How to Join the Peace Corps, Move to Africa, & Find Your Passion

by gigigriffis

This is part of my new interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)


Tell us a little about yourself.

I am Hayley and I enjoy the challenge of finding the fun and the funny in everything (EVERYthing). If it’s not possible, then I try to learn something anyway. I am from Littleton, Colorado and am currently 28, though served in the Peace Corps from age 23 – 26 (2009 – 2012). Prior to that, I lived a pretty standard (and privileged, I will add) life of school, family, college, work. That is still largely how I live now after the Peace Corps, but with a jolt of purpose and a wee gleam in my eye as I ponder what my future will look like…

When did you start traveling and what made you fall in love with it?

I went to college in North Carolina (from Colorado, which was a cross-cultural experience in itself!) and studied abroad for a semester in Namibia and parts of South Africa. It was the scariest thing I’d ever done and about a week before I left I thought of about four different desperate ways to wriggle my way out of the trip. Luckily I shut myself up, embraced the fear, and had one of the best times of my whole life.

After that, I was history. Driving through hours of beautiful desert, catapulting myself down sand dunes, jogging between fur seals on the haunting Skeleton Coast, exploring remote villages, stumbling upon weird and forgotten museums, learning new languages, riding in the back of pick-up trucks through sunny farms, and staring into big home-cooked pots of solid black cow intestines knowing that…oh geez…I have to eat the whole thing…I loved every minute of it.

If I had to pick one thing that made me fall in love with traveling, it’s the big picture moments you get when you realize how tiny you are and how insignificant…just like everyone else. We all belong here, but we all know very little and you have a right to be and explore. Also, when you’re traveling, you meet other people who blow your mind away with their humor and humanity. You say, oh yes, I remember, these are the people I want to surround myself with!

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What inspired you to join the Peace Corps?

After Namibia, I was a goner. I had to get back to Africa and it had to be for longer. They say Africa can get under your skin and I always thought this was a cliché or an idealized generalization of a continent. Now I think there’s some truth to it; there’s something wild there, and free, and some geographical and psychological space for breathing. I had a lot more to see and understand there.

I’d always heard of the Peace Corps, usually as a joke in a movie or random ads in magazines. I’m so glad that the idea of it was tickling my brain. I visited a Peace Corps recruiter on my campus and attended an event for returned volunteers to hear their stories and feel them out (are these people nuts, or what?). You know, sometimes you can just tell when people are YOUR people. I remember waiting in line for food and turning around to ask the man behind me, 60+ years old, where he’d served and if he’d enjoyed it. He looked me square in the eye and told me “it is the best and the hardest thing I have ever done. I have had a lot of professional success in the last 40 years, but Peace Corps was the BEST job I’ve ever had. Are you thinking about it? Do it.”

That’s a pretty glowing recommendation. I have to say I agree with him now.

Where did you end up going and for how long—and was that where you expected to go?

I ended up going to Uganda, in East Africa. Peace Corps service is 27 months (three months of training + two years of service), but I ended up extending my service by six months, so mine was nearly three years.

Peace Corps doesn’t let you pick where you go, though if you have very specific skills, perhaps you get a say. I’m no water engineer or IT expert, so I was open to anything. You do get the opportunity to rank countries or, more likely, regions where you’d like to go. I didn’t want to risk losing Africa so I put it as my top choice. I don’t even remember the others to be honest, but I would have gone. I’d learned my lesson about embracing adventure and discovering unexpected things. When I was assigned Uganda, at first I was disappointed that it wasn’t in southern Africa, which was all I knew. Now, I am beyond thankful for my assignment.

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What’s the process of joining the Peace Corps like?

Long. This is unfortunate, but we often joked that perhaps they keep the process long and tedious to weed out people who are not serious about it. After all, if you can’t wade through some government paperwork and tolerate a few months without hearing anything, you’ll have a hard time powering through a new language in three months and waiting three hours in the bush while your taxi driver fixes a flat with toothpaste and pantyhose. For me and those I know, I’d say the process took around a year.

This starts with a paper application which includes a resume, essays, and references as well as proof of medical and dental health. The Peace Corps is looking for your personality, your flexible attitude, your experience working with diverse populations, and your volunteer experience as well as any particular skills you have. All ages can serve (over 18, with a college degree) and many countries can accommodate certain stable medical conditions, so don’t let this discourage you. You can also serve as a married couple if you have been married for at least a year.

Then there is an interview stage. Based on your interview, interests, and open programs, the interviewer may recommend you for a specific program in a specific country. Most won’t share that information with you, but they will tell you within a few days if you have or have not been recommended for a position at all. Within weeks to several months (varies widely), if you are accepted for the program you’re recommended for, you will receive an enigmatic phone call and an express mailed package with your welcome packet and country/position information included a few days later. It is different for everyone, but I think the time between my interview and my welcome packet was about three months. The time between receiving my packet and getting on a plane was seven weeks—though for most people it was more like 8 – 12 weeks. Then you panic a little, celebrate a little, shop a little (Must. Buy. Chacos.), and board a plane!

How did you afford your stint in the Peace Corps? Do they cover all costs or did you have to pay for some things yourself?

Peace Corps pays for everything! Thank you, taxpayers. You pay for any costs related to the application process (health/dental exams) and Peace Corps pays for visas, plane tickets, and every cost in-country. During training you may stay on a compound or with a home-stay family. Once you move to your “site,” your local host organization (an NGO, school, hospital, etc.) typically pays for or donates your housing, while Peace Corps pays you a small but manageable monthly stipend. It’s a spectrum, of course. Some people still end up supplementing with money from home to travel or to live a little higher on the hog. Personally, despite frequent splurges on peanut butter and weekend safaris, I saved so much money from my stipend each month that I used the leftover to do a bit of traveling (to Rwanda and Tanzania/Zanzibar). Upon returning to the U.S. after your service, you get a “readjustment allowance,” with quite a big bonus if you extend your service like I did. It’s not huge (something like $7,000 – 9,000), but it gets you started and makes sure you’re not homeless!

