In Memorium, Ms. Zhan Yimei – a Peace Corps China Founder

picture-4The Peace Corps China community grieves the loss one of the program’s ground breakers, its longest-serving staff member, and a paragon of diplomacy, intercultural communication, and humanity.

Ms. Zhan Yimei passed away last night after a nearly two-year battle with lung cancer. She has been a hero to Peace Corps Volunteers in China since the program launched in 1993.

According to Peace Corps China’s founding country director Dr. Bill Speidel, Ms. Zhan “was an integral part” of Peace Corps China. He said, “I’m not sure whether Peace Corps China would have gone on without her, if she hadn’t been with us. She was a major element in the development of the program. She worked tirelessly,” spending many, many hours establishing and growing the program.

Dr. Speidel called her “one of the finest professionals I’ve worked with throughout my career. She was able to help us solve problems no one else could have. She was a wonderful bridge between our staff and the Chinese bureaucracy; she knew how to handle both. She was a fine interpreter even without preparation. A Jill of all trades who came in handy in so many ways beyond what any job description could capture.”

picture-71Dr. Speidel cited an example of when the staff experienced problems importing medical supplies for the new program. Ms. Zhan spent a long time negotiating with Chinese officials to make the arrangements possible. During my time in Peace Corps in the late 90’s, I witnessed countless such negotiations. Ms. Zhan could handle any conflict, it seemed, with staggering grace and effectiveness. She was one of the strongest and most even-keeled people I know. She fought doggedly for us, and we truly loved her.

Before joining the staff of Peace Corps China in the spring of 1993, she’d been a teacher in the department of foreign languages at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. Sichuan Normal was the original site of Peace Corps China headquarters, and where I was trained in 1998. The university made efforts to get her back to take on a high-ranking position among the administration. Dr. Speidel said, “We can all be grateful that she stayed on as long as she did; longer than 15 years.”

Ms. Zhan is survived by her husband Lin Ping, and her son Zhan Zilin.

Ms. Zhan, we will miss you.

The nonprofit organization Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of China is collecting donations to help her family cover medical bills left in her wake. For information on how to donate, please email me at amy[at]

This month’s The New Service podcast episode (due out mid-January) will feature an interview with current Peace Corps China country director Bonnie Thie. In that conversation — recorded in December — we talk more about Zhan Yimei and her role.

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RPCVs to March in Inaugural Parade

The National Peace Corps Association, the independent group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, has been invited to march in the 2009 Inaugural Parade.

RPCVs — specifically members of NPCA — are asked to read the details of what marching will entail before submitting a formal request to march. Marchers will be selected by random lottery. (The NPCA’s Peace Corps Polyglot blog warns interested RPCVs that the flags weigh in at 5 pounds, the day will be long, and the weather may be bad.)

200 RPCVs will represent Peace Corps host countries with flags during the event.

See details here! Deadline to put your name in the mix is Dec. 15.

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RPCVs ask Obama for More Peace Corps

Today the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) launches a petition to seek Peace Corps expansion under the new Obama administration.

The independent nonprofit group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers is asking supporters to sign a petition to advocate for the growth and strengthening of Peace Corps.

With the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the National Peace Corps Association and its MorePeaceCorps campaign has launched an on-line petition urging support for a bigger, better and bolder Peace Corps.  The petition is addressed to President-elect Obama, and will be presented to the Obama transition team.  We also plan to use the petition as a way of showing critical state and congressional district support during meetings in the coming months with Capitol Hill lawmakers. Take action right now, right here.

Read more about Obama’s pre-election stance on service corps programs.

Read more about the MorePeaceCorps campaign. Read Barack Obama’s letter to RPCVs in the fall 2008 issue of World View Magazine.

Barack Obama is arguably one of the most internationalist presidents in U.S. history, his father having come from Kenya; some of his elementary school years spent in Jakarta.

RPCV David Schweidenback pushes Pedals for Peace

Today Peace Corps Polyglot highlights the work of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer David Schweidenback and his innovative program that brings bikes to people who need them in the developing world.

Pedals for Progress takes bikes that would otherwise be discarded and ships them to developing countries where transportation on a bike often makes a huge difference in people’s lives.  Because many people in developing nations have to walk everywhere, their access to services, resources, and jobs is significantly hindered.  Simply owning a bike can provide people with the ability to get the things they need and work more effe ctively.  Since 1991, P4P has rescued over 115,000 bikes shipped them to impoverished people in 32 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

At Peace Corps’ 40th annivesary celebration at the JFK Library in Boston in 2001 I had a chance to meet Schweidenback. He was a really nice guy. His work was so impressive to me, because transportation makes such a huge difference in people’s lives.

