Wrap-up: Next steps

This is the final post in a wrap-up series about my Peace Corps service. Over the course of the series I have discussed my personal commitment to service; the advantages and pitfalls of Peace Corps; issues specific to my country and region of service; and ethics, experiences, and reflected image in a foreign volunteering context. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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My two years are up. I’ve said my goodbyes, written my final posts, and, as you read this, I’m mere hours away from boarding a plane toward home. What’s next?

This blog will probably go dark for a while. Given that being a foreigner in Mongolia is about as private as being a constantly-poked puffer fish in a very small goldfish bowl, I need some time away from public broadcasting. I’m also going to be away from the internet, on and off, for a few months in the States. Eventually I plan to overhaul the website, give my Peace Corps posts their own section, and dedicate future writing to different subjects.

For me personally? I’m going to take some time to travel and readjust to American culture. A big move and a Masters degree loom, in the noncommittal, undefined way of all futures here in Mongolia. I hope to return to my novel, or at least to writing in some format. You’ll hear about it sooner or later.

Until then, goodbye, au revoir, баяртай and сау бол. Thank you so much to readers for following me on this crazy journey; and thank you, a thousand times thank you, to the friends near and far who have read, commented, reposted, and supported me online and off. Here’s to the next two years being as interesting as the last.

Wrap-up: Being tough, being good

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to my sector, country and region of service. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’ve talked sometimes with Americans and other foreigners not in the Peace Corps — either over the internet, or as they’re passing through my town. People get this degree of shock when I discuss my everyday life: “That sounds so difficult! So foreign! Props to you for sticking with it, I never could.”

On one level, it’s nice to get credit for doing something hard. Mongolian winters are not easy, especially if you have to make fires to keep warm and draw water from a well[1]. But these conversations also make me feel as if somehow, the other person has missed the point.

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When is the last time you did something altruistic? (This can be as simple as holding a door open, listening to a friend’s troubles, or cooking dinner for your spouse or roommate.) Thinking of the last few occasions, can you name a time you’ve regretted it profoundly? How did these acts make you feel? What resulted from them?

In America we’re accustomed to thinking of acts of generosity as somehow dangerous — as if by giving we must lose something. I disagree with this mindset. The emotional high of altruism, the back-pat we give ourselves when we do something good, and the way it reinforces our identities as “good people” are all motivating, if intangible, rewards. As is seeing tangible results of a good act, even if the subject of the act is unappreciative.

Everyone is capable of altruism, and many people are more inclined to it than they think. It’s true that commitments vary, but that depends in large part on a person’s life circumstances and inherent openness to adventure. Not on inherent altruism or lack thereof.

So when someone pins a PCV’s motivation as “good” or “altruistic” or “a blessing”, when they say “I could never do that!”, they discredit themselves even as they distance themselves from the PCV. They also set aside the complicated motivators both for altruism in general and for joining the Peace Corps (which are often as much about debt, career-building, or adventure as changing the world).

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It’s necessary for a PCV to tough out adverse circumstances and adapt to the unpredictable. But while toughness is a necessary quality, I wouldn’t call it laudable. A determination to “be strong” in the face of anything can lead to self-destruction as easily as triumph.

When people ask me for advice before joining the Peace Corps, I tell them to figure out their dealbreakers. At what point are they willing to quit? This is not to figure out if they’re “tough” enough for Peace Corps. Rather the opposite — to get them to think about what Peace Corps is worth to them.

The worst way to spend two years is one you’ll look back on in regret. To stay in a stagnant or toxic situation because “you’re strong enough” or “you’ve made a commitment” is a terrible waste of mortal life. Why not move on to somewhere you can both enjoy and value your actions?

I’ve watched people go home in the last two years, some of them close friends. I’ve always empathized with their decision to go. I would never, ever shame someone or look down on them for choosing to end their service early; they have probably faced dilemmas I can’t imagine.

