To join or not to join the Peace Corps

Katie Clary
Living Editor

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The Peace Corps and college graduates go together like peas and carrots — and have since its inception 44 years ago. In 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged a group of 10,000 students at the University of Michigan to serve their country by promoting peace through living and working in developing countries, thus inspiring the federal agency that officially took shape the following year.

Since 1961, 170,000 volunteers have made the same decision to join the Peace Corps, serving in 183 countries tackling issues such as AIDS education, information technology, sustainable development and environmental preservation.

Pepperdine University, to its credit, has 10 alumni serving in the Peace Corps overseas and 100 graduates who have volunteered in 63 countries since the Peace Corps’ inception.

“I love the idea of not just living in a foreign country, but in a developing country, down to the bare roots — not cluttered with pop culture — where it’s all about survival,” said second-year Pepperdine law student Tiffany Hester. “Really being a servant, not just sitting in your comfortable house sending $5 a month to feed Sally Struther’s kids or whatever, but walking in their shoes.”

Hester said she may join the Peace Corps after law school. But for her, like most graduates, the decision requires an open-eyed understanding of the safety, organization and mission of this government agency, and even more so, a gut decision about her life’s path and direction.

Joining the Peace Corps is a two-year commitment, which although may be only a hiccup in the larger scheme of life, is still a significant amount of time. The application process itself often lasts nearly a year.
“The two years didn’t put me off at all, just the long wait (to find out if I was accepted),” said first-year law student Megan Conniff, who contemplated Peace Corps before deciding to attend law school.
Leaving the country requires a measure of sacrifice.
Recent Pepperdine graduate Josh Wilcox is soon to join the Peace Corps ranks; he flies to Mozambique on April 29. But his decision requires leaving behind his family, a girlfriend, a job offer and attending his best friend’s wedding.

“There’s a lot of things that are hard about it,” he said. “But I think my life will be a lot better (for joining the Peace Corps). If I didn’t do it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”

For Wilcox, the Peace Corps provides the right recipe of travel, humanitarian work and career development. After catching the travel bug in Pepperdine’s Buenos Aires International Program, he knew he wanted to spend a couple years overseas before settling into a “real job.” Among the Peace Corps benefits, Wilcox appreciated the partial deferment of his student loans and a monthly stipend that albeit small, covers the cost of the experience.

Furthermore, the political science and Spanish major hopes to attend graduate school for international relations, and he recognizes that most post-graduate international relations programs provide scholarships for returned Peace Corps volunteers.

And most importantly, “two years will actually give me a chance to do something,” he said. “The Peace Corps offered the best for everything that was out there, for me it was the best opportunity.”

Although Wilcox will likely be the only Peace Corps volunteer in his particular African location, there are 7,733 volunteers in 72 countries abroad — the largest number since 1974. The Peace Corps anticipates even more applicants in the coming year thanks to President Bush’s pledge this month to increase the Peace Corps 2006 fiscal budget by $28 million and 20 additional countries’ requests for the agency’s assistance.

Still, the Peace Corps is not for everyone.

After researching the Corps and alternatives, senior International Studies and Spanish major Evelyn Baca finally decided she thought her energies could be used more effectively with a different organization, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

“I felt I could be using my talents and abilities to be doing more (elsewhere),” Baca said, explaining that she was concerned the Peace Corps lacked the on-site organization and infrastructure she desired. “I’m a really independent person, but I wanted to go with a group of Christians established in a community.”

Invariably, most applicants seriously contemplating the Peace Corps — or at least their parents — question their safety overseas. 
Wilcox, who jokes he couldn’t identify Mozambique on a map before receiving his assignment, said his biggest apprehensions are being lonely and getting sick.

“Those are the big ones right now,” he said. “I’m sure once I get there I’ll get freaked out by something I hadn’t even thought of.”  
Last year, the Peace Corps received critical attention from the Dayton Daily News for what the newspaper reported were attempts to conceal its knowledge of assaults against volunteers. The seven-part series, called “Casualties of Peace,” was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, sparking tremendous debate by Peace Corps volunteers defending the agency and those supporting the articles.
Peace Corps Country Director for Mongolia Ken Goodson explained in an e-mail that safety and security are the agency’s primary priority, and the agency devotes significant resources to the training, support and education of volunteers. The purpose is to prepare individuals to make informed decisions. “Personal responsibility is key,” he said.

“The reality is that (Peace Corps volunteers) sometimes serve around the globe and often in very remote areas,” Goodson said. “Subsequently health and safety risks can be part of a volunteer service.”

Likewise, the Peace Corps Web site acknowledges that “petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assaults do occur.”

As foreigners unversed in local language and customs who are perceived to have more money than natives, volunteers are bound to receive varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment.

But Pepperdine alumnus Jay Wilkes, who has now served one-and-a-half years in Mongolia, said he feels “incredibly safe.”
“Peace Corps gives you ample warning,” Wilkes said. “If you do certain (dangerous behaviors) that you are warned against countless times, but you do them anyways, then it’s your own ignorance.”

Wilkes, who graduated in 2002, recently returned to the United States on a brief sabbatical from his Peace Corps post in Mongolia. He teaches English to schoolchildren in Govil, a 1,200-person village located 400 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.

While he is tremendously satisfied with experience, in fact staying in Mongolia for a third year, Wilkes acknowledged the necessity of enterprise and a can-do attitude in the Peace Corps.
“When you get there, you may have to make your own job,” Wilkes said. For example, he teaches class only 10 hours a week. Encouraged to take on a community project in his free time, the Huntington Beach native is launching the first water polo program to exist on Mongolian soil.

His 27-month commitment to the Peace Corps ends June 25, culminating with the “English Olympics” competition between students in his host province and his kick-off of the water polo program in the nearby city Erdenet.

“I’m getting another college education for free,” Wilkes said, citing how he’s learned about himself, a new country, culture and language and working to receive his masters through the Peace Corps.

“I’m so glad I made this decision when I am young,” he said.