Peace Corps Impact

Impact of Peace Corps service from comments by returned volunteers in December, 1996 study

The final question of the 1996 study of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) done by A. Juanita Graul and the Peace Corps was: “Do you have any additional comments about the impact of Peace Corps service on your life or on the U.S.?”

Introduction

See also: Peace Corps volunteers

Over half (53%) of all respondents to the 1996 survey chose to answer this question and their responses ranged from two words to two pages. The overall tone of the comments was positive in 477, negative in 39 and mixed in 102. Another 45 were not classifiable as positive or negative.

Although the question was broad, many of the answers were remarkably similar. Respondents described how they had changed personally after becoming Peace Corps volunteers, how they felt about the experience, and whether they had felt useful or frustrated as volunteers. Others commented on their health, readjustment, the impact on their careers, how the Peace Corps benefits the United States, and their impressions of the Peace Corps.

Change

A total of 359 respondents felt that the Peace Crops experience had changed them in a positive way. For example, a volunteer who service in Africa in the late 1960’s wrote:

“Peace Corps was a great opportunity for me. I grew up in a blue collar, multi-ethnic, and immigrant neighborhood and did not see myself escaping that world. Then the Peace Corps was created. I was exposed to a new culture, new people, and who new way of viewing the world and the United States.”


U.S. Postal Service 1999 stamp commemorating the Peace Corps.

Only nine of the respondents to this question felt they had changed for the worse. One volunteer who served in Africa in the 1990s said:

“When I first returned, I was negative about my host country’s culture. I believe I have accepted them as they are, whether I agree or not. I do still have a cynical view on world peace and environmental issues because of my feeling that overpopulation may not be brought into control for some time.”

Another 11 respondents to this question said that they had changed, but did not indicate whether it was positvely or negatively. A volunteer who served in the Mediterranean region in the early 1990s noted:

“Even though I left Morocco 1 ½ years ago, it enters my mind every day. I’m continually struck by the differences in lifestyles, work, wealth, habits, work styles …. I guess the biggest impact Peace Corps service had on my life in the United States is that now I see and view things differently. I look at things in a bigger context, and I am constantly comparing and contrasting life/people here and there. I’m still not sure if I like the new way I view life here. Yes, it is more global, but it has left me a bit unfocused and not as content with life in the United States.”

The experience

A total of 318 respondents described their experience in general terms as positive rather than giving specific examples of its impact. For example, a volunteer who served in Central Asia in the late 1970 observed:

“Aside from the births of my two daughters, my Peace Corps experience was the most gratifying experience of my life. The two years I spend in Afghanistan were incredible. The memories are as vivid today as the life itself, 20 years ago. I’m so proud and grateful for having been blessed with such a powerful and positive experience.”

Forty respondents made statements that were virtually identical to the one below from an RPCV who serve in the Asia/Pacific region in the late 1960s:

“I have no doubt I received much more than I gave.”

All respondents who reported they had contributed “a lot” to individuals, communities or organizations were asked to explain briefly how they had made these contributions; 61% of all respondents did so, some contributing to more than one category.

More than one-third of the entire sample (34%) felt they had made a contribution through their positive personal and cultural interactions. An RPCV who served in Africa from 1990-92 wrote:

“I believe that I made a strong impression on some of the people I met, especially close friends that I still remain in contact with. I crossed a cultural, economic and racial divide that left me and my friends with good impressions/feelings of the others’ race/culture.”

In addition, 17% thought that they had been catalysts for positive change. A respondent who had served in the Inter-American region from 1965-67 noted:

“I believe individuals (college folk and barrio residents), the collaborative organization for which we worked, and our community were given a boost of hope and the belief that they could change things by our brief residence. All the health, tutoring and building projects we started were left in the hands of capable nationals to continue.”