But faced with a good few personal nightmares, I’ve stayed. I wouldn’t attribute it to toughness per se, or even to sunk cost fallacy. If at some point in my service I had felt I was neither contributing to my community nor growing as a person, or if my unhappiness outweighed the pull of that growth, I would have gone home. My usefulness at school and in town has fluctuated, but I’ve never stopped learning. So here I am.

So, applicants and future PCVs alike: What is this experience worth to you?

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[1] Note that I do neither of these things; I live in a nice new apartment with excellent utilities and very little furniture.

Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.

Wrap-up: TEFL and Mongolia

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service and the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a volunteer organization. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’m not big on secondary school TEFL as a “service” project.

For those who engage in international business or diplomacy, study abroad, or deal with tourists, English is a necessity. In countries without an English speaking environment, students usually develop their skill in a test prep or English for Special Purposes course. In a secondary school setting, though? Not much different from the Spanish you took in high school. Useful in many parts of the world, but not yours. Advantageous if you have it, but not necessary[2] unless you plan to travel abroad or work with foreigners.

And then there’s the issue of “native” speaking. The native speaker occupies a privileged space in countries that have low English fluency and/or idealize Anglophone cultures. Native speakers may be offered higher salaries and even hired in place of local teachers — even though local teachers may have greater experience and better understand the challenges of classroom English. The effortlessness of native speaking is sometimes equated with a thorough knowledge of English grammar.

The presence of a native speaker aids students in picking up the accent, intonation, and idioms of privileged dialects of English. But native speaking does not guarantee good teaching. A good teacher is a good teacher, and a fluent speaker is a fluent speaker, even if their accent marks them as non-native[1]. Native speakers should be adjunct to, not replacement for, local teachers, and only then when the local teachers have relatively low fluency and few opportunities to encounter native English.

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The Peace Corps’ Education sector comprises 40% of total projects. There are some programs for literacy specialists and other subject teachers; but TEFL is by far the largest program in the sector[3].

In the big picture, a population that speaks fluent English — the international lingua franca — gives any nation a diplomatic and economic boost. Citizens who speak it can travel to almost any country for business, study, and cross-cultural experience. Thus there is high demand for top-notch TEFL programs — and one of the components of a good TEFL program is fluent, if not native, English speakers.

The Peace Corps provides according to host country demand. Therefore, the host country can ask for education volunteers. The Peace Corps is comprised of native and/or fluent English-speaking citizens. Therefore, TEFL volunteers can provide for one major perceived[1] insufficiency of host country teachers — fluency — regardless of their professional background.

As a result, TEFL acts as a funnel for marginally-qualified volunteers with few U.S. work prospects (read: liberal arts grads) and insufficient experience for the other sectors[4]. The qualifications listed for TEFL volunteers on many program openings? “A Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree in any discipline and a strong desire to teach English.” No previous teaching experience required.

Some programs do require higher qualifications. And in 2015 Peace Corps launched several pre-service training programs that end in TEFL certification. But Peace Corps Mongolia, for instance, does not certify its volunteers, and requires only 30 hours of previous (language-related) teaching or tutoring experience.

The PC/Mongolia TEFL training when I took it was adequate to orient trainees toward teaching, and helped to prepare us for Mongolian classroom norms, but did not put us on equal footing with our experienced Mongolian colleagues[5]. Nor did it have any pretensions of doing so: the goal was to get us established enough to function in a classroom co-teaching with host country professionals, stuffing as much knowledge about teaching as possible into the heads of the less-experienced while slightly underserving those with an education background. It was sufficient but did not prepare us to excel.

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Like most development agencies, the Peace Corps is big on sustainability — establishing projects that will continue to benefit communities after the volunteers leave — and capacity-building — helping people to help themselves instead of just throwing resources at a problem.

The problem with the “native speaker” teacher is that their particular gifts — their accent and the opportunity for immersion they provide — end when they leave the room. Language is simply a vehicle for communication. The brain picks up language as it is used, and discards it when it is not useful. If teachers aren’t speaking English in the classroom, the students will not retain what they learn; if they make major errors[1] when they do speak, students will build those into their language. And just as a person who moves overseas merges their original accent with the local one, a student who studies with a volunteer for just a few years will eventually shift from the volunteer’s English to their community’s version of it.

