I wanted this series to be semi-regular, but that didn’t exactly happen. But don’t worry, now I’m back with a terrific interview from hilarious Peace Corps alumna and blogger Melanie Chamberlain. The Peace Corps has a long history of volunteers and I briefly considered it as a postgraduate option myself. But I think a lot of people have inaccurate perceptions about the organization and I asked Melanie to clear a few things up. Some of my favorites of her post are about post-Peace Corps job interviews, the stages of grief, and what’s it’s like to be a bitch in Senegal.
- Name: Melanie Chamberlain aka a girl with gumption
- Location (current or where you volunteered, or both): I was placed in Kedougou, a small town in the southeast corner of Senegal. What you’ve never heard of it? There’s no place more hipper north of the Fuuta Jallon and south of the Niokolo Koba Park. Seriously? You still have no idea what I am talking about? Shesh, you should bone-up on your obscure West African geography.
- Job Title: United States Peace Corps Volunteer (or as the locals preferred “That Sassy White Girl Who Speaks Pulaar”)
How did you decide that you wanted to join the Peace Corps? After college graduation I found myself looking for intern/volunteer experiences abroad. I wanted to live in a foreign country, gain work experience and learn a new language. At one point I was googling “Peace Corps alternatives” and then wondered to myself, “why don’t I just apply to the Peace Corps?”
I filled out the application but was facing so much self-doubt that I never actually thought I would join. I thought I wasn’t brave enough, adventurous enough, or committed enough to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I went in for my first interview and the Peace Corps recruiter agreed. She told me I wasn’t “Peace Corps material” and that was all I needed to hear… it was her surly doubt of my capabilities that finally convinced me that joining the Peace Corps was EXACTLY what I wanted to do. At least that’s what I think it was… I might have just joined to prove her wrong. Who knows?
It took 5 interviews and 4 months before I finally received a nomination—and another 6 months before I got my invitation to serve in Senegal. Long wait. But worth it.
As I was finishing my last days in Senegal I sent my recruiter a postcard. The only thing I wrote was “Turns out, I am Peace Corps material. Thanks for not believing in me. Peace only, Melanie.”
I’m sure Peace Corps really wants to feature this inspiring story in their next recruitment ad…
How did you choose which destinations you wanted to volunteer in? Did you get your first choice? Peace Corps places volunteers in assignments that best match their skills and experience. You can state during the application process your regions of preference—but you DON’T get to choose. Most recruiters will reject your application if you are not completely flexible, which seems harsh, but honestly if you want to commit 2 years of your life to grassroots development work you should be open to working wherever in the world you are needed most, right?
There is no possible way to predict where your particular set of skills will lead you. Most of my work and volunteer background was with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and English education, so I assumed I would be assigned a position teaching English or working on community development. But I also had 4 years of college French and grew up on a farm.
Despite my doubts—I was given an assignment as an agriculture volunteer in the former French colony of Senegal. While my work assignment wasn’t what I expected, I was delighted to be going to Senegal, a country I almost studied abroad in during my sophomore year of college (I choose the Mediterranean Island of Cyprus instead—in college Greek raki and halloumi proved to be more enticing than white rice and Gazelle beer, go figure.)
Why is the Peace Corps a good postgraduate option? Peace Corps is a great way to get your foot in the door if you are interested in working for a NGO or for the US government. You get non-competitive eligibility after you return which will make it much easier to get a government job. You can defer federal education loans (unfortunately because of the financial environment getting private lenders to defer your loans is much more difficult). Also it is kinda like joining an exclusive club. Or at least I pretend it is. I’m always name dropping famous Peace Corps Volunteers like Bob Villa and Chris Matthews. Okay maybe “famous” isn’t the right word to use…
What is your daily routine in the Peace Corps like? In the Peace Corps every day is different and exciting. Some volunteers make their own schedules others have more traditional work hours, but either way each day is an adventure. It is incredibly exhilarating but also very exhausting. I’ve never slept as well as I did when I was in Senegal.Personally, I spent a lot of days just sitting at home, gossiping with my moms and sisters, playing with the little kids and watching episodes of Top Chef on my dust-covered netbook.
