Getting Into The Peace Corps: It Ain't Easy

I heard from a friend in D.C. about a close neighbor, a young woman studying at New York University, who applied to the Peace Corps, via the Peace Corps Recruiter, a grad student, working on the NYU campus.

The woman writes: “My neighbor’s daughter applied to the Peace Corps. She waited for months to get a response from her NYU PC recruiter. Then she found out that the campus recruiter had left campus months earlier and no one had given her a ‘heads up.'”

The young woman was seeking a slot in the Ukraine program last year and it was so mishandled by the New York Peace Corps Recruitment Office, and the NYU campus based Recruiter that she didn’t get appointed.

She asked to be considered for the next Ukraine program, as she speaks Russian fluently, and the Peace Corps Placement person at PC/HQ in D.C. told her to ‘take another assignment’ or   fuhgeddaboudit.

Sound familiar?

After 50 years of this agency, when is the Peace Corps going to get its Selection and Placement right?

Now, with full disclosure, I was manager of the New York Recruitment Office for five years in the mid-’90s and saw a lot of ‘problem’ applications, and unrealistic demands from Applicants, as well as strange requests from PC/HQ. I know it is tough, this recruitment process.

But, we have all been told by the Acting Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, that things will get better soon. She talked about it at her recent speech at the National Press Club. In part, she said:

“And we’re streamlining the selection and assignment process from start to finish …we’re working towards a shorter application, with plans to take it down from more than 60 printed pages that took more than eight hours to complete to a short online application that will take less than one hour to complete…. our new online platform now allows applicants to connect with projects and Volunteers on the ground ….applicants will be able to map their Peace Corps futures by applying to a specific job in a specific country, with a specific start date.”

Changes take time, she said. We won’t get there overnight. (That’s the Peace Corps we know and love…it always take time. As we use to say in Ethiopia, ishi nega.)

Who’s to blame for what happened to this woman who wanted to go to the Ukraine?

Trying to look at it objectively, I asked my RPCV friend in D.C. It is not the young woman student’s fault….Did she not realize that she had to ‘be on the ball’ with the Peace Corps on-campus recruiter?

My RPCV friend replied, “The NYU Recruiter was just incompetent, uncaring and did not follow through.”

Well, after missing out on campus, the young woman Applicant ran into troubles with the Peace Corps Washington/Placement Office.  They, too, in VRS, mishandled this application.

Having graduated with honors from NYU, with fluency in Russian, Spanish and Chinese, this young woman applicant, who wanted to go to Ukraine, is offered Azerbaijan. She writes back to Placement that she knows she could contribute so much more if she served in Ukraine because of her Russian language ability and her love of the country. She is willing to wait for the next training group.

A woman named Heather, an RPCV herself, writes back with this haughty email: “I will not be considering you for a second invitation. …We do not consider someone for a second invitation because they were invited to a country/region that did not align with their preference.” (Bold not added by me.)

That’s an odd reply. That was never done when I was in the agency. As my RPCV friend in D.C. writes me: “In other words, we don’t want you because you have expressed an interest in a specific country so that must mean that you don’t really want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Don’t we want PCVs to be in countries they want to be in? And who has the language skills?

“Wouldn’t a Recruiter want to select individuals who want the assignment and are qualified for it? That does not mean they won’t learn anything in the country. It just means they will start contributing sooner and arrive on the ground – ready and able to go to work.”

Heather continues to lambast our poor, innocent applicant, writing further: “Many RPCVs, myself included, would tell you they had a successful and happy service, in a country they would not have grouped among their preferences when they originally applied to Peace Corps. Given the many factors that must be considered when determining final placement decisions, you were placed in the program that is the best fit for you as determined by Peace Corps.”

In other words: “Take that! We decide, honey, not you.”

Heather has more to say: “I would like to encourage you to reconsider your invitation to Azerbaijan, while also considering all your motivations for pursuing a position with Peace Corps and in doing so, determine if you feel the rewards that come with being a Peace Corps Volunteer and serving and living in an underserved community, outweigh your preferences and preconceived notions of what their service would be like. (Bold not added by me.)

