If you think Americans sign up to become Peace Corps Volunteers because they’re altruistic and want to help people around the world, you’re right but not completely right.
A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found their top three reasons for joining were “wanting to live in another culture,” “wanting a better understanding of the world,” and “wanting to help people build a better life.”
Simultaneously, the survey reported “a significant generational shift” in the importance volunteers place on acquiring job skills and experience during their service. Volunteers who served more recently placed “a greater emphasis on career development as a motivation for joining the Peace Corps,” it said.
Just 30 percent of volunteers who served in the 1960s identified “wanting to develop career and leadership skills” as an important motivation.” Among volunteers who served in the 2000s, 68 percent cited this motivation, with 36 percent saying it was “very important.” Growing numbers of applicants also want to expand their language skills.
A few years ago, a volunteer who returned from Guatemala wrote: “I’m sure that my Peace Corps service helped me gain acceptance to a selective master’s degree program (because my grades as an undergraduate were disappointing, at best). Over the years, many people have told me that having the words ‘Peace Corps’ on my resume would only help me.”
Indeed, Peace Corps itself touts the career benefits of service. Its recruitment materials emphasize the importance of selfless service and cultural outreach but also highlight medical benefits, student loan deferrals, tuition reductions and career networking opportunities.
All of this is consistent with the changes I’ve seen myself since I first served as a volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s. My friends and I didn’t talk much about resumes, grad school applications and job prospects. America was the world’s dominant economic power then. Jobs were plentiful.
Before I joined Peace Corps this second time, I met regularly at my university with undergraduates who were considering Peace Corps, serving as an informal advisor for the campus placement office. At first, I was taken aback by how many of their questions were about how Peace Corps service might afftect their career paths. Would it help them get into law school, or a public health program or the Foreign Service? They asked whether I agreed with advice like this from The Princeton Review: “Altruism distinguishes a strong medical school applicant from a mediocre one. Volunteer work and community service [such as] the Peace Corps … speak most strongly to this quality.”
I always responded positively. Seeing how impressive these students were, I also came to understand their questions reflected new economic realities, not a diminishment in the applicant pool’s sincerity. Just like my colleagues now in Moldova, most of whom are much younger than me, they were wonderful people and every bit as committed as those who served before.
I’ve developed even greater admiration for today’s generation of PCVs as political winds back home shift towards “making America great again.” They face a more challenging economic environment than my generation did but have still chosen to devote more than two years of their lives to serve others. Yes, doing so may enhance their resumes and career prospects. That’s also true for young people who choose to serve in Teach for America or, for that matter, the Marines. Life is complicated.
So, too, for me. Champa and I joined the Peace Corps mainly to serve others, and to serve our country, after having so many blessings in our American lives. But we also were looking for some adventure and an interesting transition away from the conventional workplace.
The Guatemala RPCV, Taylor Dibbert, emphasized what he and many of us ultimately consider most important about Peace Cops service: “Volunteers are doing important, unglamorous work that’s consistently underappreciated – from health to education, agriculture, the environment and more. Besides, volunteers are connecting with foreigners from across the globe and humanizing the U.S. for thousands upon thousands of non-Americans.”
Political winds and job markets will continue to evolve. What endures, he wrote, is “the culture of altruism, adventure and patriotism that has permeated the Peace Corps since the organization’s inception.”
I think he’s right, perhaps even completely right.
[All photos except featured image are from the Peace Corps online library.]