Concetta-
I am due to graduate with a BA in Linguistics in May and feel that this
would be a valuable asset for not only learning the language I would
need to speak, but also for teaching English if given such an
opportunity; however, I have two concerns, quite unrelated, that I am
worried about affecting my likelihood of being accepted into the PC.

The first one is I am a 23 year old woman with a good amount of
visible tattoos (my right arm is sleeved) and I know that while we have
a bit more lienient culture on such a thing, I am also aware that
others do not. This causes me to worry that this particular aspect will
deter me in being able to volunteer, even if I were to commit to
wearing light long sleeved shirts in the summer!

The second concern has to do with previous volunteer experience. My
volunteer experience is limited and sporadic as I have been attending
school full time and working full time for the past 4 years, leaving me
little spare time to do much more than an MDA Bowl-a-thon here or AIDS
walk there. In starting my application and reaching this portion, I
realize I don’t have many contacts for my limited volunteer experience.
I have, however, been with the same company for five years and have
moved up within it, which speaks to my work ethic and desire to succeed
in what I do. Is this something that would help my case?

Loaded questions, I know! But thank you for any insight you can offer!

Dear Friend: You know how I know you’ll be a good Peace Corps volunteer?  You asked two great questions and you have the foresight to anticipate some potential speed bumps in your application process.

You are correct in your assertion that we are the beneficiaries of a more lenient culture here in the United States.  It is also true that perceptions about tattoos can vary from an acceptable part of the culture to completely unacceptable.  But herein lies the beauty of serving in over a hundred different countries, your recruiter can work with you to steer you in the right direction.  Thankfully it appears that you will be looking to teach English which is one of the broadest programs in all of Peace Corps.  So I think that between the two of you, you’ll be able to find a country that is more accepting of the idea of body art.

The whole personal appearance thing can be such a tricky topic for folks interested in Peace Corps.  Of course, in the final analysis, each person must decide for himself whether to abandon dreadlocks, or facial hair, or piercings in order to volunteer, but the fact of the matter is that these things can be non-negotiable depending on your host country.  In Thailand for example,  beards and mustaches were culturally taboo- in fact, they indicated danger and evil- decidedly NOT the image you’d be striving for in your efforts to be a successful volunteer.  While some applicants find this a tad invasive, the reality is that there are a finite number of Peace Corps volunteer slots and many more interested men and women who want to serve, so the Peace Corps needs to take into account how successful an applicant might be and exhibiting culturally taboo body stuff can definitely impede success. From the thoughtfulness of your question, it would seem that you are aware of this and would do what you could to compensate if it became necessary (since unlike dreads or piercings- you can’t exactly “undo” a full sleeve of tats).

Next up- how much volunteering do you really need in order to apply?  Great question once again and with an added bonus of mentioning that you worked your way through school. So here’s the deal. You have to volunteer.   You just do. There is something about volunteering that is just different.  It’s esoteric, I realize, but true nonetheless. Who knows, maybe it’s the work for no pay thing. Maybe it’s the passionate opinionated people.  Maybe its something else, but volunteering is it’s own animal.  But, there is NO “double-secret” bare minimum  of volunteering and better still, you could apply right now and work with your recruiter to find some great volunteer opportunities that would make you a better Peace Corps Volunteer. So, get going on the application and just be sure to state clearly that you haven’t really had as much of a chance to volunteer because you’ve been working your way through school.

Which… ummmm HELLO??? is Fantastic! You have been going to school and working full time for four years.  One of the biggest things that recruiters look for is demonstrated dedication and perseverance- that’s 2 things I realize but you get the point. This is a major accomplishment and should not be minimized.  It shows that you have been able to take on several challenges and succeed at both.  No matter what happens- may I just say congrats to you!

Actually, this reminds me of something I used to tell my applicants all the time.  There is a question that asks you about cross cultural experiences and I would often get asked whether you had to have lived abroad for it to qualify.  And here’s what I would say…. I grew up on Long Island so if you were from upstate New York, or Ohio, or Pennslyvania or anywhere BUT Long Island and you showed up for college and your freshman roommate was from L.I.- trust me, that’s a cross cultural experience.  You needn’t have schlepped all over Europe in order to feel cultured.  We just want to know that you’ll be able to view life from a different perspective from what you are used to.  Your question reminds me of this because both questions usually came from people like you (and me- as it happens) who were working their way through school.  In fact, my work-study in college was working in the athletic department “cage”- which means I washed dirty sweat socks for four years-an honest living and a cross cultural experience to boot.

I hope this helps and I really hope that you’ll keep me posted with your progress.  Good luck and Happy New Year!

Concetta