A similar project that plays out at the local level here in Portland, OR, is the Community Cycling Center‘s Earn-a-Bike program, where donated bikes are refurbished, people with low-incomes apply to receive a bike, and recipients attend an orientation to bike commuting.

Career Tip, Document Your Service!

Saving facts and artifacts to share with hiring managers and grad admissions

Among the most important things you can do during your term of service is to keep records of your accomplishments now to share later, during job and admissions applications.

By “records” I mean everything from numbers to writing samples to screen shots of web sites you helped design to photographs of you or your clients in action.

The Facts of Your Service: Numbers

At the very least, keep track of your numbers. What the numbers are will depend on your type of service. Hours of training is a common one.

If you are a teacher, tutor, after-school coordinator, or trainer, keep track of numbers of students or participants; increase in grades and test scores from baseline assessments at the start of year; number of classroom volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

If you are a project developer, keep track of dollars you raised, community partnerships you developed, clients your program served, meetings you facilitated, volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

A great way to measure the impact of your service is not only to count your direct clients, but also the indirect clients of your service. Two examples: if you are an AmeriCorps member working with adult learners of English, look at the help you’ve offered the adults, as well as the benefit to their children, and the community. If you are an AmeriCorps*VISTA developing a volunteer program, count your volunteers, as well as the impact of their service.

When you are ready to transition, use at least some of the numbers in your resume and in anecdotes about the impact of your work! Numbers help a hiring manager or admissions committee put your resume into context and understand the impact of your work.

(See these chapters from the Guide to Nonprofit Careers about preparing your resume and for the job interview.)

The Artifacts of Your Service: Portfolios

One way to present the artifacts of your service is to create a portfolio — similar to a professional scrapbook — of your service term, with sections for each skill set you have built or employed.

The portfolio can start off with your position description and/or work plan, your resume, your Description of Service (for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), constructive performance evaluations, letters of recommendation, workshop evaluations, and thank-you notes or emails that describe the impact of your service from colleagues, community partners, and others.

Skill sets to include may be anything from trail and house building to grant writing, event planning, curricula development and teaching, program development, volunteer management, etc.

Mini-portfolios to leave behind

Rather than taking the whole portfolio to interviews with you, you can photocopy relevant sections and leave them behind at the interview, for the hiring manager or admissions counselor to look at in their own time.

I don’t recommend offering more than a few samples of your work, but I do recommend you wait till you are prompted to offer recommendation letters or reference contacts.

Online portfolios

Alternately, you can create an online portfolio like Beth Kanter — the guru of social media use for nonprofits — has done, through a tool like Wikispaces (public spaces are free). Include the link on your resume and cover letters with the rest of your contact information.

Online portfolios are especially useful if you’ve used multimedia to document your service. Linking to your audio or video podcast on iTunes or Youtube is easier if your portfolio is already online.

And a warning: Keep in mind that if you have designed web pages or developed web content, capturing the image of the web page through a screen shot is still the best route for documentation. Linking to the web pages is too risky. Once you have left your service site, you won’t know if your web pages will be updated, if links will have gone sour, or if your pages will have come down altogether. Because you have no control over the pages after you are gone, it’s best to preserve them visually through a screen shot rather than linking to them.

Writing samples

Writing samples are great to include in your portfolio.  A common question I get is what to use when you are asked for professional writing samples.

Depending on  your position this year, you should have a chance to collect a variety of these. Anything professional you’ve written should work — from grant proposals, brochures and newsletters, formal emails or letters, project descriptions, focus group or survey summary reports, web content, press releases, etc.

If you are in a direct-service role with few opportunities to write, try to create a reason to write tied to your service like a narrative summary of your service or a specific service project.

Hang on to your documentation

The problem many service corps alumni face is that they’ve saved all these documents on the computer at their old service site, and now that they are finished, can’t access them easily to share during the job or school search.

Save yourself the heartache by emailing documents and photographs to your personal email account, or backing them up on a thumb drive. You can also use online tools like Google Docs and Flickr to access documents and photos later on.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can request a photocopy of their Document of Service from Peace Corps, to be sent to them directly or to their hiring manager or graduate admissions office. (Peace Corps keeps your DOS for 60 years.)

Other reasons to document

Documenting your service is not just useful for your next steps. Keeping good records helps during your term with grant writing and reporting, monthly reporting for AmeriCorps*VISTAs, communicating with your supervisor, preparing for your mid-term or end-of-service performance evaluations, and creating public relations materials for your program.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from

Support for LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers and applicants

Group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers offers support to LGBT applicants, and help for Peace Corps recruiters, too.

Living two years in a developing country is rough — homesickness, language, culture, infrastructure, lack of creature comforts, etc. For people who are gay or lesbian, the experience can be even more challenging in cultures where same-sex relationships are hidden due to intolerance or fear of punishment.