Personally, I spent a lot of days just sitting at home, gossiping with my moms and sisters, playing with the little kids and watching episodes of Top Chef on my dust-covered netbook.
Other days I would be biking around like crazy hopping from a government office to a farmer’s field to the market to price out local produce and then to the hospital to visit sick members of my HIV/AIDS support group.
And then of course I spent a good amount of time sitting in a big plastic tub filled with bags of ice and drinking cheap Senegalese beer. But let’s not tell the American taxpayers about that last part…
Who is the Peace Corps NOT for? People who want to make money… people who want indoor plumbing… people who are scared of bugs… recovering alcoholics… Ok, in all seriousness, one of the great misconceptions about Peace Corps is that you get to travel a lot. Not true at all! Sure you get vacation days (2 days per month) but you are paid at a local level—less than $5 a day will not get you far in West Africa, let alone anywhere else (and trust me after living in the developing world you are going to want to go anywhere else). Of course some volunteers can save some money–I did. I saved enough for a 2 week trip to Mali and a plane ticket to Paris but my parents footed the bill for all my expenses once I got to Europe.
That being said, you will gain a deep understanding of the people and cultures in the country you serve. Most volunteers get the opportunity to see quite a bit of their host country while attending various Peace Corps meetings and trainings and visiting their Peace Corps friends in other regions.
Also despite what people may think, Peace Corps is not for people who want to “change the world.” Peace Corps has three goals: Help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women, help promote a better understanding of Americans abroad and help promote a better understanding of other people in the USA. Your job as a volunteer isn’t to “change” anyone or anything–your job is to “understand.” It is the hope that with mutual understanding and trust the volunteer can eventually help the community they serve.
What have you learned from being a Peace Corps volunteer? So much. There is the concrete. I’ve learned a new language. I’ve learned how to write a grant, and how to manage a large budget. I’ve learned how to calculate agricultural crop yields. I’ve learned how to pull water from a well and repair a flat bike tire. The list goes on and on.
And then there is the abstract. I’ve learned humility, patience and compassion. I’ve learned what it is like to be a minority, to be misunderstood, judged and underestimated. I’ve learned what it feels like to be the object of racial hate and sexual harassment. These lessons are the ones that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Pros? Every day is an adventure. You get to experience a different culture in a way that no outsider ever could. You forge lifetime bonds with the people in your community and your fellow volunteers.
Cons? Peace Corps calls it “the toughest job you will ever love.” And nothing could be more true. Life as a volunteer is rewarding but it is really, really hard. It is emotionally overwhelming and physically draining. It tears at your heart and breaks your spirit. The work you do as a volunteer has life changing implications for your community and that’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a 22-year-old recent college graduate.
Do you need certifications/knowledge to volunteer? The Peace Corps has various sectors where volunteers are placed including: Education, Youth and Community Development, Agriculture, Environment, Health and Business and Information & Communication Technology.
Each sector has its own minimum requirements for work/volunteer experience. Almost all sectors require that you have a Bachelors Degree. If you do not have a degree you must have extensive experience in your field. Some geographical regions require language skills. (In order to be assigned anywhere in Latin America you usually need at least 2 years of college level Spanish. In French speaking Africa they prefer you have at least 1 year of college French.)
Of course there are exceptions, Peace Corps could send someone who is fluent in Spanish to the South Pacific and someone with a degree in Art History could end up teaching computer skills. It all depends.
Additional advice or information? You can find more info about the Peace Corps on their official site. If you want to read about the shenanigans of a barely lucid, quasi-alcoholic girl living in a thatched roof hut in sub-Saharan Africa then you should check out my blog.
Thanks Melanie! Is there another interview you’d like to see here? Would you like to tell others about your experiences teaching English, volunteering or another non-traditional postgraduate role? Send me an email.