The Peace Corps We Deserve

by Emily Cole on August 1, 2014

Cole_CoverPhotoAs a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I spend a lot of time defending the Peace Corps in public and complaining about it in private. In public, my friends and I praise our individual experiences, the bonds we formed with one another and with our communities, and the ways our Peace Corps service prepared us for our careers in foreign affairs. Too often, we talk in private about the lack of professionalism among many of our fellow volunteers, and the inadequate training and support we received.

Luckily, this summer I, along with the 200,000 other returned volunteers, have reason to celebrate. Recently implemented—and long-overdue—reforms are professionalizing the Peace Corps so it can recruit the better-prepared and more-diverse workforce critical to its long-term success. Led by the Peace Corps’ new Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, these new reforms go much further toward building an effective, modern Peace Corps.

In recent years the Peace Corps has taken baby steps towards professionalization and modernization. The introduction of Peace Corps Response, a shorter-term commitment for returned Peace Corps volunteers and experienced professionals; the launch of the Global Health Services Partnership, a program to place health professionals around the world; and a new focus on recruiting older Americans are all welcome steps in the right direction. As applications have fallen, however, it is clear they need to do more.

Two new policies will fundamentally change how Americans become Peace Corps volunteers. First, the Peace Corps application process is now guaranteed to take no more than six months. Second, prospective volunteers are now able to apply for specific positions.

In the past, applicants could express an interest in a particular region, but many, like me, were told they would begin serving in “Anglophone Africa in October,” and ended up in Francophone Senegal in March. The application process could stretch from one to three years. The requirement to “go anywhere,” “do anything,” and “be available at any time” made the Peace Corps unattractive to the very people it most needs to recruit—highly motivated, high-skilled Americans.

The stereotype of Peace Corps volunteers as young, idealistic, and privileged was reinforced by these application and placement policies. Being able to recruit only those who could afford to wait and had the flexibility to leave when called greatly restricted the Peace Corps’ applicant pool. Furthermore, highly trained professionals are unlikely to take any job they are offered. Allowing prospective volunteers to apply for particular positions will help match volunteers to where their skills and experience can best be put to use.

These reforms will, therefore, help the Peace Corps recruit volunteers who better represent America’s diversity and impressive, technical skill. Of the Peace Corps’ more than 7,000 volunteers, only twenty-four percent identify as minorities. Today, eight percent of volunteers are over the age of fifty. These figures are an impressive increase from a decade ago, but changes to the application process should lead to even higher numbers.

Streamlining and professionalizing the recruitment process will help foreign affairs professionals and average Americans alike better appreciate the Peace Corps’ value—not only as an international development program, but also as a critical training program for its participants. Peace Corps volunteers return to the United States with intimate knowledge of life in their host country and skills valuable for a career in foreign affairs. Volunteers develop discrete skills, learn new languages, and enhance their technical knowledge, but they also learn to adapt, to listen, and to see complex problems from the perspectives of members of their communities.

The Peace Corps must bring the same radical thinking Hessler-Radelet has brought to recruitment to addressing remaining barriers to Peace Corps service. Additional student loan forgiveness and partnerships with technical and engineering schools should be first on the agenda. Limited student loan forgiveness and loan deferments keep Peace Corps service out of reach for too many Americans. Only those lucky enough to have limited or no student loan debt are currently able to commit to over two years of unpaid service. Engineers and others with particular technical expertise, such as agronomists, are also in high demand in the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps should consider using the same strategy it employed to reach out to historically black colleges and universities to build relationships with technical training programs.

The first goal of the Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” Hessler-Radelet’s recruitment reforms are an important step in being true to that promise. Over the next few years, I, along with many other returned volunteers, will be waiting to see what else the Peace Corps will do to better serve its volunteers and host country populations around the world.

 

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