Arts & Culture / Mosaic / September 30, 2009

Peace Corps advocates at Knox

As people walked into the Peace Corps information session, a Peace Corps video played, showing volunteers interacting with various people by teaching, talking and laughing. Carrie Teiken, who hosted the information session, is a Peace Corps recruiter from Chicago and served as an environmental education volunteer in Ghana from 2003-2005.

What is the Peace Corps?

Peace Corps began in 1961 and is eternally tied to President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve one’s country. The purpose of Peace Corps is to promote peace and friendship and reach three goals: helping countries that need trained men and women, promoting a better understanding of Americans for the people served, and promoting a better understanding of other peoples for Americans.

How do you apply?

The application process for the Peace Corps takes about a year. Teiken recommended applying a year before people would like to start their service. The lengthy application is online and requires applicants to answer a couple of essay questions, provide all their work and volunteer history, and give at least three references—specifically, references from a job supervisor, a volunteer supervisor, and a friend. A substitution of a professor instead of a volunteer supervisor is acceptable, but the Peace Corps would prefer a reference from a volunteer supervisor to see how a person would do in a long-term volunteer setting.

After filling out the application, selected applicants attend an interview. If the interview goes well, the interviewer sees what assignments are open to nominate or recommend. Afterwards, the application goes to the Peace Corps headquarters in D.C., and they send a medical kit with paperwork that needs to be filled out by a doctor and dentist to make sure that person is medically cleared. After a background check, at last, the successful candidate gets an invitation that provides the country of service, the date of departure, and details of the assignment. The invitation usually comes a few months before one leaves, and might come as little as six weeks before leaving. Just before, volunteers meet in the United States for two to three days for what is called “staging,” an orientation, and then volunteers going to the same country fly together to start training.

How and where do Peace Corps volunteers serve?

Peace Corps volunteers serve for 27 months (two years and three months) in 70 different countries around the world and on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.

What does the Peace Corps look for in an applicant?

An applicant must at least be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old. 18-year-olds are rarely qualified in terms of skill sets as about 97 percent of assignments require a bachelor’s degree and the other three percent require at least five to 10 years of work experience. Peace Corps look at volunteer experience and look for a desire to help people. Qualities of the ideal Peace Corps volunteer include adventurousness, flexibility, patience, and a sense of humor. The Peace Corps does not look at any one thing in particular, but looks at a candidate holistically.

How are applicants matched to countries of service?

Peace Corps volunteers are typically matched to countries and assignments that need people with particular skill sets and qualifications. For example, Teiken, who introduced herself as serving as an environmental education volunteer, has studied environmental studies and completed environmental education work before she joined the Peace Corps.

They also take preferences for regions, but not for countries. Language skills are a plus. There are language requirements of at least intermediate Spanish for serving in Latin America and one year of college-level French for serving in West Africa. Knowing one of these two languages can make a candidate competitive but even if someone does not know a foreign language, the Peace Corps provides language and even cultural training before starting service, which makes Peace Corps unique.

Why serve in the Peace Corps?

People serve in the Peace Corps for different reasons. Many serve in order to have a cross-cultural experience, serve one’s country, do community service, travel more, get professional benefits, gain skills, and dabble in different areas that will stand out when going to find a job.

What are the benefits of serving in the Peace Corps?

Benefits include not paying out-of-pocket expenses when in service. The Peace Corps provides travel to and from the country of service, full medical and dental care, a monthly living allowance, including housing. Volunteers are allowed 48 days of vacation time and home leave for family emergencies. Training in language, technical skills, and culture is provided in the country of service. After service, benefits include receiving $6,000, one year of noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs, and graduate school opportunities.

How is Knox College related to the Peace Corps? What is the Peace Corps Preparatory Program?

Knox is the very first and only college or university in the country with an official Peace Corps Preparatory Program. Co-Director of The Center for Global Studies and professor of Modern Languages, Robin Ragan, is in charge of Peace Corps Prep Program.

The Peace Corps Prep Program started in 2007 and the first program participants just graduated. The Peace Corps Prep Program is a series of recommended courses, experiences, and volunteer hours designed with the Peace Corps to make one a stronger candidate when applying. Completion of the Prep Program does not mean automatic admission into the Peace Corps and if someone does not complete the program, it does not stop that person from applying. They also have mock Peace Corps interviews with students who have gone through the process to prepare them to answer questions.

What should you expect in the Peace Corps Prep Program?

You should expect to have good academic standing, have two years of the same foreign language, take four courses off a list developed to immerse yourself in different cultures, which include classes to fulfill the diversity requirement, and “enhancements,” off-campus experiences such as studying abroad. Students are expected to have 100 hours of volunteering before they graduate.

What’s it like serving in the Peace Corps?

As Teiken stressed, Peace Corps volunteers have very different and diverse experiences when volunteering. To compare and contrast her experiences, Aaron Graham, a Peace Corps volunteer who returned in September of last year after volunteering in Azerbaijan, a country between Russia and Iran, spoke about his experiences. He taught English in a little village to 7th through 9th grade level students.

“I remember thinking, flying in there, ‘What am I doing? What have I done to myself?’ because this just looks like a wasted landscape. But once you get over that sense of initial terror, I guess you’d call it, the people that I met there are probably the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” Graham said.

He continued, “During training, for the three months, I lived with a host family there, there was a father who was a local military commander, and his wife…He took me in the first day and took me all around village, introducing me to everybody right away. There was no period of feeling each other out, he just kind of accepted me. He had four sons. By the time my training was over, he comes to me and he’s really serious and says, ‘I just want to let you know, I have five sons now.’”

Sheena Leano


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