Celebrating 50 Years of Peace Corps: Q & A with Madison and Chicago Peace Corps Represenatives

The Peace Corps is a celebrated organization working to help people around the world, while promoting a better understanding of Americans and of other people on the part of American volunteers. UW-Madison is presently ranked as the number two, sending university with 2,906 returned volunteers and about 77 alumni currently serving. With the African Studies Program hosting “Peace Corps and Africa: 50 Years” on March 24-26, we took the opportunity to sit down with Kim Johnson, the Peace Corps campus representative, and Jeffery Rhodes, who works in the Chicago regional office, to discuss the unique experience that is the Peace Corps.

What is your personal connection to the Peace Corps other than your current jobs?

Kim Johnson: I volunteered in Papua New Guinea, South Pacific. I started out teaching math and science, which is what I’d done in the states. Then there was a natural disaster, so I ended up moving from my village to another one that was on a different side of the island and hadn’t been affected by the tsunami. I did a lot of teacher training because most of the teachers had passed away during that time.

Jeffery Rhodes: From 2005- 2007, I was in Zambia as a community health volunteer. I worked with community groups, families, and village and community leadership to teach about malaria prevention, HIV prevention, child health, and nutrition. We spent a lot of time convincing families they should go to the clinics in order to improve their health.

Why should someone consider the Peace Corps and how do they know if they qualify to be a volunteer?

KJ: We have informational meetings once a month on campus and that’s a great way to get a broad overview of what the Peace Corps is and some of the programs that we offer. I have office hours where people can stop by and ask questions and pick up information. Also, we have outlets like our website, peacecorps.org, Facebook, twitter, and Flickr.

JR: Our program descriptions outline the specific things that we are looking for so you can do a self-evaluation —  ‘do I have these things; what skills do I need to gain; and what skills do I have in abundance.’ We really do evaluate the whole person. It’s not just about the education, but also about the experience. We look critically at leadership skills; folks who stand up above the crowd generally apply to the Peace Corps anyway because they have that extra something that is driving them to service or driving them to an international experience — try these new things, learn these new languages, live with these new people — a lot of different things that most people going through a college career might not consider. It demonstrates that you’ve considered these things, that you’re passionate about these things, that you’re sure about those things.

From Jeffery Rhodes' time in Zambia

I see that UW-Madison is listed as a university participating in the Masters International Program. Could you explain why someone may choose this option and its benefits?

KJ: There are two prominent reasons for doing a Masters International Program.  The program allows someone to combine service with a graduate degree and field experience. You apply to a graduate school first and do a year of course work. Then you would do your Peace Corps service; your primary responsibilities [are] with the projects and community to which you have been assigned. Your academic requirement will grow out of your volunteer work.  The degree requirement may be a thesis, paper, or another culminating project, developed with the direction of your faculty and with the approval of Peace Corps overseas staff.  After completing your service, you would return to finish your graduate course work having the advantage of applying theory to practice while working overseas. When you come back you still get all the benefits of the Peace Corps: the readjustment allowance, insurance, deferring loan repayments, and other extras that come with serving in the Peace Corps. You get Peace Corps perks plus the opportunity to do long term research in the field.

JR:  And a lot of the Masters International Programs are designed around very relevant topics for our time; environmental ecology, developing world education, just to name a couple. It’s a great way to launch an international career. You would be using your degree, using your skills — technical and professional — while abroad and making connections to really tie together all of these elements.  The potential is exciting.

KJ: There is also the Fellows Program option, which I did, that allows returned volunteers to earn a graduate degree with financial assistance from the Peace Corps. Fellows complete degree-related internships in under-served American communities, allowing them to bring home, and expand upon, the skills they learned as volunteers. Volunteers can apply any time after they complete their Peace Corps service.

Why do you think UW-Madison produces so many Peace Corps volunteers?

KJ: I think many volunteers from Wisconsin come back to Madison or wherever around the state and stay, so there is a huge returned volunteer group that gets out and talks a lot with other members of their communities.

JR: I believe that word of mouth is the strongest marketing tool.  There are more than 2,900 returned volunteers who come back to Madison and share their experiences. They really become a large part of the promotional team and provide an outlet for other returned volunteers to share their experiences. I think most returned volunteers have good experiences, or at least some good experiences, and if those are defining moments in a person’s life, they are bound to be brought up when talking with family and friends and people who are interested in having similar experiences.

How should you start your application process, how does the application process work, and how long does the process generally take until you are offered a spot?

KJ: You start your application online. It’s an in-depth application — essays, reference letters, and transcripts – and then that’s submitted to Jeff and he looks through them to see who will be interviewed.