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What were some of the greatest joys of your experience?

This is impossible to answer. My experience was incredibly joyful. Not all volunteers share my sentiments—so seek a balanced perspective.

I worked with beekeepers on the border of a national park, constructing living fences of beehives to protect subsistence farmlands from crop-raiding elephants.

I remember a sunny day of site visits to the beehives of several of our farmers, walking and riding through open fields that stretched on forever to check on the bees, taste the honey, and share experiences between people of different villages. There were many days spent laughing and learning with this group.

I remember traveling to some of the remotest villages in Uganda—fishing villages deep in the national park—to interview families about their health and income challenges. I distinctly remember interviewing one man next to his fishing boats while four male hippos clashed in the water a few hundred feet away—surreal!

I remember the rewards and the awe of working with high school girls as I trained them to be “peer leaders” in life skills lessons and football. We had real talks, bridging cultures, women to women.

I remember hours and hours of countless evenings spent sitting on a hard wooden bench in front of shops near my home with my neighbors, just talking about whatever topics, big or small, holding their babies, helping their customers.

I remember crying with happiness when I got to tell my best friend and Ugandan counterpart, Benjamin, that he won a fellowship that I had helped him apply for and he would get to travel abroad for the first time in his life.

Safaris and animals, crazy towns and market days, and wonderful times spent with other volunteers on weekends or holidays! Eye-popping scenery, heart-stopping moments of humanity, and lotsssssss of moments of personal development and good humor. Yes, there was a lot of joy.

What were the biggest challenges?

Peace Corps is a long experience that allows you to truly become a member of a community, which allows you to build trust.This makes for more meaningful work, but it takes time!

Personally, it took a year in Uganda before I felt that I had a valuable theme running through my service and that my efforts were making any kind of discernible impact, or that I felt valued. After a year, I had a network of local people who saw my commitment and understood my role. I knew the language much better, knew the area, could hold my ground more. That is when the real work began and the real fun as well—I had momentum and felt like a part of something very unique and special.

But a year of your life is a YEAR of your life. There were a lot of personal hard times where I questioned what I was doing and why. You experience the highest highs but the lowest lows, and I can’t ever imagine experiencing lower depths of loneliness than the ones I felt on a handful of occasions there.

Luckily, those times are few, there’s a great volunteer support network, you learn to stock up on chocolate bars from the city, and a good night’s sleep can heal most things. Then…something incredible happens to you the next day and you wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else in the world!

Plus, looking back, there is great value in trudging through these times and taking pride in the fact that you—only you—were able to pull yourself out of them. You discover a lot of personal strength. And PATIENCE. Goodness…the patience you have. And the appetite for bananas! So many bananas.

You’ll note I said nothing of pit latrines and power outages, parasites and public transport—like most travelers probably know, these cease being the “real” challenges after a few months.

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What tips do you have for others who want to join the Peace Corps?

DO IT. Just kidding…but really, you should probably do it.

My real tip is to assess yourself, assess your 5-year plan and how Peace Corps fits into it, assess your reasons for wanting to go. It is a big commitment and some people realize it’s not for them and they come home. There’s no shame in that, but it’s wasteful for everyone, including yourself. Better to evaluate your attitude early on. Talk to recently returned volunteers and hear their stories, imagine yourself in their position—does that sound fun to you? Ask them their biggest challenges—would you be able to deal with that?

How open are you to unadulterated NEWness, and people who are different than you, people who may treat you differently? This is an especially important question for women, who don’t enjoy the same freedoms in a lot of places where the Peace Corps goes.

How many hits can your ego take without breaking you? If you’re used to traveling, it is probably quite a few. So yes, my advice is to apply now, because it is a long process. In the meantime, talk to people, gather real expectations about what your service will look like and how that experience will help you in the future, explore your boundaries. If flexible or adaptable are words you can’t use to describe yourself, or you have permanently misplaced your sense of humor, Peace Corps may not be your best plan.

How has the experience changed you and what’s next in your life?

When you travel anywhere, you leave a bit of yourself in that place and you never come back the same, home is never the same.

In my case, I left a BIG piece of myself in Uganda and I am slowly working my way back there. The U.S. does not feel like where I am supposed to be right now, but I cherish the opportunities here. Peace Corps is cool because you go to another country with an open mind and eager hands and you do the work that your community really wants or needs. I met a lot of well-intentioned foreigners in Uganda doing work according to their own mission or purpose, and I decided that when I return to East Africa, I will come bearing practical skills truly needed on the ground. I am currently halfway through a second degree in nursing and, after some experience, I hope to make my way back to Uganda in some form as a nurse, public health advocate, or instructor.

One thing Peace Corps teaches you is that you have a lot of agency in community work and, with a local network, you can get a lot accomplished. You can work in a place like Uganda from within the structure of a big NGO or a U.S. university project etc., but you certainly don’t need to. Opportunities are endless.

Craving more stories? Hayley’s old Uganda blog full of wonderful and hilarious stories.


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2 comments

Kathryn April 7, 2014 - 3:10 pm

Thanks! This was extremely interesting and a great perspective (even though I’m not a Peace Corp potential myself). It’s just brilliant to read about people who are doing something different and loving what they’re doing.

Thanks Gigi and Hayley for putting the time into such a inspiring post.

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gigigriffis April 8, 2014 - 3:42 am

:)

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