Peace Corps – A Launching Pad for a 21st Century Career

by Felicia Bechtoldt

July 25, 2018

I was 15 when I found out that English classes were offered by a group of Americans in my native city – Chisinau. I didn’t know why Americans were in Moldova teaching English, but I jumped at the opportunity to learn English with native speakers. But I learned more than English; I learned about American values, such as the concept of community service, freedom of speech and the press, and human rights. Soon I discovered that my new educators were members of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps played an important role in my upbringing and I am grateful to all Peace Corps volunteers that make a difference in people’s lives all over the world.

Penny Feltner from Salem, Oregon served in the Peace Corps in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. There, she worked with a small farmers’ organization to promote agricultural best practices and facilitate their organization's development. She also promoted recycling and proper waste management at the local community center, taught computer lessons for adults, and led environmental education efforts at summer eco-camps for children.
“Sometimes if you want to create change, you just have to start, even when you have no idea what you're doing. I learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and good communication - both in my language, and in the Jamaican dialect. Navigating social and professional spheres takes more than the mastery of the skill - it takes understanding and respect for diversity and a willingness to meet people on their own terms,” said Penny on the skills she mastered during her service.

Peace Corps Benefits

In Jamaica, Penny received a monthly stipend that covered living and housing expenses, compensation for transportation costs, 48 paid vacation days, leave for family emergencies, and full medical and dental coverage. Peace Corps volunteers receive unique training in local language, intercultural diversity and inclusion, and project design and management.

Upon completion of service, returned volunteers receive one year of noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs. After completion of service, federal agencies may expedite the hiring process for returned volunteers by hiring them without a vacancy announcement, formal screening, interview or other federal recruitment steps. The decision to hire a returned Peace Corps volunteer, however, remains at the discretion of the hiring agency and the candidate must meet the minimum qualifications for the position.

In addition, when volunteers return home, they earn a resettlement allowance of more than $8,000 (pre-tax) to help with the transition to life back home. Volunteers with public student loans may be eligible for loan forgiveness or deferment as Peace Corps Volunteer Service is qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Volunteers with Perkins loans may be eligible as well for a 15-70 percent cancellation benefit.

Above all, Penny said, “Most Peace Corps volunteers appreciate the opportunity to get to travel to another country and really experience the place and the people through cultural integration.”

When I asked her for whom she would recommend Peace Corps, she says, “I'd recommend Peace Corps to anyone with a commitment to creating positive change and a willingness to dedicate two years to the developing world, anyone who wants to gain international work experience, collaborate with grassroots community organizations, and be a part of a cross-cultural exchange. If you want to move beyond your comfort zone, then Peace Corps service is for you!”

Skills

The skills developed by Peace Corps volunteers are important to employers across all sectors of the economy. Acquiring international work experience in a particular area of expertise, as well as cross-cultural competency, leadership skills, professional savvy and fluency in foreign languages prepare Peace Corps graduates for today’s global economy. Most employers regard job applicants with Peace Corps experience very positively. Depending on your work area in the Peace Corps and the job you would like to do, many employers consider Peace Corps service as work experience.

Peace Corps volunteers return home with proof that they enhanced professional abilities in specific areas and overcame challenges, setting them apart from other job applicants. During service, volunteers are given a tremendous amount of responsibility and autonomy. In order to successfully complete their tenure as a volunteer, they must develop the ability to self-manage and solve problems without intensive management from their supervisor, because often their supervisor is located in a different city. They learn to adjust quickly to the needs of the community and implement projects in unknown environments with limited resources and limited experience.

Volunteers develop the ability to embrace uncertainty as their role and tasks can change overnight in the communities they serve. Serving in the Peace Corps can be challenging, however. They learn that it takes a long time to see a change in the communities. They become effective communicators, negotiators, and change makers in their communities they serve. These experiences teach them to be self-starters, flexible, resilient, and innovative - skills that are highly sought by today’s employers.

What Programs Are Available for Peace Corps Applicants?

  • Peace Corps applicants can choose from four programs:
  • Peace Corps Volunteers
  • Peace Corps Response
  • Global Health Service Partnership
  • University Programs
Peace Corps volunteers serve for 27 months. Applicants can choose their country of service among 61 countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. They can select a program area they would like to focus on, such as education, youth development, health, environment, community economic development, and agriculture.

Education is the Peace Corps’ largest program sector with 41 percent of volunteers serving in 2017, followed by health (20%) and youth and development (11%). Among regions, Africa had the largest number of Peace Corps volunteers (46%) in 2017, followed by Latin America (18%), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (13%), and Asia (11%).
Another program that provides targeted assistance to specific areas is Peace Corps Response, which is a short-term assignment for professionals that have an area of expertise. They work in areas such as food security, information systems, civil engineering, ecotourism, girls’ empowerment, youth entrepreneurship, website development, and vocational education. In 2017, only 4 percent of volunteers took part in the Peace Corps Response.

Global Health Service Partnership is another program focused on building the health care capacity in countries such as Liberia, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Uganda. Eligible applicants are physicians and nurses willing to train the next generation of health professionals, enhance the use of high standards of clinical practices, and improve medical and nursing education.

Lastly, there are university programs that allow students to combine Peace Corps service with a graduate degree, such as Master’s International. For undergraduate students, two programs are available: Peace Corps Prep and Campus Ambassadors. Peace Corps Prep is a certificate program that builds the competencies of participants in various areas, including intercultural competence, leadership, and proficiency in a foreign language. Campus Ambassadors are university students that act as local experts in raising the Peace Corps’ profile and reaching diverse communities on campus.

Furthermore, returned volunteers seeking to pursue a graduate degree can receive financial aid through Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program. In Oregon, Willamette University offers scholarships to Paul D. Coverdell Fellows for Master of Business Administration for Business, Government and Not-for-Profit Management, and Early Career MBA or MBA for Career Change programs.

The Peace Corps Demographics

Since the establishment of the Peace Corps, more than 230,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries to further the agency’s mission – the promotion of world peace and friendship. In 2017, 7,376 volunteers and trainees served in 64 countries, of which 63 percent were women and 37 percent were men. Volunteers over the age of 50 accounted for 6 percent of the volunteer population. The median age for a Peace Corps volunteer was 28.

Oregon ranks fourth in the number of Peace Corps volunteers per capita with 4.3 volunteers per 100,000 residents in 2017. The District of Columbia leads the country as having the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers per capita with 8.8 volunteers per 100,000 residents. California continues to hold its spot as the largest producer of volunteers with 873 residents in service. Other states that produce large numbers of volunteers are New York (485 volunteers), Florida (355), and Virginia (352).

Oregon’s universities are among the top Peace Corps volunteer-producing schools in the U.S. The University of Oregon is positioned number 12 among large colleges (those with more than 15,000 undergraduates) with 55 volunteers. Willamette University (13 volunteers), the University of Portland (11), and Lewis & Clark College (11) are among the top 25 small colleges (fewer than 5,000 undergraduates) with the highest number of alumni in service.

From government to business to non-profit sector, Peace Corps volunteers use their experience as a foundation for successful careers.

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