The Peace Corps Lottery
This year, Obama’s words and actions have inspired many people to serve their country. Every day a new article appears in the press about the surge in Peace Corps applications. But given budget constraints and the nomination system, who gets in and who doesn’t is a bit of a lottery. And not just because the applicant rolls are swelling.
Peace Corps’s funding has been challenged in recent years due to the falling value of the dollar and rising expenses — so fewer Volunteers are invited. And the qualifications for Peace Corps assignments are narrowly drawn. The net effect is that “generalists” — well-educated people who could learn to do many things effectively — compete against each other for fewer and fewer Volunteer positions while demand for Volunteers is growing around the world.
Peace Corps assignments each have their own very specific qualifications attached. For any given assignment it’s all spelled out — the degree you need, level of language proficiency in specific foreign languages, amount of time in relevant volunteer or professional experience. The requirements are there because host countries invite Peace Corps, determine the mission of the program there, and request specific skill sets among incoming Volunteers.
In the past, if you were an accomplished college grad with varied volunteer experience and few medical complications, your chances of getting into the Peace Corps were solid and fair. You could vie for one of a few generalist assignments — Community Development, Health Extension, or English Teaching, for example. Once in-country you’d be trained with all the specific skills you’d need to complete your service effectively.
Problem is, Peace Corps wants to place all of its talented generalists in these same assignments. That’s because the qualifications are broad: its nominees must have a Bachelor’s degree in any discipline, and three to six months volunteer experience. For a Community Development assignment, you could volunteer in any field to qualify. Or you could volunteer for three to six months in a specific field, like health — educating people about HIV/AIDS prevention, for example — to qualify for a Health Extension assignment; or English-language education — tutoring recent immigrants in English language — to qualify for an English-teaching assignment overseas.
The reason getting an invitation to Peace Corps becomes such a problem now is the way the nomination process works. If you aren’t familiar, it may help to know that after you apply and interview, you can get nominated to join the Peace Corps from your local recruiting office. Then your application travels to the headquarters office in Washington, D.C., where your placement officer considers whether you are a good program fit for a specific country assignment, and invites you. (In the mean time you undergo a medical and dental examination to be deemed physically fit to serve in a developing country where medical care isn’t always on par with that of the United States.)
Sounds easy, right? Well the problem is that Peace Corps regional recruitment offices throughout the country race against each other once, quarterly to get all their applicants nominated through an online system—and because the number of applicants has far outnumbered the openings, within 15 minutes of opening the online process, one day every three months, the generalist slots all get taken up.
If generalist positions made a small percentage of Peace Corps openings, the problem wouldn’t be so dire. But generalist positions make up about half of openings. Not only that, but the generalist contribution to Peace Corps is important. The power of the Peace Corps is that it not only provides needed technical assistance to developing countries, but it also transforms people who don’t necessary have a lot of prior international or development experience, who may otherwise never have the opportunity to live oversesas for that length of time, and to learn another language.
If you wanted to leave for Peace Corps in the summer of 2010, and applied in March 2009 (the current recommended 13 months ahead of time), for example, you may not even make it into the online nomination system this May. Not because of something you wrote in your application. But simply because on nomination day, your file is sitting underneath a stack of other great applications. By the time your recruiter reaches for your file, she sees that the generalist nomination slots have all been filled — by applicants all over the country, whose recruiters at other regional offices have also been typing furiously to get their applicants into the system.
The process doesn’t reward the applicants who are the best-qualified generalists in the pool. It’s a numbers game, a game of speed — can your local recruiter type in all of her applicants sooner than a recruiter sitting in a Peace Corps regional recruitment office in another city? Unless your recruiter pulls some strings for you (at the expense of other applicants), it would be a roll of the dice whether you’d get in.
Before the recent funding woes, this same nomination system worked much better — there were enough spots available for all qualified applicants. The new scarcity of Volunteer openings and the recent onslaught of applications has made the system impractical.
Hearing the disappointing news that you haven’t gotten nominated, you can choose to stick around and hope for better luck next quarter. But then it might be Thanksgiving 2010 before you ship out for your assignment.
To make yourself more marketable to Peace Corps, you could also work on your Spanish (they are looking for people with intermediate-level Spanish), or you could take a year of French. And if you have made a good impression as an applicant, instead of applying as a generalist, your regional recruiter may be inspired to write something called an “almost match” letter of appeal on your behalf. An “almost match” means that your qualifications come close to those required by another assignment, but they don’t meet the letter of the law. So if your degree isn’t exactly right, and your experience isn’t exactly relevant, you could compete for other assignments against other specialists, rather than all of the generalists.
Before his election, Obama called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps, which would offer more qualified U.S. citizens a chance to serve overseas in a life-changing two years, among communities who value the skills the Volunteers bring with them. He and Michelle Obama have inspired countless Americans of all ages to serve locally and abroad. What’s sad is that for many people ready to enter the Peace Corps application pipeline, that opportunity’s just not going to be there. And his budget, sadly, doesn’t do anything to change that.
So as to avoid ending on such a sad note, let’s say you could make it into the online nominating system. You’d still be competing with all the other nominees for even fewer invitation slots since more people are nominated than can be invited.
While waiting for your invitation to come through, it behooves you to keep volunteering and practicing your foreign language skills so, when you check in with your placement officer at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, you can let them know you’ve been working hard and deserve to serve your country as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If you can show you’ve been working harder than the other nominees, you might just have a chance of squeaking in.
If you are considering applying to Peace Corps, don’t let the complications detailed here prevent you from trying. Contact your local recruiting office and talk with a recruiter about your specific skill sets. Ask the recruiter to recommend what you need to do to make yourself more competitive. Recruiters are genuinely willing to provide that kind of personalized attention. The phone number to reach all Peace Corps offices is 800-424-8580 — follow the instructions to dial through to your regional office.
Peace Corps is a two-year international service experience for U.S. citizens and one of the best opportunities the U.S. government offers its citizens. Assignments vary widely. Volunteers earn a living allowance and receive comprehensive medical care, technical and language training, and two-way air travel. To learn about other international service and volunteering opportunities, check out the Corps and Coalitions list on the right-hand side bar of this blog.