To many it seems like a thing out of another time, a glory belonging to a generation not our own. The Peace Corps to most of us was, and still is, an outlet for ambitious and altruistic college students to get away and enjoy a romanticized vision of encounters in lands far away from home.
From a time more familiar for the Apollo moon landings and the Great Society, it’s difficult to find a place for an organization grown out of 1960s space-age optimism in the sober reality that is our twenty-first century. But maybe that was the best thing that the Peace Corps representatives contributed to their Feb. 11 visit to Grand Valley State University: its reframing of a Kennedy-era ideal into a relevant cause in the face of modern-day skepticism.
“The Peace Corps is not for everyone,” said Judy Torres, a Peace Corps volunteer since 2006. “It is a very extreme experience, but it’s also a very positive one.”
Torres, a Chicago native, spent two years in the Dominican Republic, participating in civic development and leadership.
Mark Bryson, a 2009 graduate of GVSU, spent time in Jamaica helping develop water filtration systems.
“A lot of it is going to be you being resourceful,” he said. “There’s no one that’s going to be telling you what to do, but in order to be effective you have to make yourself useful to your community.”
The speakers did not sugar-coat the experience, making clear that the 27-month commitment to the Peace Corps is not to be taken lightly.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” Torres said. “You’re living and working in the same community, and it’s hard to be on point all of the time. But it’s one of those things that calls to your own personality. We try and look for people who are self-starters, because there isn’t going to be anyone looking over your shoulder. It’s going to be on you and your community. That’s why we try and look for people with those strong leadership skills.”
But the theme of the discussion never ventured far from the central point of the people that prospects would be helping by joining the Peace Corps.
“It’s really great to be in these communities for the two years and develop these friendships and relationships,” Torres said. “On your first day, everyone will know who you are; you’ll be a local celebrity.”
The speakers stressed that the benefit of the organization is immense, both to the volunteer and the communities in which they are placed.
“Quite honestly, it’s something you cannot forget,” Torres said. “It carries on with you. It lets you know what kind of person you really are.”
And it’s that focus on self-cultivation fused with volunteerism that has allowed Peace Corps participants to appreciate how positively the program has affected them. The living conditions can be hard for Americans who are used to a life of leisure and luxury, but after being in the Peace Corps, that mentality can change.
“Being without really opens your eyes to what you take for granted,” Torres said. “But when it’s over, you want to do it again.”
One thing that the speakers made clear in their addresses was the significance of finding the job that best fit volunteers’ talents and passion. With a nine- to 12-month waiting period in the application process, finding that experience is one of the most important things before embarking on the 27-month undertaking.
“What really matters is that what you do is something that you enjoy,” Torres said. “If there is something in your communities that you can do to get experience, try that first. Get experience in the thing that you want to do and see if you even like it.”
The Peace Corps offers volunteer opportunities in seven different categories, including health, agriculture, youth development, education and teaching English as a foreign language.
For more information on how to get involved or to start the application process, visit the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.