To build in a sustainable element, then, Peace Corps Mongolia asks volunteers not simply to run speaking classes and clubs, but to improve Mongolian English teachers’ methodology through co-planning and co-teaching. There is room for improvement in Mongolian education: it is moving slowly away from the Soviet model, but the road to a greater variety of techniques is long, badly paved, and sometimes deep with potholes. The old dirt road of rote memorization did better by some students — didn’t get you as far as fast, but teachers were equipped to navigate it with fewer crash collisions. And for PCVs, with the contrast of their own educational background, the pitfalls are easy to see.

But again: It’s one matter to know a thing, and another entirely to teach it. Our PST was pretty strictly TEFL-oriented, with some introduction to the structure of the Mongolian school system, available materials, and work culture. We learned basic methodology in order to use it, not to teach it. For some PCVs (e.g. in small village schools where the whole two years are spent introducing lesson planning) this is sufficient. For me, third volunteer in a high-achieving school with twelve experienced co-teachers? They need help with curriculum building, long-range planning, and the role of consistency in a classroom, and they have to outfox their system to do it. I wasn’t equipped to help with that.

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The Mongolian education system is tied closely to the government, which issues textbooks, curricula, and national exams. The Mongolian government operates on a party system, with the Parliament as the dominant political power and parliamentary elections every four years. When the party changes, new textbooks and curriculum guidelines are often issued. Public school teachers are expected to submit lesson plans following these guidelines to their school’s training manager (vice-principal).

A regularly changing curriculum creates redundancies and gaps in student knowledge as kids progress through the school system. If past tense lessons are moved back from 8th to 7th grade, for example, newly-minted eighth graders will be bewildered by the present perfect. And teachers scrambling to keep up with and understand the new curriculum aren’t well-placed to design extensive review, especially if they don’t obtain textbooks until after the semester begins.

Add to this the challenge of a Mongolian sense of time: you don’t worry about a thing until it needs to be done, and then you scramble to get it together immediately beforehand. I’ve been amazed by how often things come together this way (albeit hours or weeks late), but when you look at a textbook page the evening before a lesson and see it’s too challenging, or predicated on a topic students haven’t learned, or should come after a lesson that’s supposed to happen next year…well, lessons aren’t always stellar, and the gaps keep popping up.

So a student graduates high school, and her English is shaky but she does well enough to earn a spot in an English teaching program. There, she learns from teachers who face the same challenge as her: they learned to teach limited English from teachers who had limited resources and knew only traditional, rote methods. Her English remains limited, and she learns limited methodology, and she goes on to teach students with her limited English from limited resources…

PCVs are meant to intervene at the secondary school level, working within a Mongolian time framework: suggest new innovations to a lesson plan a day or two in advance; co-teach lessons, demonstrating those innovations; and work toward a feedback position as teachers incorporate the innovations into their everyday teaching. This helps teachers improve their lessons within the system — and, being that the Peace Corps is a “grassroots” organization, is perhaps the best it can manage — but it doesn’t break the cycle that caused the problem in the first place. Students who go on to university will not learn the methodology their teachers used unless their university teachers worked with foreigners, and the competitive work culture in Mongolia limits the horizontal transmission of methodology and technique.

The ideal place for development workers to be, really, is in the universities, working with future teachers on methodology, and in the government, working on curriculum and textbook development. But the Peace Corps isn’t organized to work top-down, and the Mongolian government is focused on getting PCVs into secondary schools rather than universities; so the benefit TEFL PCVs can provide may be restricted at best.

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All this said: the Peace Corps measures its success by the individual. The individual person, the individual community, the individual Volunteer — the idea is that if you can impact one person, then you’ve done your job.