Thirteen percent of the respondents indicated that they had contributed by working on new or existing projects in their country of service. Another RPCV who served in the Inter-America region in the mid-1960s reported:

“I helped establish an agricultural co-op for a number of individuals and families in the barrio in the town I was assigned to. As a result, we introduced a new cash crop in the area and created jobs for 30 people. These were individuals who were drawn into the town by the promise of work in the oil fields and couldn’t find employment. They had farming skills, however, and we uncovered a market for home-grown peanuts. By the second year, we had over 200 hectares under cultivation. It was a great experience for me and gave my friends hope and dignity where, prior to the co-op, their future was uncertain.”

Seven percent reported contributing to development by teaching during their service in the Peace Corps. One respondent who served in Central Asia in the early 1970s recalled:

“I taught business skills to Afghan nationals, making it highly probable that they would be employed upon graduation.”

Five percent of the respondents described how they had transferred a skill to individuals in their overseas communities. In the Asia/Pacific region, an RPCV who served in the late 1960s wrote:

“Many of my students who otherwise would not have had post-8th grade educations eventually graduated from high school. Some obtained good city-based jobs that enabled them to become important financial and intellectual resources for their families and villages. As I was a ‘stepping stone’ for my students, some of them are now ‘stepping stones’ for their fellow countrymen, and I expect this process to continue for generations. My work there may have ended when I left, but my assistance did not.”

Respondents who answer “No “ when asked if they had made a positive contribution to the development of their host country were also asked to explain their answer briefly. Only 5% of all respondents had answered “No”, but 6% offered explanations for why they believed they had not made a contribution. Most reasons given for not making a contribution involved the observation that conditions in the communities where the volunteers lived and worked were not conducive to development, although the RPCVs who gave these reasons amounted to only 2% of all respondents. A volunteer who served in Africa in the late 1960s reported:

“Revolution after we left and the elimination of [the country’s] government basically undid much of what we tried to do.”

Only 1% of the respondents felts that their host country did not need the presence of Peace Corps volunteers. For example, a volunteer who served in the Mediterranean region in the early 1990s observed:

“Development to me means significant and lasting improvement to a community, be it a village or the national community. Using this definition, my efforts did not contribute to the development of [the] host country. My project, or the one I was involved with, would have been completed without me.”

Another 1% felt that they lacked the training, competence, time or support that they needed to be effective. One RPCV who served in the Inter-America region in the early 1970s reflected:

“I was English major (B.A.) but was assigned to an ag extension office. Other than to form 4-H clubs, I felt inadequate to help peasant famers with farming and ranching techniques. I had no ag training or knowledge.”

The remaining 2% gave responses that were too unclear to classify.

Usefulness of service

Thirty-five respondents volunteered the opinion that their service had been useful, and either others felt their service had not been useful. The 44 who brought up feeling frustrated overseas included 23 who noted that it was job-related. A volunteer who recently returned from the Asia/Pacific region recalled:

“My two years in the Peace Corps were the most difficult and challenging of my entire life. I observed more unnecessary suffering during that time than I had experienced in 30 years of nursing in the United States.”

Frustration was described as culture-related by another 13 respondents. A volunteers in Africa in the late 1980s wrote:

“My experience of working with … villagers eager to abdicated their own responsibility for providing basic necessities – in most cases potable water – made me less inclined to ‘do for others’.”

Health and safety

Personal health and safety issues were mentioned by 24 of those responding to this question. Responses were evenly divided between problems that occurred during service and problems that persisted or occurred after service. For example, a volunteer who had served in Africa in the late 1960s noted:

“The only reminders of my Peace Corps experience are the intestinal parasites, which flare up every few months and, to date, defy all medical cures.

Readjustment

Fifty-three respondents referred to readjustment to life in the United States after Peace Corps service. A volunteer who served with her husband in the Asia/Pacific region in the early 1990s reported:

“We have managed to delay our total readjustment to American culture, and I’m not sure we will ever go back and ‘adjust.’ Nor am I convinced that is necessary. Those two years changed our lives and made us citizens of the world for as long as we have something of ourselves to give.”

Several other respondents observed that readjustment had not been a problem for them, and 45 mentioned that contact with other RPCVs had been helpful.