Then Heather adds that if she doesn’t hear back with ‘a few days’ she’s pull from the file the woman’s application.

In other words, young woman, fluent in three languages, honor student out of NYU, you’re history. That’s why in Washington they call the agency, ‘the warm, friendly and fuzzy Peace Corps.’)

So, what happened?

My RPCV friend in Washington, the neighbor who, out of the kindness of her heart and love for the Peace Corps, has been trying to help this young woman serve, tells me: “The young student, her neighbor, went to the Ukraine on her own, getting a private school job teaching ESL. Recently she returned because of the ‘political unrest’ leaving Kiev after the Peace Corps Volunteers were evaluated early for ‘their safely.’ She stayed as long as she could but there weren’t enough ESL students for her to teach at the school. She didn’t have a job.”

Soon all of that ‘processes’ will change, according to Carrie, once the new system ‘kicks in’; we can count on that, or as Sarah Palin might add, ‘you betcha.’

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11 Comments

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  • Well, John, I see both sides of this one. Having been a campus recruiter, regional office recruiter, recruitment coordinator, recruiter trainer, public affairs officer and acting manager in the recruitment office, I think the “Heathers” at Peace Corps HQ just might have a good point. The Peace Corps is not a travel agency. We recruit good people who have the ability and desire to be of service wherever they are needed. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to match someone’s skills, including language, with service opportunities. But for most of the countries we serve in, which speak neither French nor Spanish or another “world” language, volunteers are still in great need. Applicants who are too picky are often sending out a signal of inflexibility. In Peace Corps recruitment world, inflexibility is almost as bad as not having a sense of humor–deadly for the successful PCV. I myself was hoping for a tropical island where I could spearfish for my dinner along white sand beaches covered in coconuts. Ultimately, I ended up teaching English in southern Africa–the only PCV in the history of Lesotho to have a full set of SCUBA gear in the freezing Moluti mountains. After all, in the dictionary map of Africa I was looking at, Lesotho was only an inch and a half from the ocean. I hope that those “reinventing” the recruitment process keep in mind that Peace Corps success depends as much on screening out those not suitable for service in the developing world as much as those who would be terrific. Sometimes it’s not just the skills, but character of a PCV that makes it work.

  • I often talk to groups and give advice to would-be PCVs, especially to those over 40. A couple of years ago, I spoke with an experienced professional who spoke fluent Bulgarian, and wanted to go to Bulgaria, where he felt he could make a real contribution because of his language skills and intimate knowledge of the country. He applied to the PC and was offered Ukraine, which would have obligated him to learn a new language in mid-life. I tried to intervene to assist him to get to Bulgaria, but the recruiter’s rejoinder was “The Peace Corps is not a travel agency.” Another woman in her late 50s fluent, in Arabic, wanted to go to an Arabic speaking country, but instead was offered Mexico because she had IT skills. She did not feel ready to learn Spanish at her age. Neither of these people became volunteers. Yet, at age 62, I was sent to a Spanish-speaking country as a health volunteer because I had requested it and it made all the difference in my work that I was already fluent in the language. I think language skills almost trump technical skills when it comes to successful PC service.

  • My youngest son, a recent college graduate, applied for the Peace Corps in December. The application was an abomination. Every time he tried to save it, the application disappeared into cyberspace. He finally decided to write the essays first on his own computer so that he could save it and later cut and paste. Then, he discovered that the same PC program did not permit a cut and paste. That thing is nutso!

    The application is a maze of repeated questions. I am not sure if the author was on some really great drugs, insane, or maybe trying to create some sort of psychological evaluation tool. Whatever the reason, it was incredibly stupid and a waste of time.

    My son speaks, reads, and writes in Spanish so he requested a Spanish speaking country. We will (hopefully) see if any such country is looking for someone with teaching and urban planning experience.

