Why Did You Join the Peace Corps?

“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 and recently Marian Beil asked if I knew about this paper. I tracked down a copy of Colman’s paper that reports on several studies of motivation for joining the agency.

One was a 1962 study of 2,612 applications’ replies to a motivational question on the application form; another 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 people 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. Well, Peace Corps Recruiters get into the middle-schools of America and start showing your slides!





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  • ‘I got so much more out of PC and the HCNs.’ Nothing else is important. This comes form that study? It’s an excuse for all the funding we spend on one PC now. If we meet Congress’ funding goal of $892,000,000 (H.RES.1396.IH) the cost at 8,000 PCs is $111,500 per PC per year.

    The real reason for applying should be a job. Kennedy wanted this. For example USAID has a high percentage of of RPCVs or PC that has 60% RPCVs. It’s too bad that no other ones opened up but these ‘holding agencies’ that constantly want more funding for bureaucracies that hire. Maybe we should go after language ability as national security and get Gates the ‘keep them hired’ administrator to hire RPCVs for NSA?

    A psychiatric study with a real psychiatrist to see why they join. Most shouldn’t. ‘Peace Corps isn’t for Everybody.’

  • Heard JFK´s Cow Palace speech while my family was in Italy camping…the echo has stayed with me! Some 40 plus years later I get the same great feeling and satisfaction of talking about Peace Corps to anyone but especially with HCN´s, they know what I mean when I am told that I am one of them…in their langauge/culture. Where would we all be if Peace Corps had not been started, what would I be doing? Where…we have done some good, it changed us!
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama 2009-2010
    And soon to be Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Paraguay

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