Why did you join the Peace Corps?

People are still asking that question as we approach the half century of the agency. Back in May of 1966, Joseph Colman, who was then the Acting Associate Director of the Peace Corps for Planning, Evaluation, and Research, published a paper in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. I tracked down a copy of Colman’s paper that reports on several studies of motivation for joining the agency.

One was done in 1962 of 2,612 applications’ replies to a motivational question on the application form; another in a 1963 interview study of why people who apply later decline a specific invitation to enter training; and the third was a 1964 interview study of college seniors and their interest in the Peace Corps. Colman’s paper concludes [not surprisingly] that Volunteers can be successful in the Peace Corps with a variety of motivations for joining.


In 1960, before the Peace Corps was started, Maurice Albertson at Colorado State University investigated motivation for Peace Corps-type service came up with a desire to broaden personal background and experience ranked; it ranked first. Concern for people in developing countries was a close second, and value to career and adventure ranked last.


Colman–looking all all these studies–found that the reasons for joining the agency changed in respect to the predominantly heavy weight given to the service nature of the Peace Corps, the “giving” dimension. He sums up his paper: “Some reasons [for joining the Peace Corps] probably dip into the unconscious; others are only reluctantly discussed or admitted; still others are too multidimensional to sort out.”


He states six psychological factors which are behind the desire to apply. In short, they are:

1)     Self-testing

2)     Independence from parents

3)     Search for one’s own values

4)     Worth-while service goals

5)     Desire to be need and recognized

6)     Chance for a ‘political’ experience


In the mid-’90s when I was managing the New York Recruitment Office I would ask Apps why they were joining the Peace Corps. There were two basic reasons. Older Volunteers, i.e., anyone over 30 said something like this, “I always wanted to join the Peace Corps since I first heard about it and now I’m going to do it!”


With I asked recent college graduates why they were joining, they would invariable say, “I had this teacher in middle-school and one day he/she brought into class slides of being in the Peace Corps, and I thought: I’m going to do that when I grow up!”


The Jesuits are famous for saying: give us a boy by the age of 8 and he’s ours for life. If the Peace  Corps agency thought long-term (which they never do) they would start visiting middle-schools and leave colleges and universities alone. 



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  • In addition to the self-exploratory reasons cited in the 1966 Colman paper I suspect that some of the reasons for joining the Peace Corps would vary according to the time period and exterior environment. President Kennedy’s inspiration was, by many accounts, a driving factor among the early and mid-Sixties PCVs; avoiding (temporarily at least) the Vietnam War draft was another in the late-’60s, early ’70s. Other periods could provide different incentives.

  • I think that “viccox” has a good perspective.

    What I remember from training in 1963 was that we were all interviewed as to our motivations. There seem to be a sense among my group that we should be very circumspect around “psych” people, of which there appeared to be legions. I recall that we felt we could not come across as idealistic, but rather had to give very practical reasons for wanting to be “selected.”

  • The draft board was breathing down my neck in the Winter of 1962. I could not get a deferment,being a part-time student. I was studying overseas economic development, for which a passion had developed at my undergraduate school. I wanted to get my degree and move on to working overseas. My brother, who was working on his docturate at the time, was studying Africa, to which I was highly attracted. I also wanted to get a sense of how all that I was studying was working out in practice. My mom suggested that since I had worked so hard to get Kennedy elected, as the president of a Young Democrats Club at my undergraduate school, I should apply for the Peace Corps. When asked during training why I joined, I said: where can one work for two years and save $1,800 (in order to return to graduate school and attend full time without the draft board once again breathing down my neck)? 15 days to the day that I said that I would return to the US, I got a draft notice. Since I was still a part-time student after I returned because I woried on a PC training project. But, I got a deferment for a year in order to finish my studies, although it took a US senator from my state to raise the question with them as to why they would not give me time to return to my studies and get a deferment. Ironcially, I went to Viet Nam anyway as a civilian contract worker! My masters thesis was on my country of service’s fiirst five year economic plan, so my studies and Peace Corps service got me on a track working in public policy with domestic anti-poverty programs for the next 40 years. In retrospect, it was really a desire to understand from the grass roots what the development process entailed.

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