  • Given the PC character issue equal, I would always try to match skill with need, it makes both sides happy, which is crucial if someone is to contribute in the field, wherever that may be. A PC ethos of solve-any-problem matched to a community (of interests) that has a need the PCV might provide is the starting point. Forcing the fit is not the way in peace-making or in love.

    Worse case scenario is a good PCV will make something happen anywhere. If a PCV needs to know bee-keeping they’ll learn it. The Peace Corps sis the most cost-effective foreign policy action of the U.S. government. Unbelievable benefits for peanuts. Even when war ends the costs keep ringing up on the register.

    Given the importance of the quality of that PCV-community connection, shouldn’t we be looking at who is making the rounds in-country to find the institutional/community needs that PCVs could fill? And who is making sure that person is doing a good job? Or is it still the host country secretarial staff making sure the connections are being made?

    Can I use an intelligent problem-solving culturally sensitive worker 8 hours a day five days-a-week for FREE?

    Hmmm. Yeah, we might find a place for them. They could answer a lot of questions we have about what we see on American TV.

    Finding good connections is not a hard sell but it is one that requires shoe leather, which sounds so corny to say, but on-site inspection always trumps, “he told me, she told me…”

    Peace Corps needs people who are excited about the experience and staff that can facilitate a fantastic experience for host country and for PCV.

    We need a real Five Year Rule, no exceptions…This constant rejuvenation in the field and at home would make things continually exciting.

    Peace Corps is not building complex systems; we are trying to make meaningful relationships that produce good. During WWII a lot of people did things they never did before or after. It was only for 4 years. So they made it happen.

    That can do attitude is stifled by experience, cronyism, all those bad things about bureaucracies that Sargant Shriver knew so well from running the Chicago Merchandizing Mart, the world’s largest office building.

    Yeah Sarge knew, but in 1965 LBJ’s Man in Latin American, the company Mann, would have nothing of it. Peace Corps service received no benefit. Military does…

    Shriver was rewarded for not going bonkers but his greatest achievement is the answer to the curdling effect of bureaucracy by devising a Five Year Up & Out Rule. A shame PC Washington has became part of the Beltway bureaucracy.

    Peace

  • LOL..Leo, it was not a full set really, just a wet suit, mask, fins and snorkel…..On Sundays, I would carry it down to the Malibamatso river by horse, suit up and pull myself along the muddy rocks looking for diamonds. The women would ululate along the banks. Occasionally someone would throw a small stone to see I was still alive. The water was freezing. The diamonds stayed hidden. Once after a big rain storm and old man found a golf ball size diamond just lying on the ground about 20 feet from my house. Sold it for $500,000 before he disappeared with his family and his mistress…

    I meant to say at the end of my comment that I would not trade my time in Lesotho for any other experience. PCVs make their assigned countries their own.

  • Hi John et al,
    Interesting discussion, and one I used to have every week when I worked in the Placement Office ten years ago. I was the Placement Officer for Ukraine and Azerbaijan back then and I can confirm that in my three years there, I never came across an applicant who fervently wanted to go to Azerbaijan. What’s a little-known Caucasian country to do? They were looking for fifty volunteers and I had to talk at least 70% of my invitees into it. They just didn’t know much about Azerbaijan, had never considered it, had already worked out in their minds where their mystery nomination might lead them and Azerbaijan wasn’t it. Same with Mongolia–almost every applicant I placed there really wanted to go to China. Yet the class I placed there–strong, full of personalities and spunk–had an unusually low number of ETs; none, I believe, in the first year. (Interestingly many of my Ukraine invitees had wanted to go to Bulgaria or Romania and were disappointed to get Ukraine.)

    If following applicants’ preferences were a top priority, we’d have massive bastions of volunteers in Morocco, Bulgaria, Tanzania, and Ecuador, and the Sahel and Central Asia would be empty (or else we’d have 75% serving in Latin America!). Obviously, you don’t want to force someone into a place and job they are not comfortable with, but we also have to consider that lesser-known, perhaps less enticing countries are also waiting for their volunteers to fill their own particular needs, be it in ESL or public health. Placing volunteers is an art form. There are so many variables: matching skill sets, medical restrictions, creating well-rounded training groups so that volunteers can benefit from the different experiences of their peers and not be surrounded by 25 people of the same gender and the same age.