Careers

The impact of Peace Corps service on their careers was mentioned by 122 of those responding to this question. A total of 21 wrote that they had returned to school because of the Peace Corps experience. For example, an RPCV who served in the Asia/Pacific region in the late 1970s described how the experience affected him:

“My Peace Corps experience definitely enriched and expanded my world view. Although I’ve always considered myself a culturally-sensitive, empathetic person, the Peace Corps provided a unique opportunity to really ‘get inside’ another culture – to be a part of and not part of the culture at the same time. For me personally, the experience highlighted the importance of health care. I saw people sick and, indeed, dying of preventable/treatable diseases. I switched from psychology/education to health care and will receive my M.D. in June. I enjoy working with patients of diverse backgrounds and hope to work as a physician overseas at some point.”

A total of 52 respondents mentioned that their careers had been enhanced by serving in the Peace Corps. A recently returned volunteer who served in Eastern Europe observed:

“On returning to the United States, the words ‘Peace Corps’ are magic. Despite what I considered many interesting experiences on my resume, potential employers all focused on the same thing: Peace Corps. It really opened doors.”

Four-four respondents said they had changed careers as a result of their Peace Corps experience. An RPCV who served in the Mediterranean region in the mid-1980s described her experience this way:

“Peace Corps, more than any experience or relationship since the earliest years of my life, has determined who I am, what I believe, how I live. The effect of that experience on the U.S. is harder to define, but I trust that the career in international public service has benefited my country. That career would not have occurred without having had the Peace Corps experience.”

Five respondents remarked that service in the Peace Corps had not helped their careers. One who served in the Asia/Pacific region in the early 1980s wrote:

“My professional life suffered for ‘time lost’ until a fluke interview with an Indian tribe acknowledged the value of Peace Corps experience.”

How the Peace Corps benefits America

In all, 162 of the respondents described their commitment to further service at home in the United States, including increased community involvement, careers in public health, nutrition and U.S. aid work abroad, and work with refugees, the disadvantaged and children. Increased appreciated of the United States was noted by 32 respondents, although another 10 respondents expressed some criticism of U.S. foreign policy.

Views on the Peace Corps

Sixty-eight respondents spontaneously praised the Peace Corps in response to this question, such as the following statement from a volunteer in the early 1970s:

“The Peace Corps agency in Kenya was very low-profile and non-bureaucratic, yet supportive – probably the best U.S. government agency I have ever dealt with.”

A total of 62 respondents declared that they plan to join the Peace Corps again after their retirement, or once their children are grown. Assuming that this sample is representative of RPCVs who have served for a year or more, as many as 3,500 RPCVs may be planning to volunteer again. In addition, 49 respondents reiterated that they would recommend Peace Corps service to others, 26 of whom would recommend Peace Corps service for all U.S. citizens.

Seventy-one of those who responded to this question were critical of the Peace Corps. A recently returned volunteer who served in the Inter-America region made the following comment:

“I saw Peace Corps volunteers arrive … with no jobs for the first six months. I also saw volunteers who only worked one or two days a week and were not monitored in their jobs by Peace Corps or the host agency. Lots of people seemed to use Peace Corps as an escape or vacation, and I sometimes felt embarrassed to be affiliated with this group.

An RPCV who served in Africa in the late 1970s wrote:

“For a variety of reasons, I decided to leave my host country after one year of service. For my early departure, the Peace Corps and I share the blame. I would be interested in sharing experiences with others who resigned. When I read the literature mailed to my home, all the stories seem so positive. Yet for me, although plenty of positive things happened, I still ponder the negatives. I suppose I looked at my resignation as a failure when I returned. This made me re-evaluate my life, and I am better for it.”

Three respondents felt that the survey questions were biased toward eliciting only positive information that the Peace Corps was seeking. Several others pointed out that the Peace Corps could not take credit for their subsequent education, careers, or contributions to society, since they might well have chosen the same path without having served in the Peace Corps.

 

 

Last updated: 2/24/2012

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