RPCV Spills the Beans: Things to Know Before You Join the Peace Corps

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Learning what does the Peace Corps do + more hard hitting questions

Are you curious about what it’s like to immerse yourself in a different culture and live in a another country? Do you want to be of service to the global community, while sharpening your own technical expertise? Does the cost of living abroad make you say “I could never pick up and move somewhere on the other side of the world!”? If you said yes to any, or all, of those questions you might just be ready to do the unexpected and join the Peace Corps.

Before you sell your car, submit your resignation letter, or throw yourself a bon voyage party, there are a number of things to consider before joining the Peace Corps. From your Peace Corps application to pre-departure to what it’s like while you’re serving as a volunteer and what you can expect when you return home - the list is long! When you join the Peace Corps you’re not just signing up for the toughest job you’ll ever love - there’s a lot more involved! We’ve pulled together the things you need to know before joining the Peace Corps so you can make your most informed decision. 

Peace corps training session, Cameroon

Undergo intense Peace Corps training on site—this training is in Cameroon. Photo credit: Amcaja

The hard facts before you join the Peace Corps

1. My top Peace Corps application tips

The Peace Corps application process has changed dramatically in the past few years so be careful when you ask for advice on the process to consider the source - if they applied more than two years ago, their advice and perspective could already be outdated. Previously, you ranked your preference for region of the world, sector of work, and an approximate start date. Now, you can browse open positions in specific countries and specific sectors just like you would for a job application. Education? Agriculture? Community Economic Development? Health? Environment? Youth in Development? What’s your pleasure? Which sector will best leverage your skills and strengths? You can filter results by departure date (soonest or latest), sector, language requirement, and even marital status (if you’re applying as a couple). It’s never been easier to find, at least what you think is, your perfect placement!

As for additional tips for applying for a Peace Corps position—take your time. Be thorough and read the instructions so you don’t miss important steps of the process. 

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2. Understanding your Peace Corps salary

Technically, the Peace Corps is a volunteer service, which would make you think you don’t get any money. Don’t let the word volunteer fool you! While you don’t earn a salary, you do receive a living stipend to pay for basics like food, some transportation, and other living expenses you may need. Depending on your placement, your stipend may mean that you barely have enough to get by, or that you can save enough for traveling, or for when you return home.

Whatever your stipend, wherever you are, it’s probably a whole lot more than what the people around you are earning so make sure to budget wisely and think about what are your needs and what are your ‘would be nice to haves’ before you go on your shopping sprees. 

3. The most popular places/countries to serve in the Peace Corps

If you’re wondering where the best Peace Corps countries to serve are, we can’t really help you. After all, like Danielle said in Ever After, “I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens.” But some people do have favorite stars so we’ll give you our inside scoop.

First: do your research before you apply about what it’s like in the country where you would be serving. Do you turn the heat on in the summer because you abhor being cold? Better keep your eyes on openings in Senegal or Ecuador. Do you love making snow angels and dream about living in a cold, winter wonderland? Check out positions in Ukraine or Kyrgyz Republic.

The best places to serve in Peace Corps will vary from person to person and experience to experience. At the root of it all will be your attitude combined with the village or city where you are assigned to live and work. When you join the Peace Corps you need to keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your Peace Corps administration in your country of service to make sure everyone’s expectations are being met - or adjusted!

peace corps director and (former) secretary of state John Kerry signing document with ambassadors to Vietnam in Hanoi

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet signs a historic partnership to establish a Peace Corps program for the first time in Vietnam. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

4. The Peace Corps requirements

Are you asking yourself “Is the Peace Corps right for me?” If so, you’re not alone—many have asked the same question before you. But if your question is more of an “Am I eligible to serve in the Peace Corps” then you need to be of age and a US citizen. If you’re wondering how old do you have to be to join the Peace Corps, the answer is adult—18+. If you’re an adult and a U.S. citizen, then the answer is yes then, at least on paper, you’re eligible. Of course, there are shades of gray—be sure to reach out to an advisor and see if you’re a possible candidate before you click away from the opportunity forever.

