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What to Expect When You Join the Peace Corps

By Edited Dec 8, 2016 4 8

The toughest job.....[1]

Swearing in

There are plenty of sites and books that tell you how to join, what’s required, what you’ll be doing and how to act.  This article is more about what to expect within yourself when you’re faced with the realities of living in a foreign country.

Culture shock and awe

When your plane/boat/taxi/camel lands you in your new country, it’s likely that the first thing you’ll notice is the poverty.  Those shacks you see along the side of the road are actually fully functioning stores; they’ve been there for a long time already, and they’ll be there long after you’ve gone.  You’ll start to understand that being poor doesn’t mean not having the latest iPhone, it means having nothing but bread for dinner. Or nothing.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling to realize that even at your lowest, you are inconceivably wealthy compared to most of the people you’ll be working with.[2]

During your first few weeks, most things are new and fun.  Ok, you bathe by washing out of a bucket, that’s not so bad.  You’re toilet paper is torn out of a book…that’s a little less fun, but still ok.  The food is completely different, always. Everything is different, always. In about a month or so you are tired of being different and missing the routines you were used to.   You may recognize this, or you may just be irritable without knowing why.  This will last until you get started at your site.

Getting, and staying motivated

Peace Corps Volunteer

Once you have a project, or something to work on, things get a little easier.  There’s something about feeling in control of your life that makes small irritations less of a bother.  Now it’s fun again; you have plans and you are on your way!  Until you realize that your way may not be the way that your host town wants to go.  It’s all well and good to want to build a library, but if your town doesn’t want one you’re faced with the choice of making a new plan or trying to convince the rest of the town that you have a good idea.  Before deciding which of these to choose, it’s good to get some other opinions.  Ask other volunteers near you, talk to the folks at the Peace Corps office, or speak with the leaders of the town to find out why they don’t want to follow your plan.

Wait, they don’t speak English. This is usually your next big hurdle to overcome, communication.  Even if your friend from your host country speaks perfect English, he or she grew up in an environment that is completely different from yours.  How do you explain to someone that you choose not to be married, when that person was brought up believing that the only reason for living is to get married and have children?  Add to that the reluctance of people to say certain things to you because you aren’t really “one of them”, and passing along a simple idea becomes as big of a deal as designing your entire project.  To make it even more of a challenge, you’ll discover that some people are trying to undermine you, not because you aren’t doing good things, but because they feel threatened.  You are upsetting their way of life, and change is difficult for everyone – easier just to try to stop you in your tracks.  It’s ok, just accept this and try to either explain better, or change your tactics so people feel more comfortable.

All of these things are small challenges, but in a strange place (change is difficult for you, too) you start to feel like you’ve made a mistake, you’re wasting your time, and you should just bag this whole stupid Peace Corps thing and go home.  If you’re on schedule, this is happening right about the end of your first year.  If you can, take a break, take your vacation, have your family visit you now, go home to visit, do anything but quit, because once you get through this, the worst part of the whole two years, it all becomes fun.

Finding your groove
Peace Corps Volunteers

A few months into your second year, somehow everything becomes ok, which is funny, because nothing has really changed.  I never figured out what happens at the end of the first year, but I saw it in the other volunteers, and I’ve seen happening to people from other countries that come to live in the States.  Get through the first year and you’re golden.

At the end of your term, most people are ready to go home.  It’s been fun, you’re having a good time, but you’re beginning to feel like you’ve put your “real” life on hold long enough.  You need to get started on grad school, job, or whatever.  Get addresses and phone numbers of your friends, take all kinds of pictures, and make an effort to visit the sights you’ve been putting off.  You’ll be heading home with all kinds of stories that everyone will want to hear right?

Coming home

No….many people don’t want to hear your stories, sad, but true.  I imagine there are many reasons for this, but it does kind of make you mopey.  Here you’ve gone through this life changing experience and your friends don’t want to listen.  This is about the time you realize that you aren’t quite as interested in some of your friends, either.  You have changed, a lot.  Probably more than you’re aware of.  You’ve undergone more introspection in the last two years than many people experience in a lifetime. You understand yourself, and what you want, and some of what you want is different friends.  This is a normal process that happens continually; you’ve just gone through an accelerated version of it.  The difference is even more marked because you were gone, and suddenly you return to a life that you’ve outgrown.  It’s a bit sad, a bit scary, and a lot exciting.

One last word.  When you are preparing to leave, they’ll tell you about reverse culture shock[3].  It sounds silly, but this is a very real experience, and it’s very disorienting.  Don’t go shopping alone for the first few weeks, instead find a family member or good friend that will be there while you kind of freak out.  It doesn’t last long but it’s a very uncomfortable feeling while it’s happening.  You can't really plan for it, but you can try to expect it.

The Peace Corps


Apr 14, 2013 8:49pm
You know this is really a wonderful article especially for someone interested in joining the Peace Corps. If I were younger I would certainly consider it. 2 big thumbs up from me and yep, a rating.
Apr 15, 2013 9:01am
Why thank you! And you know, Peace Corps encourages older folk to apply....don't let your lack of youth scare you off!
May 4, 2013 1:45am
There are actually many parallels to the life I'm living now in your article...Many! In a culture that lives to get married and have a child, whether in ,love or not...It's nearly an everyday conversation for me with someone "No I don't have a husband nor children"...They just don't get it. When returning home each year for my holiday, that reverse culture shock is pretty crazy stuff, especially as you say, when people just aren't interested and still going about their have everything lifestyles and you've just been through a life changing experience that they couldn't even begin to conceive. I've been caught at the shopping centre pretty freaked out too! Totally get ya with this article...nice one!
May 4, 2013 7:58am
Thanks! Interesting to hear that it's a continual thing for someone that is living elsewhere. Curious how we all manage to adapt to different situations.
Jun 1, 2013 10:30pm
In high school,I came into contact with peace corps.One taught me Biology and the other History. They were bachelors.One peace corp acted as a midwife and
helped a lone woman to deliver a baby.The woman was on her way to hospital for maternity and labour started before reaching the hospital.America should continue sending peace corps to Kenya.
Jun 11, 2013 10:37am
You can have some amazing experiences in the Peace Corps that you could never get anywhere else. Hard to explain sometimes....
Aug 3, 2013 10:35am

Excellent writing! A very through, but concise explanation of what to expect, in step by step fashion. There's a lot of beauty exhibited, and implied, within this article. Maybe only "writer types" would understand that.

Most likely you're a great human being!

Jeff Holmquist
Aug 6, 2013 11:21am
What a sweet thing to say! Thank you!
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  1. "Home Page." Peace Corps. 13/04/2013 <Web >
  2. "Culture Shock." Wikipedia. 13/04/2013 <Web >
  3. "Dealing with reverse culture shock." CNN. 13/04/2013 <Web >

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