I know I’ve influenced a fair handful of people here — kids and teachers both. On the one hand, this suggests that the last two years have not been wasted; helping someone is better than helping no one, and even in adverse circumstances teaching is more beneficial to society than a desk job interchangeable with a reasonably advanced computer program. I’ve never stopped learning, I’ve built a lot of relationships, and I’ve done a fair bit of mentoring (which is far more important than subject teaching). On the other hand, there are a lot of places and a lot of ways to help people. I am content that Peace Corps TEFL seemed my best option at the time; however, my dissatisfaction with the work I’ve done and the support I’ve received from my organization suggests that it wasn’t an ideal fit for me.

For potential TEFL applicants: while the ethical questions of inexperienced “native” teachers are the same across the board, TEFL programs in the Peace Corps vary widely. If your qualifications are limited, I would recommend applying for programs that result in TEFL certification. Failing that — or if your qualifications are already more than sufficient — I would research the training structure and office climate of the programs you’re interested in, ideally by contacting current or recently returned PCVs.

For potential Mongolia applicants: the culture here is pretty cool, but it’s also really challenging for your work situation. Are you looking more for a cultural experience or more for hands-on development work? I don’t really recommend the TEFL program if you want to influence more than a handful of teachers and students or do concrete needs-based projects. There is a new education/youth development program being established, but as it’s brand-new this year I can’t comment on its design or effectiveness. There is also a lot to consider about life in Mongolia in general: travel is pretty rough, which means it could be difficult for staff to get out to where you live and understand your situation; and the Mongolian sense of time and urgency persists in the office, which means that emergency response is excellent but day-to-day problems are sometimes left in the PCV’s hands as minor or unsolvable.

But I can’t really comment, at large, on either Mongolian culture or the staff at my post — because I am one of the volunteers that ended up very far away, and in a very different cultural milieu.

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[1] There are legions of side discussions here about language ownership, “nativeness” vs. fluency, and the status implications of being white and fluent in English in Asia. I won’t get into it here, but here are some articles for the interested.
[2] Obviously the analogy breaks down once the student does want to work or study abroad, as English is more extensive than Spanish as a lingua franca.
[3] about 30/51 of the current openings, as of the writing of this post, are TEFL-related.
[4] I fall quite neatly into this category and am criticizing myself as well as the program in general. Which is not to say I’d decide differently if I went back in time: but I do wish Peace Corps had required more of me before accepting my application.
[5] A common complaint I’ve heard from Mongolians, paralleling PCVs’ own securities, is that their volunteer’s profession is not English teaching. However, it should be noted that Mongolians have a different concept of ‘professions’ than Americans — where an American is a plumber when s/he takes up a job in plumbing, a teacher when s/he begins teaching, and an author when s/he publishes a book, a Mongolian who studied English teaching in college is an English teacher even if s/he never gets a job in the field. So the complaint is specifically about a lack of applicable university degree and the status given thereby, not about ineffectiveness at work per se. Even so I’ve heard it often enough that it seems to merit mentioning.

Wrap-up: Peace Corps and service

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In the previous post I discussed my personal commitment to ethical service, and introduced the Peace Corps for the unfamiliar. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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U.S. Volunteer Agency

As a companion to this section, here is a head-on-the-nail critique of some pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a development agency. It’s about six years old, but the issues persist.

The U.S. Peace Corps is authorized by Congress and funded through taxes; it is a United States government agency. This means that — while it prides itself on being apolitical at the individual level — it is established and organized through diplomatic exchanges between government employees.

Before a country hosts any Peace Corps Volunteers, its government must agree with the U.S. government to establish a new Peace Corps post. Individual sector programs (e.g. TEFL, health, agriculture) are determined upon by the country director, following advisement by a Project Advisory Council made up of PCV representatives and community counterparts, in partnership with sector representatives from the host government. Basically: the program must satisfy the expressed needs of the host country via their government, its needs and opportunities as perceived by PCVs, and the stated mission of Peace Corps.

