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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Peace Corps To Shorten Application Process, Let Volunteers Choose Location

Carrie Hessler-Radelet was confirmed as director of the Peace Corps on June 5, 2014. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. (Peace Corps)

Carrie Hessler-Radelet was confirmed as director of the Peace Corps on June 5, 2014. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. (Peace Corps)

The Peace Corps today announced major changes to its application process, in hopes of attracting more volunteers.

With its number of applications dropping, the Peace Corps has decided to significantly shorten how long it takes to apply and allow volunteers to choose the country or specific program they’re interested in.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet about the changes announced today, and the shifting role of the Peace Corps in the 21st century.

The Peace Corps volunteer program run by the United States government that sends thousands of Americans to more than 60 countries, for two-year service projects.

Interview Highlights: Carrie Hessler-Radelet

On why the changes will not deny service to “unfavorable” destinations

“A lot of our applicants are really driven by service and want to help where they are needed most. In addition, a certain subset of our applicant pool want to go to the farthest, most remote, most difficult post. There are people who are just driven by that type of service.”

On the recent decline in applicants

“Our applicants have lots of choices now. In the early days when Peace Corps began, it was really the only opportunity for people who wanted to live or work overseas. But now there are many choices for people to be overseas.”

On 76 percent of Peace Corps volunteers being white

“We can do a better job in recruiting in places we’ve never recruited before. That’s why a major part of our new recruitment effort is reaching out to diverse communities in ways we haven’t before. We’ve hired over 20 recruiters who are really focused on recruiting diverse populations. We also are creating partnerships with networks that service some of our underrepresented groups.”

On the value of the Peace Corps in 2014

“I don’t think there’s anyone who is more globally competent than a Peace Corps volunteer.”

“In this increasingly complex and interconnected world, I think our country needs to have Americans who can speak other languages, understand other cultures and find commonality with our own. I think the future of our nation depends on it and our position in the world. I don’t think there’s anyone who is more globally competent than a Peace Corps volunteer who has lived for two years in another country, is fluent in at least one other language and really is able to see the world through another’s eyes.”


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  • Physics Guy

    I applied to the PC in 1998, asking for a specific country. They said they could only offer a “region” and later offered me a post in a different country, which I declined. They then offered me the country I requested in 2000, and I accepted. I served a full 2 years. I think they broke protocol for me because I was of a different (and desireable?) demographic — an established professional in my mid 30s. I think there is less of a chance of early return or breaking rules with a little older volunteer. We tend to do less of those things that can embarrass PC (because we’ve done them already).

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  • Tom

    My wife and I are at the moment traveling to Brattleboro Vermont to attend a 50th anneversary of our Peace Corps training. We were volunteers inTurkey 1964-1966. We met in training and were married when we returned. I do recall a lengthy app process in 1964. Training and selection was a very difficult and stressful process. Much has changed since we were Volunteers. Any thing that can be done to shorten and simplify the app process has to be beneficial. Delays in the process where applicants are in limbo must reduce the number of a applicants. Tom Jackson

  • Lynn

    Just listening to your program on changes the peace Corp is making. I hope they would consider shortened service – like summer sessions for educators or 6mo – 1year assignments for us older folks wanting to serve after retirement. I would go every summer to the same place for several years to be a more effective volunteer. I am sure I am not the only educator who would love to do this- please pass this along to your peace corps contact. If there is now a way to serve for a shorten time, please post here how to apply for a shortened session. Thanks!

    • Mel

      Look into the PC Response Volunteer program. Offers short term (6 months to a year). Was known as Crisis Corps. I served in Ukraine in 1998 as a PCV and as a Response volunteer in Armenia in 2011.

    • Abby

      I second Mel. I have done Peace Corps response twice, both for one year each, but they also have occasional terms of 3-4 months, and they are less restrictive of who they take than they used to be.

    • lbrea

      Yes, you should look into Peace Corps Response for shorter-term, more specific assignments. However, as an RPCV I can say that the two year term contract is a necessity–I spent the first year figuring out how everything worked in my small Zambian village–learning the language and the culture, networking with NGOs and government organizations, etc. It seems like a long time, but it’s needed. I would have accomplished very little in a 6 month period, because of the unstructured work environment. Peace Corps Response is a bit different.

  • Dave

    Partner with ICE and deport illegal aliens, foreign nationals to their home countries.
    These illegal aliens as natives of their countries have a real incentive to improve their own countries to a point that they do not have to run away for a better life.
    Spanish RCC church heritage has created terrible societies. Latino societies like Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America, corrupt societies that are so bad for so many people, overpopulation and poverty.
    So if they have some knowledge of how the USA society works they can take that knowledge and help improve those societies and help stop the INvasion of the USA.

