The Application Process
This was a five stage process that takes up a considerable amount of time, not due to inefficiency (well, at least not by the Peace Corps) but the paperwork and medical tests that are required. It is absolutely critical to keep it rolling, and not slack off at any stage. This is how things went for me (entire process occurred over a period of 10 months). This Peace Corps application process is probably going to change over time, but I’m fairly certain that the changes will be procedural rather than content related so this material should be of interest.
- Initial Application – Acquiring an application, what they ask for
- Recruiter Interview – Meeting an alumni of the program
- Nomination Letter and Medical Forms – The start of the rigorous medical tests!
- Official Invitation – Potential assignment and decision time
- Welcome Packet & Staging Event Details – Gearing up to go!
- Miscellaneous – Outside reading to ease the mind
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I initially picked up a Peace Corps Application during my junior year in College when a recruiter was stationed at one of our main campus exhibition areas. Since I was already aware of the program through my research, I didn’t need much of a recruitment talk from him. Surprisingly, it didn’t seem like he needed to give anyone a spiel since most of the people who were picking up applications knew what they were doing and what the Peace Corps was. The application packet was extremely well done and demonstrated the lives of several volunteers throughout the world. I really appreciated seeing the diversity of volunteers… both in race and age. You can pick it up online here if you don’t have a recruitment office nearby, and I highly recommend you also get it mailed to you to show others about the program. It’s really nice!
I started filling out the application during Spring Break of 2001 and didn’t send it to the Regional Peace Corps office until the beginning of the summer. While the paperwork was simple (they check to see if you’re a citizen, worked with the Peace Corps before, participated in intelligence activities, have any financial or legal concerns, whether you’ve been married, military, have dependents, education level, job preferences, when you’ll be available, licenses, language skills, employment history, have volunteer activities and practical experience), the essays were time-consuming. The two questions I had to answer were:
- Cross-Cultural Experience
Peace Corps Volunteers must be open to ideas and cultures different from their own. Give an example of a significant experience that illustrates your ability to adapt cross-culturally. You may draw from experiences in your work, school, or community in the U.S. or abroad. Please include the circumstances of the experiences and dates. (There was no limit on how much you could write, and here’s what I submitted. If you’ve examined other portions of my site, you will notice that it bears an eerie resemblance to my own History)
- Motivation Statement
Peace Corps service presents major physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges. You have provided information on how you qualify for Peace Corps service elsewhere in this application. In the space below, please provide a statement between 150-500 words that includes your reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer; and how these reasons are related to your past experiences and life goals. (Here’s what I submitted. If you’ve examined other portions of my site, you will notice that it bears an eerie resemblance to my own Personal Mission Statement)
There is also a basic health status review form to make sure that you don’t have any medical conditions that bar enrollment in the program. Lastly, you have to find three people (a volunteer supervisor, a job supervisor, and a personal acquaintance) who are willing to write you a recommendation. Do this fast and make sure that they are people who know you well and are reliable (they may have to write this recommendation and submit it within a week). At this point in the game, all you’ll need are their names and addresses. I chose the main supervisor at the mentoring group I worked with, a co-worker/supervisor at IBM, and a fellow officer of a student organization I was involved with. I chose these people for two main reasons – they were reliable people who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, and because they would be the best judges of my abilities in their respective recommendation role. I finally sent in the completed application in early May of 2001. I eventually got an email from the main office that acknowledged acceptance of the application.
I heard back from the recruiter at the regional office three weeks after I submitted my application. He contacted me via email and with a letter in regards to take care of a few preliminary forms before an interview regarding potential placement in the Peace Corps. The paperwork involved sending out the three recommendation forms (in letters that they would seal to keep things confidential) to my references, getting fingerprint charts and a National Agency Check form, and then a skill addendum (check it out here) to further detail experience in the IT field. I had originally received three addenda, but I sent back the only one I was interested in… mainly because I thought that the others might get me a job away from electricity. While I was hoping for a non-tech position, I was frightened by the prospects of not being able to use many electronic devices (I was stupidly more concerned about that than running water or other basic needs). Anyway, the fingerprints and the National Agency Check form were not too difficult so I scheduled an interview with the recruiter for the beginning of June. If the interview went well, the recruiter would nominate me for Peace Corps service and recommend me for a specific program. My references proved to be reliable and I didn’t have to hassle them for meeting the deadline.