If this can be done successfully, the post will receive funds to pay the local-level salaries of its volunteers, as well as a complete set of permanent staff — including administrative, financial, and technical program-related units; management; on-call doctors; a safety and security team; and support units such as drivers — and employees hired seasonally for language and technical training. While the resulting number is tiny in terms of the overall U.S. budget[1], it is significantly larger than what most volunteer organizations can muster.

Note that the U.S. government, as founder and funder, is hardly a disinterested party. Rather — insofar as any government is designed to protect, organize, and promote the welfare of its citizens and to manage relations with other governments — it[2] is acutely self-interested. It sends citizens overseas, rather than keep them home to benefit the U.S. economy, and provides aid to another country at its own cost. And it swears up and down that its interest is strictly humanitarian, so it cannot derive direct political benefits from the effort — although it hopes to gain indirect benefits from the positive image a volunteer program can create. It looks for instead to garner citizens better suited for its work force, materially in terms of training and work experience, intangibly in terms of the patience, flexibility, communicative ability, and widened worldview that come with adapting to a foreign environment.

A good portion of my generation falls into employment limbo after graduating from college: our Bachelors aren’t helpful, either because they’re not of a practical persuasion or because potential employers are searching for candidates with a Masters and work experience, but lower-qualification employers assume (rightly) that we’ll skip out at the first better offer. Where better for us to go than abroad in an explicitly temporary program, in which qualification requirements are defined by our government and we can earn the experience necessary to be gainfully employed when we return home?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a useful system and I’ve benefited from it. But the benefit comes at risk of undermining the program’s development value and creating an uneven balance between its roles as volunteer aid and means of cultural exchange [3]. One of the more common concerns voiced during my pre-service training? “I’ve never taught before.” In what way does someone who has no teacher training or experience, whose degree is entirely unrelated to education, qualify as a “professional” in the education sector? Three months of training is all well and good, but does it really match PCVs to the level of their host country counterparts? Sometimes it seems PCVs’ most significant contributions are ingenuity and a differing cultural lens — which, while valuable, do not a professional make, and carry uncomfortable suggestions about host country nationals’ own ingenuity and cultural integrity.

However, I can’t speak conclusively on the subject from personal experience. Another advantage of the Peace Corps is its fluidity: its members and staff transition constantly, and its programs and methods are under frequent redesign. There’s something to be said for those feedback mechanisms. I’m told that the majority of this year’s PC/Mongolia trainees have an education degree, TEFL or state teacher certification, or classroom experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the revamp of the application process — which has been shortened somewhat and made more concrete, to the benefit of those with less temporal flexibility than a fresh college graduate — or because of complaints voiced by training staff and self-identified underqualified PCVs, but it suggests to me that the Peace Corps can be made aware of and limit (if not entirely rectify) its vulnerabilities.

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Peace Corps and Cultural Exchange

Whatever my reservations on the technical side of things, I would be hard-pressed to name a better medium of cultural exchange than the Peace Corps[4]. Fully half of our training program was oriented toward understanding the language and cultural norms of our host country, and from the beginning the expectation was set that volunteers adapt, with their community’s assistance, to life as locals live it.

The Peace Corps’ initial language and cultural training is fully immersive and structured toward rapid, practical acquisition. Trainees live with a host family, eat with them, and are taught the chores and customs they’ll need at site. Four hours a day they go to language class, which takes place almost entirely in the host language and is focused on practical tasks: introductions and small talk; shopping for food and clothes; asking for and giving directions; and so on. Trainees are taken out into the community to practice these tasks, and non-English-speaking community members are brought into class for real life conversation. Having experienced this framework, I doubt I’ll be satisfied learning a language in a more standard classroom setting; I learn more effectively through self-created tasks and immersion.

Following this training, I felt well-prepared to dive into local life. My counterpart teachers, briefed by the Peace Corps and previous experience, met me prepared to open their homes to me and show me their everyday lives. I, meanwhile, had been warned about[5] major cultural differences — both work and personal — and knew that the expectation was for me to engage with these differences, not distance myself as a foreigner. This has allowed me to build close friendships throughout my community, with people I’ll miss very much, and experience their home life and traditions.

