Part 1: Why you need to add Peace Corps to your bucket list

I am a happily retired PCV, US Peace Corps Volunteer.  This means I dedicated two years of my retirement to living abroad as a volunteer representative of the United States. Now I’m fired up to explain why I joined and why I think it’s something  other folks should consider too. As anyone who chooses to be of service knows, you’ll get more out of it than you could ever imagine.

Why did I decide to join Peace Corps? The most altruistic reason: I was retired, in good health and wanted to be of service. With a lifetime of experience, including founding a small charity in Zimbabwe a decade earlier, I figured I’d find a way to be useful. The lesser practical reason: At 63, I was a widow on a fixed income with no health insurance and two years before Medicare kicked in. If I needed a job with health insurance coverage, it had to be something meaningful, even if the pay stunk. Peace Corps fit the bill. Whatever the reason, the result was that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Is the Peace Corps still relevant? Unequivocally YES! PC provides an incredibly positive global impact. Especially today! As the world’s richest democracy, American values of compassion and caring for every citizen on the planet is real, contrary to recent political trends. The greatest life-changing effect can be for those who serve. It is a wake-up call; the kind of hands-on learning that a university can’t begin to teach. The majority of the world is a far different reality from the privileged life of the average American. It’s an unforgettable experience to live in parts of the world that don’t or can’t ‘give back’; where many have never even been exposed to the concept of volunteerism.

Who’s a typical volunteer? Volunteers are on average young, smart and liberally idealistic; straight out of college with a variety of degrees. That’s probably because PC recruits on college campuses not AARP magazine. What the 20-somethings lack in life experience, they make up for with loads of passion and a sense of adventure. A higher percentage are female. That said, if you’re a male hoping for an easy score, PC might look like a fun playground. Think again. Casanovas are quickly weeded out and sent home or have an epiphany along the way. This is not government sponsored ‘tinder’.

Is it the right choice for every retired American? No. The motto of my cohort in South Africa was this: some see the glass as half full, some see it as half empty, but a PC volunteer says, “I can take a bath in that.” Kinda paints an accurate picture. The qualities great senior volunteers share are humility, lots of common sense, better listening than speaking skills, and a good ole American can-do attitude. All that and the ability to bathe in a bucket.  I should add wash your dishes, your clothes and shit in that special bucket over in the corner.  The one with the lid.  Adds new meaning to your bucket list.

Are there many older Americans who join? No. Even the Peace Corps bets seniors won’t sign up. Stats show just 5% of volunteers are over the age of 50. It’s not a place for the arrogant, weak of heart or anyone with a tendency to complain a lot. God made cruise ship vacations for those folks. Most of the older volunteers I met were adventurous, some retired teachers or nurses, some returning to rekindle the PC experience of their 20s; all folks who had a serious commitment to the experience and were decidedly not going gently into that eventual good night.

What’s your skill? If your career didn’t include managing public health projects, farming or curing AIDS, fear not; your special super powers can still be utilized. You may qualify as a PC Generalist. PC is excellent at providing volunteers specific service goals, with tools and training to reach same. There’s lots of time and opportunities for recognizing ways you can share your life experience and skills along the way.

On Getting Accepted.  Once a volunteer enlists, there’s a rigorous process of interviews, physicals, background checks, vaccinations and a fair amount of paperwork.   And that’s not the end of it;  quarterly progress reporting while in service is required. It’s not too daunting and a good place for story-telling, but if you absolutely hate writing or documenting stuff, remember; this is government service.  Service is kinda like an honorary job without the bother of a hefty pay check.  More on this later.

What a cohort? That’s just the name of the group you’ll be in and out of touch with for the rest of your life. It’s hard not to bond with this special group of folks that joined PC at the same time in a common cause, boarded the same plane, trained together and then embarked on a life-changing path. It’s a wonderfully interesting mix of at least 30 to 50 different personalities, genders and agendas all on the same mission. You’re guaranteed to find some cohort members you just love and some you don’t; but one thing you’ll all share is a good dose of mutual respect.

PC 101 (the orientation part): After acceptance, there are intensive pre-placement classes with your cohort in the country of assignment; akin to a three-month college extension. It’s a mostly high energy experience geared to those 20-something college grads. Instruction is packed with ways of sending a message with plenty of youthful enthusiasm.  Considerable time is  devoted to cultural differences, safety warnings and rural local language skills. All important things, for sure.  Older volunteers can breeze through the culture and safety but learning a second language is a slightly higher bar to hurdle. There’s eleven official languages in SA, many with foreign clicking sounds and odd twists of the tongue.  Combine this with aging memory banks and you can see the challenges of learning just one for older folks.

Still, our government does not discriminate, so we oldsters are welcomed to the cohort just the same. Younger PCVs test better and learn faster than the older folks. However, the more matured PCV wins when it comes to life skills, common sense and empathy. I once asked if there could be a different training for older Americans that was tailored to using the ‘life experience’ skill sets, but nobody took that seriously. It would take a lot of shifting things around for a measly 5 percent and; honestly, when you’re a minority, it’s your job to adapt to the status quo.

Up next: Life experience. How older and younger volunteers are similar but different.