Your Service Networks Really Can Help with Your Career Transition

A story about how networking during Peace Corps reaped rewards after my service term ended.

I’d been back in Atlanta for six months, living off of my $5,075 Peace Corps readjustment allowance—at my parent’s house, of course—and also the pocket change I made working at an amphitheatre during the 1996 Olympics, and a very unpleasant week as a temp (who knew you needed office skills to work in an office?), before I scored my first job interview. It was for a Program Assistant position at an education non-profit in Atlanta.

I had never worked for a non-profit before and I would never have looked in that direction had it not been for connections I’d made while in Guinea.

I’d met Charles soon after arriving in Guinea two years earlier. He worked for USAID and lived in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city. A former Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), he understood the travails of volunteer life, so he let PCVs house sit whenever his work took him elsewhere.

For two years, I’d lived in a small village roughly seven hours north of Conakry. Although my house was only 15 kilometers off the main road, it took an hour — via bush taxi or on my Trek mountain bike (that road was so bad, the mode of transportation meant very little) — to travel the long, bumpy, utterly unforgiving dirt road to get there.

Even though I didn’t have electricity or running water, I did have an indoor latrine with a nice tile finish. Very big deal!

And as much as I loved my abode (I really did), I relished the opportunity to house sit for Charles from time to time, who had things I could neither find nor afford upcountry — like electricity, running water, a bath tub, TV, VCR, an excellent VHS movie library (it was 1994), a killer music library with accompanying sound system, Oreos, Duncan Hines brownie mix and Haagen Dazs ice cream which sold for $9 a pint in Conakry. Go figure! Haagen Dazs is not that expensive in D.C. in 2009.

After I completed my service, I informed Charles that I was back in Atlanta job hunting, so he gave me his friend DeShawn’s number. They had met when DeShawn was an IFESH Fellow in Guinea. I called DeShawn, who in turn told me about that opening at the education nonprofit — where she was then working.

You get the picture. Without even trying, a connection I had made in Guinea helped me land a job back home. That’s networking 101. The cherry on top is that during the job interview my future employer remarked that my Peace Corps experience was clearly an asset.

Here’s how it happened:

My future employer asked, “What was your college GPA?”

It’s not on my resume for a reason, dude. I took a deep breath, smiled and said, “Blah, point blah.”

He wasn’t impressed, nor should he have been.

He asked a few more questions before turning his attention to my resume. Then he looked at me and asked, “You lived in Africa?” I responded with a simple, “Yes.” He brightened up and said, “If you lived Africa, you can do anything.”

Yes I Can!

During our conversation about my Peace Corps experience, he revealed that he was an Afrikaner (South Africa), hence his appreciation for my time in Africa.  And the job was mine.

A few years later, I was told that my Peace Corps experience tipped the scales in my favor for admission into my graduate school of choice.

National service affords Americans countless opportunities to make a difference. Your service experience benefits those you serve but has an even greater impact on you. During a term of service while you’re mentoring/tutoring youth, building a trail in a state park, teaching in a 5th grade class, or providing disaster relief, you are also developing both hard and soft skill sets that will enhance any organization or graduate program, but it’s up to you to effectively translate your experience and sell your enhanced self.

I was fortunate that both my future employer and my graduate admissions officer made the connection between my Peace Corps experience and the impact I could have in the workplace and in a graduate school program.  However, not all employers/grad school counselors or service experiences are created equal.

Thinking of Amy’s post from April 1st on how to list your service experience on your resume, I have some thoughts to add. If you are going to list specific projects on your resume, make sure they clearly demonstrate an accomplishment or a transferable work skill — and something the hiring manager is asking for.

For example, in my resume I specify that I wrote a grant and secured funding to build a primary school, worked with the community to secure matching funds, hired builders and supervised them in three different languages—Pular, Creole English and French—and completed my school on time and in the black.  Okay, I don’t say it exactly like that but you get the point.

I completed several projects as a PCV, but building the primary school clearly demonstrates project management skills—I can write an effective grant, supervise, manage a budget, work with others, speak other languages and even speak across cultures (cross cultural competency).

Likewise, although not stated, I had to employ team building, problem solving, conflict management skills; employers and graduate schools are looking for these skills too.

Again, that was a pretty clear cut example. Not all service experiences translate that easily but that doesn’t mean they don’t translate. Hopefully your service program will help you translate your experience. If not, don’t be afraid to ask others you know who have served. I had several people review my resume before it was ready. Be prepared to both show and tell (resume and interview) what you did and how that experience has better equipped you, made you more competitive and can add to or benefit the graduate school and/or organization.

The moral of the story is whether your service is domestic or international, during your term of service you’re making connections among those with whom you serve, those you serve, and others who can all be a resource for you (and vice versa) for years to come.

At the same, you’re gaining valuable transferable work skills that are attractive to both employers and graduate schools and can open doors for you, if you can translate it and sell it.

BTW—I saw Charles about two years ago and he didn’t even recognize me. Incredulous, I persisted and just when I thought I had sufficiently jogged his memory, he asked me if my name was Kelly. So, I didn’t do the best job of staying in touch.  But that was years ago.  Now you have FaceBook—a virtual rolodex, so there are no excuses.

Happy Serving!

Read more about translating your service experience during an interview.

For more about building relationships for your own career development, check out Chapter Four of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers. Also look for tips specific to service corps members in the upcoming Service Corps Companion to the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this summer.

Also, the Peace Corps readjustment allowance has increased — PCVs completing service today earn over $6,ooo.

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One thought on “Your Service Networks Really Can Help with Your Career Transition

  1. Pingback: Seeking Opportunities to Be the Minority, to Connect, and to Serve « The New Service

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