  • Bryce

    My wife and I really want to join the Peace Corp when I finish my master’s degree. She, however, is not a U.S. citizen, so she is not eligible. I think it’s unfortunate that this makes us ineligible as a couple. My degree is in Materials Science and she has 8 years of experience teaching English as a second language and I feel the two of us could really make a positive impact.

    • NameNotGiven

      I am an RPCV and I am afraid you don’t understand Peace Corps. The mission and charter is about showcasing Americans and our values. Why would we have non Americans doing that?
      And Peace Corps needs ESL like a hole in the head. WE have WAY to many people who think our mission is ESL. Can your wife engineer wells? Does she have experience in Agriculture or community health? That is what at we need.

  • Paul

    I applied to Peace Corps in 2012, hoping to serve in South America. I was eventually assigned to serve in Ukraine, and was initially very hesitant about it. However, during and after my service, I fell in love with the people and culture of Ukraine, a place that I would have never chosen to serve in. I repeatedly herd this same refrain from other Ukraine Volunteers. I feel that being able to choose the country of service will close opportunities like mine; Volunteers will serve where they feel comfortable. On the other hand, I came extremely close to dropping out of the Peace Corps application process, as it took over a year and there were long periods of time where I did not hear back from Peace Corps, causing me to lose confidence. Changes in application process in my opinion will truly help Peace Corps.

  • Peter Hook

    I was a volunteer in India during 1965-67. At that time once you were accepted you were put on a roster and every month or so you were sent specific country invitations which you could refuse without prejudice. The selection process was interwoven with language training [Stateside]. “Deselection” seemed to be haphazard, even arbitrary. In-country directors were not sufficiently knowledgeable about the country in which they were stationed. Now there is a deep bench of returnees who can serve either as well-informed administrators or as old hands returning to the field after 50 years.

  • Blue Tick

    When I applied to the Peace Corps at age 38, my medical review led to a dead end, in spite of the fact that I was very healthy and had my doctor’s support. There are many, many similar stories in online discussion groups. If the PC really wants diversity, they should get control of their own health service, and draw from the 40 and over population.

  • Mel

    Letting a potential volunteer select a preferred country sounds great but let’s not forget that the PC site selection depends on the need of the country and whether PC ‘site partners’ can be successfully signed up. I served as a PCV in Ukraine 1996-1998 and later as a Response volunteer in Armenia and was thrilled and fortunate to be assigned to countries and site partners who could benefit from skills in business management and marketing and from an older Asian woman! If the application process is to be shorten, PC should focus on the arduous long medical clearance. It is a bear! When I arrived in Armenia, the PC Medical staff were surprised that I had to fulfill so many medical requirements e.g. vaccinations.

  • Abby

    I took two years to get through the application process and would have given up if Peace Corps had not been a dream of mine for over a decade. I did appreciate that they let me suspend my application while I temporarily took an AmeriCorps assignment, and I hope PC continues to do that.

    I did not mind choosing a region rather than a specific country and I hope they still have that option for someone who wants to work in, say, southern Africa, but is not concerned which country. The new decision to allow volunteers to request their country of service will attract those who know exactly where they want to serve, which is also great. I had friends who declined to serve in the past for that reason.

    A shorter application (or a smart application, in which you only get teaching experience questions if you express interest in teaching, for example) is a great idea. Has PC determined a way to shorten or streamline the medical part of the application? That’s what took me forever to sort out, and the reimbursement for it only covered a small fraction of the actual cost.

    I am still concerned that volunteers will still arrive at their sites (in whichever country) to discover that the job they requested (or had been assigned) is not the job that the community needs, That happens often and while some volunteers can adapt to the community’s needs, others cannot, and PC loses a perfectly good, but poorly placed, volunteer.

    • bean

      PC changed medical about a year and a half ago. Applicants no longer get a thick packet to complete. They also don’t have to disclose certain medical conditions after so many years of having no symptoms or issues, nor are they subject to specific medical tests that aren’t absolutely necessary (PC still requires blood work, a physical, eye exam, dental exam, and certain vaccines). The process is MUCH better. I was among the first applicants to use the new system, and I had heard all the horror stories of applicants before me. My experience was not bad at all, plus the whole process is digitized so you can scan all your docs into the medical for quick processing.