    I think Matt’s comments above hit the mark, and though I might have done it a little differently (I often picked up the phone to talk over an unexpected invitation), I know where Heather is coming from and what she’s trying to do. It will be interesting to see how this system changes. While it could definitely use some streamlining and a makeover, I think many parts of it can’t change without fundamentally changing the nature of Peace Corps. We used to say in VRS that the application process required perseverance, patience, and flexibility–three qualities that sustain a PCV for two years. If they don’t have them, how will they make it?

  • All this hoorah to place a volunteer for 2 years? I say if volunteer speaks the local language he or she should go to that place. Why spend most of their training and most of their tour learning a language? Perhaps the most successful Peace Corps program has been Namibia. The country opted for the English language at independence. There are few if any Namibians whose first language is English so there was a ready made need for all the PCVs we could send. My point is that 2 years does not need the mountain of research and tedium that dominates the Peace Corps selection process.

  • I am in the camp of “go with the offer.” At least I am now. Back in 1966, I was afraid that if I did not accept the first offer, I would never get another one. This is how it went: Peace Corps was trying out a new program called Advance Training. Those accepted would train the summer after junior year in college, go back and finish school, then go train again on graduation. Cool. So I signed up to teach English in Malaysia. Months passed. My friend Gail got invited to go to Afghanistan. Nothing for me. Sometime in May I got a fat envelope inviting me to the University of Kentucky to do advance training in village level food production in India. Really? BUT I had never been to Kentucky, had no plans for the summer, so sure. I figured that at least I would get to enjoy a couple of months in the land of bluegrass and thoroughbreds. What I could not have anticipated was that after 2 months in the company of people the likes of whom I had never met before (except for Gail who had been rerouted from Afghanistan), I would have gladly gone anywhere with them. India included.
    As it turned out, by Christmas, PC Central decided that we would not be doing village level food production. We would be in chicken production. So we spent Christmas break in Kentucky dissecting diseased chickens. Then by spring break: oops! Girls don’t do chickens. So we happy few were moved to applied nutrition and spent our second summer rolling our eyes at the poor professor drawing the mysteries of amino acids for us. Even then we knew that graphics of the peptide bond would not translate well in rural India. In 1967, we arrived in India (that was just after we watched the cover fly off the jet engine as we began our descent).
    In 2 years, I would say that little went according to plan. And yet: we managed to make our way into a culture that was completely alien in its assumptions about life. We figured out how to liberate the UNICEF seed packets from the local government office to start a kitchen garden planting contest for school boys with liberated CARE garden tools as prizes. We caged a 50 kg sack of dried milk labeled Alliance for Progress (instructions in Spanish) from the district hospital to use in our balwaadi (nursery school). And all that in our fractured Hindi. Would Malaysia been just as interesting and transformative? Maybe. But this Jane would not be the same Jane. Shanti, shanti, shanti.

  • ow! This ended up a Who’s Who of comments. I agree with Barbara Joe that language skills should trump everything else. Language is the building block of relationships and work. I also agree with Leo that the selection process was silly. It may be better today though. Historical studies have shown that all this gobbly-gook wrapped in the American flag made no difference in the ET rate.

    There is one glaring difference facing volunteers today- the rate of assaults on volunteers. In many places, it is alarming. Since we are dealing with adults, the PC should post the assault and robbery rates for each country (transparency). If that means some nations will not be served, so be it.

    Loneliness is part of the experience. Anyone who worries about being far from mommy should not bother to apply.

    As an update on my younger son: he completed two years of service as an English teacher in the jungles of Panama, near the Darien Strait. He wrote and published a book about his experience titled Peace Corps Epiphanies: Panama. It is available on Amazon.com. Afterwards, he entered a masters program in urban planning at the University of Arizona. He will receive that degree in May. The community of RPCVs in Tucson (Desert Doves) has been very supportive and helpful.

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