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How to Travel: The Peace Corps

As we near the end of our little How to Travel series, here's a somewhat unique opportunity compared to the options we've discussed so far - unique in that it is a government-sponsored program. Many people reading this will have already heard of the Peace Corps and are familiar with their volunteer work across the globe. It is a great way to thoroughly explore a culture as placements are as long as 2 years, which will be spent with a host family. The work is hard but fulfilling, and addresses your host community's needs at the time. However, the Peace Corps have not been without controversy throughout the years. That's why you'll be hearing it all from the horse's mouth - the majority of this post will be written by an anonymous volunteer that experienced some of the controversy firsthand, although not without some amazing experiences during their service. 


For the more independent types out there, the Peace Corps will place you in a community of a developing nation, all by your lonesome more often than not.  For two years, you will work toward developing that community in whichever specialization the Peace Corps deems you best at, based on your application.  It could be teaching, business, infrastructure, health, what have you. 

Your accommodation is usually provided, although you could be living with a host family, which would surely result in some amazing cultural experiences.  The Corps gives you a stipend equivalent to the average middle class wage of your area that will allow you to live comfortably while also giving you more appreciation for the things you may have previously taken for granted.  They will also do other cool things, like defer your student loans, provide full medical coverage, and give you an $8,000 payout at the end of your service for readjustment.

I have a great friend who worked as a volunteer and was willing to briefly discuss his/her experience below. They will remain anonymous due to the circumstances of their departure and because they don’t want bad blood between themselves and the organization. 

A volunteer’s story

I am writing this anonymously for a plethora of reasons. The first and most significant is out of respect for those who decided to finish their 2 years, and a genuine respect for the program, which is one of the few pure parts of American foreign policy. I am also going to be honest and trash all of the shortcomings. For those considering joining the Peace Corps, I think it would be very interesting to read this positive recommendation overall for the program from someone who loved the country, hated his assignment, and decided to call it quits after a very short time. I also fucking hate the government (in general, no political party specified), but think the Peace Corps is cool. Try reading everything if you decide you want to apply, most notably from those who finished, either loved or hated it, but stayed for their grad school CV. I did all of this to prepare and still ended up quitting.

Let’s start off with some of the top reasons to join:

1) Language fluency

You will surely become fluent in your host country’s language, unless you are placed in a city and decide to give up studying. Peace Corps language training trounces any language courses that I took in high school and college. Plus, all of this takes place while you are living with a host family who will, in most cases, dominate a large portion of your time during the 2-month training period, and provide you with opportunities to build a solid intermediate language base. The host family domination can be crucial for developing language proficiency (e.g. asking “mom and dad” for permission to stay out with your friends until 10).

2) Your host family

I quit after less than 6 months, and still talk to my host family (2 years later). I went back and visited, and spent a lot of time with them as well. A large part of my love for my host country is connected to my time with my host family.

3) Peace Corps Volunteers

PCVs are awesome. Over 90% have a level head on their shoulders - likely a product of the tedious application process - and, of course, the decision to live abroad for two years, which makes things easier socially. This was a fresh breath of relief for me, compared to the trashy expats you can find in Southeast Asia. The only negative thing is that this can make integration tricky during your initial 2-month training, when there will be ten of you in the same village. 

Here are some of the bad/weird things. I will list everything I can think of:

1) Big Brother is watching

Peace Corps staff, including the trainers your age and older staff, are watching you. They are taking notes on you. They have a profile of everything you do, including how you adapt to the culture, your work attitude, and what you do when you are drunk. This largely includes all of the gossip about you, so try not to do anything stupid and be the village idiot, because it will spread to the Peace Corps as well. One trainer directly said “ We are looking at you and taking notes” but I think a lot of people missed the significance of this “free lunch” statement.

2) Drinking

There is a heavy drinking culture in the Peace Corps. If your host country is tolerant of alcohol, it is going to get crazy. Be ready for shots in the morning. Remember that you work for the government, and make sure you don’t get a reputation for being one of the top partiers. Also, do not drunk dial your embassy if something happens. That will get you sent home.

3) The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Sometimes PCVs gossip a lot, which is heightened by the boredom of the slower lifestyle, or the anxiety/excitement of being away from home. It’s something to know at the very least. The Peace Corps, and especially your host family, are going to treat you like a teenager as well, even if you are an adult. For the host family, it’s actually a good cultural experience and kind of adorable to joke about, but for the Peace Corps, it’s kind of annoying, because nobody likes the government taking away their civil liberties. Overall, it has a summer camp feel to it, which is strange when you realize that you are working for the government.

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Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel
If you found these tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.