In the letter I received, I was told that the interview would cover reasons for considering Peace Corps, expectations and concerns of working overseas for two years, ability to work well in an unstructured job, overall flexibility regarding work assignments and geographic placement, and questions or concerns regarding issues of diversity and circumstances such as vegetarianism, current romantic relationships, and financial/legal obligations. Although I had thought about these topics, I did nothing to formally prepare for the interview. When I finally sat in a suit and tie in the regional Peace Corps office, I was sweating due to both heat (105 degrees in Dallas, Texas at that time!) and nervousness. But my concerns were unfounded as the recruiter was both jovial and informal. He started off the interview by showing me a tape of current Peace Corps volunteers which shed some light on the risks and rewards of the experience. After that we talked informally about the various topics that were outlined in the letter. There seemed to be an emphasis on current romantic relationships (which are a major reason why people may seek early termination of their service) and on special needs, but overall it was what I had expected. After that, we talked about his own Peace Corps experience and I could see how much he had loved it. There were certain points that he mentioned opened my eyes to potential difficulties that weren’t mentioned in the documents I had read. As an African-American, he told me how differently he was treated by his host country community who were expecting a more “typical” white American. I hadn’t thought about this at all… and this was very relevant to me as well. We talked about many things for two and a half hours and eventually began working on potential programs for my placement. We eventually chose three projects that seemed ideal to both my needs and my skills. He then told me that I would be contacted within a few weeks about his nomination and with a new set of paperwork to take care of. Overall, the interview did wonders to allay my fears of going overseas and should not be a cause for concern.
I received the Nomination letter in the beginning of July, and it informed me that I had passed the interview stage and was being considered for the Information Technology program. I was also given a whole package of detailed medical forms to complete which was a significant undertaking. I scheduled a thorough physical at my university (along with a few blood tests), a detailed dental examination and full-mouth bitewing x-rays, and complete an eyeglass form (so that the Peace Corps could supply replacements if necessary while you are overseas). It is absolutely critical to make arrangements for all the medical details as soon as possible, because the Peace Corps makes it clear that the invitation process will not continue until you get the necessary medical and legal clearance. If you have any special circumstances, you need to let the examiners know before you have them fill out the forms! In my case, I had a previous BCG vaccination that could have caused issues in one of my blood tests (fortunately, we also had a note from the original doctor that addressed this issue and I provided it to the examiners). The Peace Corps also provides reimbursement forms for all the exams, but be aware that they don’t have much money allocated for each.
I handled all the medical information by the end of July and did not hear back from them until the end of August with the actual invitation into the Peace Corps. I was then informed that although I had to take care of some dental issues (removing both my wisdom teeth due to possible problems overseas) before getting full medical clearance, my application had been accepted.
When I received the official invitation in late August 2001 (right before my final semester at the University of Texas), I was absolutely ecstatic! The placement office had decided to send me to the Kingdom of Tonga in February 2002. While I’m not certain that it was one of the choices I had picked during the interview, it definitely met my criteria for being paradise – South Pacific islands with perfect weather and a low crime rate.
The invitation included a packet with details about the country and the Peace Corps (including a nifty Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook). It also talked about my volunteer assignment which would be to become an Information Technology youth counselor and train Tongans in basic computer skills. To accept the assignment, I had to the Peace Corps Office of Placement within ten days. After a sleepless Sunday night, I called in my commitment at 8AM in the morning. I was finally in!
The last bit of paperwork was to create an updated resume and aspiration statement (which you can see by clicking here). Despite a notice that said that this had to be completed within ten days of acceptance, I never took care of them until December due to school and the hectic days following the September 11th terrorist attacks (a period where I wished that I was overseas instead of in the USA). Fortunately this did not cause any issues. I also waited till December to take care of my No-Fee Visa application which was the final peace of formal paperwork (this process takes approximately six weeks, and requires many forms of authentication. I mailed in my current Visa to meet the criteria, and it would be returned to me at the Staging event before departure).
At the end of December, I received the official Welcome Packet from the Peace Corps. This contained an official Tonga Welcome Book (with details regarding what to pack, more information about the country, and what to expect during the Peace Corps service there) along with a manual called Introduction to the Tongan Language (which came with a 60 min cassette tape!).
A couple weeks later in early January 2002, I received more details about the Staging event in Seattle that would be my launch pad into Peace Corps service. Along with instructions on getting insurance for various items I would take to my assignment, I also received a phone number to call to arrange my flight to Seattle (which was funded by the Peace Corps SATO travel). The only e-ticket I could get was at 6AM on February 12th, but I did get a window seat!
My adventures during my Peace Corps assignment are documented in the Photos portion.
Despite all the documentation the Peace Corps provides about volunteering overseas, the uncertainty surrounding what an individual’s experience in the program will be like can be both discouraging and unnerving. I read a number of books to get a better grasp of what I could expect, but only few were truly useful. Here they are:
- So, You Want to Join the Peace Corps… What to Know Before You Go by Dillon Banerjee – presented like a list of frequently asked questions, this book is full of gems without any filler material. It is awesome! It’s very clearly written and most of the material will apply no matter what your circumstances are. I recommend this book before any other in regards to allaying fears surrounding Peace Corps pitfalls. You should be able to grab a copy at Amazon
- Lonely Planet Guides – although I only have experience with the guide for Tonga, I feel like this is a great resource for information regarding any Peace Corps destination. They are well organized and very informative