Imagine: Two years living in a tiny village where no English is spoken. You’re a few hours from your nearest fellow volunteer, and almost a whole day of traveling away from your office. The WiFi is terrible, and that’s if you’re lucky. This is the Peace Corps.
Kera Halvorson, a former volunteer turned Peace Corps recruiter, and Katie Miller, a former volunteer and University of Michigan graduate joining Ferris’ accelerated bachelor’s of nursing program in May, came to talk about their time in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, respectively.
“Peace Corps is such a cool opportunity we have as Americans,” Miller said. “I’m a huge Peace Corps advocate. If people get me going, they better watch out because I’m going to talk for a while.”
Coming from Miller, this says quite a bit. Her Peace Corps assignment was not the most appealing – at least initially.
“When I looked at the places I could go to, Kazakhstan probably would’ve been the last one I chose,” Miller said. “Now, looking back, I can say I didn’t choose Kazakhstan, but Kazakhstan chose me, and I’m so glad. I loved Kazakhstan.”
While in Kazakhstan, Miller taught English, one of the most common jobs of a Peace Corps volunteer. She was an 18-hour train ride from the Peace Corps office, but only a one hour bus ride from other volunteers in the city.
“I thought I was in a really cool place,” Miller said. “I got to experience a small village life, but I also got to go into the city and help with that women in leadership conference.”
According to Halvorson, a common concern when applying for the Peace Corps is safety. Miller’s own service was cut short by a year when the Kazakhstan operation was closed due to safety issues. Miller’s enthusiasm for Peace Corps is still strong nevertheless.
“I really felt like Peace Corps’ number one priority was volunteer safety – which is why they ended up closing our program,” Miller said.
Being out of the country for two years, potential recruits often wonder about the benefits, especially post-service. Miller’s unexpected early return home would seemingly make it more difficult, but she still received her post-service stipend, resume assistance, and elevator speech training.
Halvorson was also quick to list Peace Corps benefits.
“Peace Corps is free,” Halvorson said. “They pay your living stipend every month, they pay for your medical and dental coverage.”
That was only the beginning of her list. Peace Corps volunteers get 48 days of vacation, some of which Miller was able to use to travel to Thailand. Their federal loans are deferred the entire trip. They get post-service resume and interview training, Peace Corps-exclusive career fairs, a leg up on federal jobs, and a $7,000 stipend post-service. Halvorson and Miller attended a Chicago job fair a year apart.
“[Federal organizations] were all there, lined up, waiting to hire return volunteers,” Halvorson said. “We have one year – it’s kind of like veteran’s preference – it’s called noncompetetive eligibility for federal jobs when you return. You have one year status that you don’t have to compete with the general public. They can just hire you if you minimally qualify for the job.”
Now, Halvorson works for the Peace Corps – a job she started the climb towards at that Chicago Peace Corps job fair – and Miller has found a program. The two had different experiences, but emerged with the same praise for the program – and advice for those who wish to follow in their footsteps.
“Peace Corps is not for someone who doesn’t know what else to do,” Halvorson said. “Peace Corps is extremely hard. It’s going to test your patience and it’s really difficult. Don’t do it because of lack of options. Do it because you want a sense of adventure. Do it because you want something different than a nine to five job. You want to help people, you want to help a developing country.”