5. The Peace Corps benefits

Does the sound of total health care coverage bring stars to your eyes? When you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer, all of your health care expenses, including insurance coverage, medications, and care related to any injuries or diseases sustained while serving are covered by the Peace Corps. Take this information with a grain of salt - some people have easy-peasy experiences with the Peace Corps medical system wherein their needs are met and they don’t have any issues. Others have a different story.

For every positive experience, there’s probably at least one or two people out there with a horror story to scare you away. You will definitely need to be (or learn how to be) your own advocate (both before and after joining the Peace Corps) and do your research. Someone else isn’t going to do it for you (another lesson you’ll learn if you do decide to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Maybe you’re wondering what the other benefits are to joining the Peace Corps - there are many related to your career, graduate school, and beyond that can’t necessarily be quantified. Check out this comprehensive list that details just what the Peace Corps can do for you so you can spend more time thinking about what you’re going to do for others. 

6. The Peace Corps cost

Do you get paid in the Peace Corps? Yes—but not much. While you will receive a stipend once you join the Peace Corps, there are costs you will need to keep in mind before you leave. You will be responsible for covering any medical costs related to your medical clearance beforehand and you will also likely want to spend money purchasing appropriate gear or clothing for your day to day life or adventures you would like to experience while in your new home.

Budget and spend carefully; all of those extra costs can add up. Better yet, if your friends and family are eager to support you in your service, make an Amazon Wish List and share out the link - many will be happy to have a concrete way to support your service and adventure!

Peace Corps volunteers dancing at swearing in ceremony in Madagascar.

Your swearing in ceremony is an experience you’ll never forget! Photo credit: Amcaja

7. The Peace Corps age limit

Does the idea of joining the Peace Corps now seem far off and unattainable? You may say to yourself “I’m too young!”, or “I’m too old!”, let us tell you now — age is but a number and as long as you are over the age of 18, you can apply to join the Peace Corps. Because like the former Peace Corps motto says,  the corner office can wait. Some corners of the world can’t. Take it from our experience - this will be an adventure you won’t regret. For better or for worse, joining the Peace Corps teaches you invaluable lessons about yourself and the world around you. It’s not for everyone, but the Peace Corps has lessons for all - at all ages. 

The human side of the Peace Corps—My story

I joined the Peace Corps when I was 22 and had been out of college for two months. Blogs, at the time, were just catching on in popularity so I only had a handful of conversations to lean on from people who had served long before me in different countries and regions of the world. So while their advice was interesting, I found once I arrived that it didn’t necessarily apply to my situation.

I look back now at my 22-year old self with a small sense of pride at my bold naiveté. I had never lived alone, never been to West Africa, and while I spoke French, Mali’s official language, I didn’t think I would be capable of learning a third language, which is what Peace Corps told me I’d need to do upon arrival. You learn a lot about yourself, and those around you, when you don’t have another choice.

I studied a Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, for my senior art history thesis and was thrilled when Peace Corps told me that’s where I would be headed for 27 months. 27 months turned into 45 months as I extended for a third year in the capital and then completed a Peace Corps Response assignment in the same country. From working in the environment sector with a women’s shea butter cooperative to supporting a primary education project based in the capital, I adored my Peace Corps experience and how it has changed my life for the better. At the same time, I’m definitely a glass half-full kind of person and I saw a number of friends and fellow volunteers struggle, and sometimes leave, during my time in Mali. I’m aware of the complexities surrounding the experience and that it’s unique for everyone—that’s essential to keep at the forefront of your consciousness.

Local children running down road, Peace Corps in Malawi

Become a part of your community - Peace Corps Malawi. Photo credit: Peace Corps

As far as advice for anyone considering joining the Peace Corps—you need to be humble. From integrating into another culture to navigating the illnesses you may encounter to sharing your experience with friends and family back home - your Peace Corps service can bring you to your knees. If you go into the experience thinking you have all the answers or you know your service will be one way or another - I can tell you right now, you’re wrong. Maintaining a sense of humility will keep you respectful and aware of what you’re doing and how it is perceived - from your colleagues to your new friends and family in your host country to your friends and family back home. 

Are there Peace Corps alternatives?

