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2/21/09 5 Reasons to Reconsider Joining Peace Corps

I love my Peace Corps Service and love my village, but that doesn't mean that I've never reconsidered my decision. So you're considering joining Peace Corps? Wonderful! But don't imagine that it'll be easy-breezy. Few things of any real value ever are, after all. I did an informal poll of some PCV friends, and here are the consensus answers for "Reasons to Reconsider." I don't mean to be a downer, but my goal with all of these posts has been to give potential PCVs a realistic expectation of Peace Corps service.

5 Reasons to Reconsider Joining Peace Corps

1. It's hard. I mean, really hard. You'll be living hundreds or thousands of miles away from everyone you knew before. You probably won't speak the language all that well, certainly to begin with, though that improves over time. You'll be stared at, marginalized, fetishized, ignored, dismissed, mocked, and blamed, possibly all in the same day. You'll encounter ugly stereotypes about yourself and people you love. You'll eat food that's foreign to you and foreign to your digestive tract. You may not have running water. Or electricity. Or paved roads. You may go a month without hearing a word of English.

2. Your isolation. Unless you're fortunate enough to have a site-mate, you are the only American around. The only native English speaker. The only person who understands the importance of peanut butter and Good Night Moon (or pick examples from your own childhood). You may have functioning phones and even internet, but if you don't, you may go weeks or months without hearing from loved ones. (Even if you do have a phone or internet, they may not work dependably.)

3. The slow pace of development. A lot of us thought that good old American elbow grease and determination would be enough to accomplish wonderful things. They're not. There are dozens or hundreds of factors that affect the work you're doing, not all of which are in your control. There could be bureaucracy issues. You might face a demand for paperwork you've never heard of, as a precondition to further action, minutes or hours before your planned activity. There's the fatal combination of weather and limited infrastructure. It doesn't matter how important or urgent it is that you get to your destination; if a blizzard drops a meter of snow on you, the road will be closed for awhile.

To those of us used to busy days crammed full of appointments and to-do lists, the slow pace of development can be devastating. Downtime is the one thing that stage, with its frenetic pacing and relentless activity, does not prepare you for. If you have two meetings in a week, that may be a pretty good week. If you want your work to be sustainable - to outlive your service here - you need to move forward by building consensus, creating relationships, training people who might think that the thing you're training them for is ridiculous...and these things take time. When everything else is (or seems to be) dragging along, discouragement and cynicism can grow rapidly.

4. Your minimal access to western medicine. There is a western-trained doctor or nurse (known as PCMO, for Peace Corps Medical Officer) available by phone 24/7, but sometimes that's not enough (even if you have access to a phone, which isn't a guarantee). If you need face-to-face medical attention, you may be referred to a doctor who doesn't speak your language, or else be asked to travel the hours or days it takes to get to the capital and see PCMO. When you get in-country, PCMO will give you a giant case full of drugs, gauze, surgical gloves, chapstick, etc, and then expect you to dose yourself with that as the occasion arises. One friend was asked to look in a mirror, find her tonsils (which she'd never looked for before), and describe them to PCMO, who then diagnosed strep throat and prescribed antibiotics...all over the phone. Another thought he had pnumonia, but was waved off with "It's just the flu; take two ibuprofin and call back tomorrow." He dragged himself, with a 104* temperature, to an American doctor who happened to be working nearby. That doctor diagnosed pnumonia at a glance, and sent him for chest x-rays...but the x-ray technician didn't image the whole lungs, so missed the key symptom, so PCMO still thought it was the flu. He had pnumonia for a month before getting treatment. There are many, many horror stories like this.

5. You're poor. You do get paid, plus Peace Corps covers your rent and tutoring, but it's a stipend, not a salary. You are expected to maintain the same standard of living as people in your community. This means that my take-home salary is less than US$250 a month. Fortunately, taxes aren't withheld - our stipends are well below US poverty line! I live in one of the cheapest regions in the country - quite possibly *the* cheapest - and I don't eat meat (which is quite expensive here), and I still spend nearly all of my stipend every month. Living modestly. People in more expensive regions, or who are more fond of vacationing around and eating out, usually subsidize their stipends with money from the US. Our stipend hasn't been increased in years (how many years? Depends who you ask - some say 5 years, some 15), and won't be unless 75% of us fill out an online survey detailing exactly how much we spend in a month, and what we spend it on. Given how few of us have regular internet access, plus how hard it is to account for every centime (worth about 0.12 cents), I don't foresee a raise any time soon.

Did I scare you? Depress you? I'm sorry. Peace Corps service is life-changing and rewarding to degrees almost unimaginable before...but it's not easy, and it comes with no guarantees. But if you're too depressed, go back and read the Top 10 Reasons to Join Peace Corps. :)


  1. This is important information! I thank you for your honesty. Personally, I can say with near certainty that this most likely means that I would not get in. (History of depression and back trouble, and I'm older.) It's good to know that my chances are likely very slim, from the start. (I had hoped that, given my limitations, I might be placed in a less remote country, but I think that is wholly unrealistic, and probably unfair to PC.)

    1. (My name is not Mom. It's Christina. For some reason, my Google account is set up on our home computer as "Mom." :) )

    2. It's only fair to PC to note that they've dramatically changed their application and placement policies in the eight years since I wrote this. Applicants now have much more say in what country they end up in, and I know PCMO was radically changed after the death of some PCVs, including a friend of mine. Before you count yourself out, have a conversation with a recruiter -- you might hear good news. :)


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