JR: There’s an initial assessment to determine if the applicant has the requisite skills to qualify for service as far as enough work experience, volunteer experience,  and education. Then we move forward with those people who are qualified and pose questions that have to do with vegetarianism, legal situations such as debt or mortgages, car payments, or prior convictions. We collect all of that information so everyone is on the same level. Then we call the applicants for an interview so they can give a narrative description of their application. It’s similar to a normal job application in a lot of respects. Then it’s a matter of finding their skills, their passions, and their experience, and matching them with the programs that are available. From any one time there are hundreds to thousands of programs open in the Peace Corps, and if you’ve made it that far in the application process there is probably a program we can match you to, but there is no guarantee. A nomination is when Kim and I recommend that you are qualified for service and that you would be a competitive candidate to actually work for the Peace Corps. Nominated applicants go through the medical review process, which is a very thorough medical review. The reason for that is because Peace Corps manages your medical requirements while you’re serving; we want to know what you need so if you need regular medication Peace Corps can provide that for you. That’s generally the longest leg of the application process. Once this last process is complete then an applicant would go through to ‘invitation,’ which is our job offer to you, saying ‘you’re suitable, you’re medically and legally cleared for service, this is what we have for you, will you accept it?’ And then you’re ready to go.

What are things applicants should do prior to submission, in order to be able to put forth their most competitive application?

JR:  Each of our programs have specific outlines for what they require such as education required and experience desired. It’s the idea that if you have this type of background you can qualify for Peace Corps and if you have this type of experience you will be competitive. Language proficiency is also important. Currently, about 50 percent of our programs are asking for Spanish or French language competency. Additionally, if you have taken Swahili or German, it demonstrates the ability to learn another language and it will benefit you because you will be studying another language when you begin your service.

Many of the countries that are in need of volunteers are Third World countries, how can you ensure volunteers’ safety while abroad?

JR: The Peace Corps takes very seriously the safety and security of its volunteers. All volunteers go through three months of training prior to joining their community. A part of the training is safety and security — there are also cross-cultural, language, and health components. They are trained by professionals in each of these areas. There is disaster training if a natural disaster or civil war were to break out. It’s called ‘calling down the volunteers’ and you would practice this before leaving training. In the communities, despite poverty and lack of education and all of those things in the Third World, volunteers are very safe in their communities. I actually felt much safer during my service than in the United States because the community I was living in was so small and so well connected and I was a member of that community. Even if anything remotely awkward happened to me, there were several people there to make sure I was okay. Anytime something bad happened where someone would yell at me or threaten me, that person got punished because my community believed ‘he is a valuable resource to the community and if he feels unwelcome or cannot do his job then you are hurting all of us.’

Pounding Maize

If someone is not offered a spot in the Peace Corps what are their options if they are passionate about volunteerism ?

JR: I think the most common reason someone wouldn’t get a spot would be because they are qualified, but not competitive. For example, if you were nominated for a program and compared to all the other applicants in the program, you were least competitive; you may not be offered a spot. At that point, the placement office would work with you to find a potential service opportunity. They could say ‘you weren’t invited to this education program in South America, but there is another one that matches your skills more in Sub-Saharan Africa.’ It’s just a transfer to a different program. There is also the option just to wait until something opens up that you are qualified for depending on the timing and duties of the program. It’s then at the applicant’s discretion to wait or to decline the offer. The most important thing a person can do to be more competitive is gain relevant skills in the work areas they are most qualified for.

We also work with applicants who maybe don’t meet the qualifications for Peace Corps, but there are other options like Teach For America or AmeriCorps and other service organizations that may have different qualifications than Peace Corps. Peace Corps is not right for everyone, and we want to work with applicants and other organizations to find a service option that is right for them.

If you cannot volunteer are there other ways to get involved with the Peace Corps organization?

JR: Yes, we have the Peace Corps Partnership Programs. It’s an opportunity for volunteers in service to create projects while they’re working, such as building a library for their community, and the Peace Corps promotes those projects, and people can donate money or help fund raise for the projects that they feel passionate about.

Last year the returned volunteers in Madison raised somewhere close to $70,000 for the Peace Corps Partnership Programs through their fund raising efforts. They look to give the money to Madison students, Madisonians, or people with a local connection serving in the Peace Corps, otherwise they look for projects they are interested in or passionate about supporting.

How can interested people get more information?

JR: Our website is the best resource. It allows you to find all of the application materials you need, regional office locations, project details, and testimonials from returned volunteers. There is a space called ‘connect with a recruiter,’ where you can chat with your local recruiter and they can answer specific questions and help you prepare for your application. We have a website for UW-Madison: peacecorps.wisc.edu. Our Facebook page — UW Madison Peace Corps — is also a helpful resource because it allows people to check up on what we are doing around campuses, some of our global efforts, and gives people a chance to interact and ask questions openly. People can also interact with faculty and staff on campus and view department newsletters. There is also a National Peace Corps Association overseas and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Groups in major metropolitan areas around the country.

Flannery Geoghegan, Division of International Studies