Path to the Peace Corps


A young woman wearing a tie-dyed bandanna digs wells, uses her fingers to spoon food from a handmade bowl, and joins local African women in their washing and sewing. A blond guy with glasses teaches in a schoolhouse, bikes through town, and places large containers of water on villagers’ heads for them to carry. In a promotional video about the Peace Corps, these volunteers and others speak about what they have learned—and taught—during their two-year stints in the organization.

At Monday evening’s informational meeting in Ida Noyes Hall, about 18 students watch the film. If they end up joining the Peace Corps, they’ll continue a popular tradition at the University, which in 2007 sent more graduates than any other school its size to the organization. Clifton Johnson, AM’03, a recruiter in the Chicago regional office, follows the video with more info on the program, how to apply, and his own experience.

For the Peace Corps's 27-month commitment—three months of language and culture training before a two-year stint abroad—the organization “tries to match volunteers' skills with the country's needs,” Johnson, an SSA graduate, tells the Chicago students. His social-work background matched the needs on an island in South Pacific Tonga, where he helped young people find jobs, and Megan Dickie, a biological-sciences major at Cornell who also spoke to the group, did habitat conservation in Ecuador. If you have a college degree or life experience such as farming or starting a business, Johnson says, you’d be a valuable volunteer.

He walks through the application procedure, which includes filling out an extensive online form—“we want to make sure you’re mature enough, motivated enough, and have the skills needed”—meeting with a recruiter, and getting medical clearance. Finally accepted applicants receive an invitation from the Peace Corps. The whole process can take about a year, he says, so interested students should start early.

“How are you held accountable for the work you do?" a young woman asks during the Q&A. Every three months, Dickie replies, volunteers fill out progress reports, and once a year a Peace Corps official visits the site. A local villager is also in touch with the organization, “so if you weren’t doing anything,” says Johnson, that person could report you. “Still, it’s an independent work environment,” and volunteers can forge their own assignments: Johnson, for instance, eventually narrowed his focus to youths with developmental disabilities, and he also taught art classes at the local library.


Photo: Johnson tells the group in Ida Noyes about working in Tonga.

February 1, 2008