Joining the Peace Corps is not for everyone. If you don’t think (or really don’t have!) two years to spare, here’s a list of 12 Peace Corps alternatives  for you to peruse. You can opt to volunteer abroad for shorter term or teach abroad and get paid for it. The choice is yours! Here are a couple other excellent options to consider if Peace Corps isn’t your bag:

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1. Kaya Responsible Travel

Kaya Responsible Travel runs dozens of programs in multiple countries around the world. They are a good option to consider as a Peace Corps alternative because you can combine both internships and volunteer placements to create a year of service that doubles as an investment in your skills set. 

If you have your sights set on Asia-Pacific, Latin America, or Africa, this Peace Corps alternative is right for you.

Related: Read reviews of Kaya Responsible Travel | Visit their site

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2. GeoVisions

GeoVisions was founded in 2001 with the aim of helping individuals develop global skills to succeed in the 21st century. These skills will ultimately lead to greater cooperation and understanding among nations and peoples of the world - something the Peace Corps also seeks to achieve, which makes this a great alternative to the Peace Corps if you share those values. They are committed to treating every person on their programs with respect, and devoting their efforts to helping participants meet their individual and collective goals.

Related: Read reviews of Geovision | Visit their site

go eco

3. GoEco

GoEco has been encouraging ecological and volunteer tourism that promotes sustainable development since its inception in 2005. They offer ecological and humanitarian programs initiated by their partner organizations around the world. They connect volunteers who are passionate about wildlife, conservation, and global communities with the most suitable programs through careful screening. 

They select the best programs around the world, update the availability and timing of projects, validate the quality and reputation of projects, and help volunteers prepare for the trip.

Related: Read reviews of GoEco | Visit their site

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4. Global Volunteers

Global Volunteers pioneered short-term volunteer programs in 1984 to engage volunteers in meaningful community development projects around the world. Global Volunteers aims to promote peace and justice all over the globe. The nonprofit organization, in partnership with UNICEF, is led by experts and local leaders who develop and evaluate programs that help prepare short-term volunteers to maximize their contributions to long-term development projects in communities, especially in addressing the safety and development of children.

Related: Read reviews of Global Volunteers | Visit their site

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5. Love Volunteers

Love Volunteers is the most affordable way to volunteer and help local communities in developing countries! Why are they cheaper than other organisations? Firstly, they are just a handful of passionate people working hard to help volunteers and local communities around the world. They don't have huge overheads—no company cars, no downtown office—they're just volunteers who knew they could do a better job. All of Love Volunteers partner organizations have been fully vetted to ensure that not only does a genuine need for assistance exist, but that the environments that they place their volunteers are safe and of a high quality. This kind of rigor when it comes to passion and safety is similar to that of the Peace Corps, which makes this organization a great alternative.

Related: Read reviews of Love Volunteers | Visit their site

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6. Global Nomadic

Global Nomadic exists to help travellers, young professionals and career-changers find affordable and ethical projects in a wide variety of fields by matching you with reputable and worthwhile projects all over the world - a demographic often represented by people interested in joining the Peace Corps. 

Experience the world and give your career a real boost at the same time with their unique professional internships. Choose from amazing projects in many diverse fields such as wildlife conservation, veterinary medicine, community development, education, human rights issues, medicine and journalism.

Related: Read reviews of Global Nomadic | Visit their site

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Peace Corps and UNHCR signs in Ghana

Follow the signs (if you should become a Peace Corps volunteer). Photo credit: Katharinaiv

There you have it! Everything you need to know before joining the Peace Corps 

OK, maybe you don’t have everything you need to know before joining the Peace Corps after reading this article, but you certainly have a majority of the information (and inside scoop) of what you will need to get started. If you still have questions, check out this Peace Corps FAQ page or this Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook to learn more. There’s even a podcast where you can hear the real Peace Corps Story - from volunteers who stayed the whole time, left early, got evacuated, or even got kicked out. Learn from their successes and mistakes!

Maybe after reading all this information you’re saying to yourself, no thanks, I don’t think the Peace Corps is for me - and that’s fine, too. There are lots of volunteer abroad options out there—use the GoAbroad tool to hone in on what you would like to do and where you would like to do it. From two week volunteer trips to those lasting up to 12 months, there is a volunteer program out there just waiting for you to apply. 

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The content of this article is GoAbroad’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.