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The fundamental question remains, then: Should you join the Peace Corps?

As far as principles of service go: the Peace Corps does not, in its present incarnation, do harm to the communities it engages with. If its effectiveness and ethical clarity is hampered by diplomatic interests, it is also staffed by people aware of the intricacies of development service who do the best they can at their jobs. PCVs are taught the basics of ethical volunteer service and each country post does its honest best to prepare them for their work.

Is it the most effective, valuable volunteer work you could do? Probably not. As an organization it is hampered by its own hugeness and versatility; volunteers end up in sites that have no use for them, or that are actively disinterested in their stated work. Volunteers are accepted based on demand from the host government and Peace Corps post, which means that some are underqualified or would be of better fit in a different sector. The organization itself takes a generalist “grassroots” approach, putting the burden on the volunteer to determine what most needs to be done at their site. This slows down the actual work, as volunteers spend six months to a year just getting their bearings and finding projects.

But all of this is not to say the experience is without value — although I continue to question whether it is as valuable to the host country as it is to individual volunteers. Many volunteers carry out successful projects (whether a teaching stint, a summer camp, a fulfilled grant, or something more concrete) and all of them return home with cross-cultural and professional experience for their resume. It’s good training for development work, if not the most effective development work itself, and opens doors for future aid workers and teachers to do more good in the future.

Keeping in mind all of the above, and assuming you’ve laid to rest any practical or ethical qualms raised therein, I would ask you three questions.

What do you hope to achieve? If nothing else, the Peace Corps is good at implanting one reality of development work: You aren’t going to change the world in two years. Your community will not undergo a complete overhaul during your service. Your most cherished projects may be entirely unappealing to the counterparts you find, or unsuitable to your community. What, then, are you willing to settle for? What is the minimum you will be content with? And what beyond that is most important to you?

What motivates you? Peace Corps service is not easy. At some point you will — maybe rightfully — question whether it’s a valuable use of your time and skills (or, conversely, whether you are valuable to your community). You’d better know ahead of time why you’re doing it, whether that’s concrete — loan forgiveness, practical experience, the lump sum at the end of the job — or less tangible — altruism, learning about a new culture, building relationships across the world. And you’d better be sure that your motivators continue to match up to, and make worthwhile, the work you’re doing.

What are your dealbreakers? I’ve missed a wedding, a birth, two college graduations, and a whole bunch of birthday and holiday celebrations. I’ve struggled with a sense of ineffectiveness at work. I’ve had mental and physical health issues. Some people have lost family members and been unable to get permission (or finances) to attend the funeral[6]. Others have gone home due to health problems, untenable work situations, or safety issues at their site. You have a right to draw the line and leave the Peace Corps without shame when the costs mount, but it’s good to know ahead of time where that line lies.

I question aspects of my time and experiences in the Peace Corps, but I don’t regret my decision to join. I would encourage you to do your research and be certain where you stand before you apply, but I would not caution you against doing so.

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[1] Last year $410 million out of almost $4 trillion.
[2] Note that I’m not speaking here of any particular individual or organ of the many bureaucracies that have put the Peace Corps into place: when I speak of ‘the government’, I’m talking about the aggregate of decisions made by a huge body of people who range from altruistic and highly informed to actively disinterested, whose opinions often clash, sometimes irreconcilably, and who are necessarily influenced by the people who vote for them, or pay them, or fire them.
[3] This is especially true for TEFL, which has acted as something of a catch-all for less-qualified applicants. I’ll get into this further in the next post.
[4] Insert mandatory line griping about the lack of Kazakh training for people going to Kazakh sites, which may or may not ever be rectified.
[5] And would have experienced firsthand, if I had been going to a Mongolian site or lived with a Kazakh host family.
[6] Peace Corps only grants emergency live in case of the loss or illness of immediate family — so grandparents, aunts, and uncles don’t count.