 43 reported rapes, which equates to a 1.3% rate within the organization. Male volunteers reported four rapes during the same year, with a total of 168 sexual assaults occurring – defined as unwanted groping, kissing, or touching. Although the organization is working hard to implement a comprehensive program to reduce this risk, there are certain issues that volunteers will face when living and traveling in unfamiliar environments.
You might not receive much of a stipend to manage your needs while serving, but that won’t change the fact that the people you are helping might perceive you as being financially well-off. That factor alone could put you at a significant risk that wouldn’t exist in the United States.
6. The approval period for the Peace Corps takes a long time.
If you want to become a volunteer with the Peace Corps, then you’ll need to fill out an extensive online application. The organization requires you to submit a complete medical history as part of this process. You’ll also need to select a potential (not guaranteed) volunteer site where your services could be helpful. Once you get through all of these administrative requirements, you’ll fill out a second questionnaire about what your current working style is and what the environment is like.
You can go through all of that work and be denied access to the program. If you receive approval, then you’ll receive an invitation to interview with an officer of the Peace Corps to discuss your interests and skills. It can be up to six months after this discussion before you’ll receive an invitation to serve.
7. You are going to need to manage the government bureaucracy of this program.
Each country has a different set of rules that you must follow as a Peace Corps volunteer. Some people report that they had a 6:30 pm during their training time, which made it challenging to establish friendships or hold any semblance of a normal life. The program doesn’t allow you to take a bicycle out on the main roads, drive any kind of motorcycle or vehicle, or travel at night. If you break any of the rules, then the organization reserves the right to kick you out of the program without consent.
Because there are government associations to the Peace Corps, it is not unusual for the people you serve to see you as an American spy. You’re technically a government employee in this capacity, so a country with a tenuous relationship with the United States may make it difficult for you to perform your duties. You’ll also need to follow all of the cultural customs in the society where you volunteer even if you don’t agree with them.
8. The amount of time you serve is somewhat long.
Some people look at the idea of providing two years of service and shrug their shoulders at the time commitment. It doesn’t seem like it would be that long when you look at it from an outside perspective, but living it can be very different. There can be a lot of pressure to keep moving forward since anything that stays at rest will continue to stay that way. You can always find time for your mortgage, then 2.5 kids, and the perfect job as life moves on. Many people only get one shot at the Peace Corps, so they take it – and then realize that life doesn’t always move as fast as we think it should be going.
Is it Worth Joining the Peace Corps?
The pros and cons of the Peace Corps show that this program is not for everyone. Even the people who are the most ardent volunteers and supporters of this idea concede that serving in an impoverished nation can have physical, emotional, and spiritual tolls on people. Your life will be completely different, and the ride can be scary and exhilarating at the same time.
If you can cope with the conditions, then there is a lot of pride in knowing that the work you do will make the lives of many people better. You will learn a lot about yourself while helping in this capacity, which means you’re in a position to do great things once you return home.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.