      Your concern is mine too. I knew a number of PC volunteers who shared this same sentiment, and some ultimately went home because their experience wasn’t what they had in mind when they joined the PC. I went home because of this. Well, it wasn’t that I came with a list of expectations, but I felt that PC Education Sector in my host country needed to change its roles and objectives, which have remained largely the same over the last 52 years.
      I was told by a PC staff member that a major problem is that PC cannot get enough applicants with the skills host countries are looking for. They make it sound like a competitive process, but it is not. PC countries have to fight each other for the most skill-specific, qualified candidates, and then they take what they can get. This is why they’ve opened up PC Response to those who’ve never volunteered but have significant experience and skills in their chosen fields. This is also why they’re now allowing applicants to choose where they want to go. I see the appeal, but I believe this is going to be a mess. If they increase their applicant pool and are effective in getting more qualified candidates to apply, they are inevitably going to run into issues with posts that are inundated with requests and posts that aren’t–I don’t care what they say. How many people want to go to any of the Stans versus Costa Rica? I strongly believe that more qualified applicants are going to know their worth and not accept a post where they could be of better service. Moreover, what’s going to happen when applicants go to the countries they’ve requested and find it’s not what they expected? At least when you go to a country you didn’t expect to go to you know you can’t have many (if any) expectations about what’s it going to be like (I’m talking about the country and its culture specifically, not the job the volunteer was sent there to do, even though it could be argued that a job will never be exactly what was expected).
      So yeah,there are too many young, fresh out of college volunteers with a yearning to travel and make a difference (I can be included in this group) and not enough skilled volunteers. While this is good for cultural exchange, it’s not ideal for development work. I believe Peace Corps as a whole needs to reassess whether it wants to be primarily an exchange program or development agency.

  • Chris Letsinger

    I was in the Peace Corps in Cameroon (87-89) and Tonga (90-92). I did it because I was to spend some time in Africa and the South Pacific. I asked for Africa to start with. And it turned out to be no problem. I grew up on a farm and had a Biology major in college. Because of the high demand and low supply at the time it took only about three months between sending in the application to when I knew I was going to Cameroon. I finished classes in May and left in June of 1987. I had to wait a year after Cameroon before a program opened up in Tonga but that was mostly because of the difference in seasons of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

    In the past two decades I have been very disappointed in the reactions of Americans in general and employers in particular. Volunteer service is given little or no value as far as work experience is concerned. In some cases I actually got a negative reaction in a job interview. If you want to do the Peace Corps by all means do it, but do it for yourself. Don’t expect any credit stateside when you get back.

  • JBK007

    I asked to go to a Pacific island and was sent to the Sahara. lol As an RPCV from Mali (’88-’90) I stayed in development throughout my career and hope some day to serve as a PC Country Director. There are no better ambassadors from America than PCVs!

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  • Bean

    I served 13 months in Jamaica. I left early, a decision I have grappled with, and in many ways, regret. I did not choose Jamaica, nor would I have. Nonetheless, despite having left early, I am positive it was the best choice for me. I grew to love the country, even though it is not an easy post (even though many people will tell you you’re on a two-year vacation). I strongly believe that PC needs major structural changes, not just in the application process but the selection process. They need to eliminate or decrease general applicants (of which I was one). These are applicants who have no specific skill set or experience that PC or host countries are looking for, so are (for the most part) placed in education positions. I taught literacy, and although I did well, I was uncomfortable knowing I was learning how to be a teacher rather than transferring skills I already had to teachers and community members. In a country like Jamaica, there is a surplus of trained teachers–there is just no money. Moreover, an IMF deal signed last year prohibits new teachers from being hired at the moment.
    I realize that PC’s role is micro not macro, and that we aren’t out to overhaul or make major structural changes to institutions; however, I sometimes felt that our presence (along with USAID, NGOs, and other countries’ aid orgs) kept the govt from tackling its issues head on. It feels like we’re acknowledging that change needs to happen while at the same time accepting the status quo.
    What I guess I’m saying is that many a PC post has operated in the same or similar fashion for decades. It is much more a cultural exchange program than the development agency it claims to be. I wish I would have stayed in my capacity to fulfill the second and third goals of the Peace Corps, as the stereotypes between the US and Jamaica are pervasive. I also wish I would have stayed simply because I loved my family and my community. I didn’t realize how much they cared for me till I said goodbye. I start to cry when I think about it.

  • Ita

    I served as a PCV in Western Samoa in 1967-69, when the PC first sent volunteers to the South Pacific. Over the years I’ve talked with many potential applicants and individuals who have served as PCVs. I have always told them that serving as a PCV was a life altering experience that I treasure and would gladly repeat. I am always curious about current application and training procedures when I talk with potential applicants but I try not to compare with what I experienced. Several comments from volunteers of my era echo my impressions from the application, selection, and training procedures of the 1960′s. Some aspects of selection and training in the 60′s can at best be described as ill-conceived and counterproductive. I recall that halfway through training, each trainee was give a sheet listing the names of the other trainees. There were 2 columns, one for me to make positive comments about each individual, one for negative. Later we were called in individually to meet with a staff person. Each of us was given a summary about the comments made about him/her. Believe me, when we were asked to repeat the exercise near the end of training, all of us received nothing but positive comments from our other trainees.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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