So for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Peace Corps applicants, a lot of questions can arise that have tough answers. Questions like “Will I have to be celibate for two years?” or “How am I going to get myself back in the closet after working so hard to get out of it!?” And the mother of them all, “Can my partner and I serve together?”

In 1991 Mike Learned founded LGB RPCVs, one of many chapter groups affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) — the support and advocacy organization for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).

Most NPCA chapter groups are based on the U.S. region where RPCVs live now — for example Boston Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers— or else they are based on the country of service — for example Friends and RPCVs of Guyana.

LGB RPCVs is unique in that it unites returned Volunteers who served across the world, and who also now live across the globe. Its web site presents articles and Frequently Asked Questions for people considering Peace Corps service. The group also issues regular newsletters and features resources for Peace Corps staff to better understand policies that pertain to future Volunteers who are LGBT.

The Mentor Program — the groups’ “most successful outreach and recruitment project” — connects these future Volunteers with LGBT returned Volunteers in order to discuss life in Peace Corps.

Several years ago my friend Kate Kuykendall, then a Peace Corps recruiter, was interviewed for the LGB RPCV web site. In that interview she answers some of the questions posed above, and elaborates on the challenges of talking about the Peace Corps experience and sexual orientation with LGBT applicants.

Kate now works as a Peace Corps public affairs specialist for Peace Corps in Los Angeles and is a lesbian and a newlywed. I asked her if new state laws legalizing gay marriage affect the ability of gay couples to serve together in Peace Corps.

She said, “The recent changes to certain state marriage laws do not affect the Peace Corps’ policy of not placing [LGBT] couples together.  This is because, as a federal agency, the Peace Corps must abide by the federal definition of marriage, which is limited to the marriage between a man and woman.  The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, is the law that prohibits any other interpretation of marriage.”

And for now at least unmarried couples cannot serve together in Peace Corps. Even siblings and other family members are turned down if they want a guarantee they’ll be posted to the same country, assignment, site, etc.

To find other groups of RPCVs, see the list on the National Peace Corps Association web site.

Building strong ties to local college career centers

Your service corps program and your Corps members can benefit from a good relationship with local college and university career services offices.

This afternoon I have the honor of working with directors of Oregon’s AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA programs around the topic of career transitions for Corps members. One message I want to drive home is that developing ties to local career centers can help both with recruitment of new Corps members, and also helping current members with their next steps. Here are some ideas:

Getting Started: Invite career center staff from local colleges and universities for a brown bag lunch in your office to share resources and compare complementary needs. Some schools are part of a consortium that hold regular meetings; you could ask about presenting at one of these meetings. Some career centers have a counselor who focuses on public service; when you make your first call, you might ask for that person.

Be a presence (not just a flyer) on campus when it’s time to recruit: Staff tables at the school’s career fair, and let the career counselors know that you are available to speak at panel and round table discussions. Ask if there is a way to post your general and recruitment information on the career center’s website or resource library, or to staff a general information table on campus. ( also organizes nonprofit career fairs hosted by career centers on college campuses throughout the United States.)

Be a resource on national service: Work with the career counselors to put together a panel on national service opportunities for college students. Help find current or former AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps*VISTA, and NCCC members, Jesuit Volunteers, Jewish Coalition for Service program participants, Peace Corps Volunteers, Teach For America, Public Allies, or City Year Corps members (seek people from a variety of service programs) to speak on a panel discussion, to help clarify college students’ options and understanding of the differences among the programs. Students may not understand how to apply to a program, or may be confused about the de-centralized application process for some programs. Be ready to offer guidance at least for your program!

Educate counselors about the benefits of national service: Let career counselors know that for some graduating or even gap-year students, doing a year of national service is a really good way to serve your community in a more concentrated, intense way than you may be able to through traditional, episodic volunteering. It’s also proven to be a  launching point for a public service career. Students looking for a year of work experience before going to graduate school will benefit from serving – often with a high level of autonomy, challenge, and responsibility – for an organization that doesn’t expect a long-term commitment. If they can think of the term-of-service as a fifth and/or sixth college year – during which the students serve the community, learn tuition-free, and may not have to pay student loans – the investment makes more sense. Not to mention the networking and the educational benefits!

Exchange career transitions support: As you develop relationships with career centers in your area, you might:
•    Ask if Corps members can attend resume and other workshops at the career center.
•    Arrange for college students to shadow Corps members for a day; establish a list of members who would be open to informational interviews and share it with career office contacts; invite college students on community service projects.
•    Offer for you and your Corps members to play the “employers” for mock interviews with college students – it is a great exercise for your members to be on the hiring side of an interview process.

Find more career resources for national service members on Encorps‘s Beyond the Service Year and What’s Next, and on through the career center, career guides, and Term-of-Service page.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from