The Peace Corps Experience: Impact on Student Career Development
By K. Richard Pyle
Community and civic service are respected values in the United States. Such experiences are readily available as service-learning options for students and adults. From 1990 to 1999, the Kellogg Foundation undertook a major study to determine the impact of service-learning. Among many positive outcomes, but specifically as related to career development, it found that service-learning helps students to become more knowledgeable and realistic about careers. Students reported gaining communication skills and career exploration knowledge (Berkas, 1997). In addition, researchers found that students developed positive work orientation attitudes and skills (Weiler, LaGoy, Crane, Rovner, 1998).
Given these positive gains, career practitioners may wonder how the Peace Corps, a service focused international program, positively influences students’ career development. (Those in the Peace Corps world and in wording within the Peace Corps Act, a capital "V" is the standard used to refer to a Peace Corp Volunteer). Knowledge of the Peace Corps is particularly relevant to career development professionals since the Peace Corps is the number one non-profit employer of college graduates. Since 1962, approximately 250,000 Americans have served with approximately 4,000 Americans joining each year. Studies of returning Peace Corps Volunteers’ salaries found participants outperformed their peers in education by 13.6%, in health services by 40.1%, and those in government by 10.6%. It was also found that Volunteers outperformed Fulbright scholars (O’ Donoghue, 1987).
Students interested in the Peace Corps can learn the process by visiting the website (www.peacecorps.gov) as well as talking with their schools' career services offices. While the website can share the selection procedures, the stipend, and other facts, a career services practitioner will want to focus on the following career development connections.
How does Adjusting to Another Culture Influence Career Development?
It is generally understood that personal growth occurs when individuals are faced with disequilibrium while having at the same time enough support to face the risks inherent in a new, ego-threatening situation (Knefelkamp, 1979). Peace Corps Volunteers are faced with entirely new situations in coping with a new culture and in confronting the tasks involved in surviving and being successful in a different world. Consequently, the skills to cope and survive must be allied to their everyday functioning and survival.
In a study to explore the impact of a type of Peace Corps experience, this author found that students having a cross-cultural, international poverty service experience grew at significant levels in autonomy, finding purpose, and improving interpersonal relationships as compared to a cohort group that did not have such an experience. (Pyle, 1981). Such skills are relevant and important to career development.
What 21st Century Skills are Developed in the Peace Corps?
In a review of the literature, the transferable skills listed below were found to be of highest priority. They are discussed in relationship to the work of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
1. Communication – Volunteers receive intensive training in cross-cultural communication. Key to their success is building relationships, which require an understanding and empathy of the culture and host country nationals. Without communication skills, a Volunteer will not be successful and unlikely will not complete their two years of service.
2. Leadership – Volunteers are expected to engage their work-related counterparts in a way that facilitates decision-making while acting as a catalyst in meeting the needs of their work assignments. Inherent in this skill is emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s emotions, as well as use them positively to achieve the desired outcomes. Volunteers must use this skill daily so that after their two years of service their efforts continue and are sustained long after they have left.
3. Problem Solving – At the heart of the Volunteers’ work is problem solving. The host country would not be requesting help if the problems facing them were easy to overcome. Volunteers must figure out how to confront the apathy and long-term issues inherent in their assignments.
4. Resiliency –An important requirement for modern professionals, the capacity to handle uncertainty and adversity, is critical to success in a demanding and changing job market. Volunteers are faced with uncertainty as they enter into a culture much different from their own. They must cope with a dramatically different lifestyle from what they have been used to. They live at a poverty level with scarce basic resources such as good drinking water, comfortable housing and transportation. Volunteers are prohibited from having and driving cars, so they must get around by bicycle, horseback, and/or public transportation. The frustration of communicating accurately in another language is a constant battle. Such conditions require a positive attitude and persistence.
What Students Will Particularly Benefit From Knowing about Peace Corps?
Practically all Peace Corps Volunteers have a college degree since host countries request skills that can best meet their development needs. Therefore graduates with the following qualities will find the skills gained from Peace Corps helpful.
- Their idealism and/or sense of adventure motivates them to delay their entrance into the world of work before settling into a job or graduate school
- They have an interest in working internationally and want a grass roots cross cultural experience
- They are unsettled about their career direction and need more time and life experience
- They want an experience that sets them apart from their peers and gives them an edge in a competitive job market.
Bottom line every career practitioner will benefit from helping students to know that Peace Corps is not a break from career development but rather another path in the career development journey.
The Peace Corp and the Job Market
The Peace Corps experience provides individuals with many career development advantages. The process of adjusting to another culture enhances emotional/instrumental autonomy, purpose, and interpersonal skills. Key to being successful cross-culturally, Peace Corps Volunteers must enhance and hone their communication, leadership, problem solving, and resiliency skills. These transferable skills will be very helpful in their future careers. Because they have lived and worked at the grass roots in an international setting, they will have a broader and deeper world understanding and appreciation. In a smaller world, such a worldview and understanding will be beneficial in coping with an increasingly competitive job market.
Berkas, T. (February, 1997). Strategic review of the W.K. Kellogg Foundations service learning projects, 1990-1996. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
O’ Donoghue, J., & O'Donoghue, M. (1987). The Peace Corps experience: It’s lifetime impact on U.S. volunteers. Presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. New York City.
Knefelkamp, L. (1979). Education that empowers. The Synergist, 8, 4-9.
Pyle, K. R. (1981, November). International cross-cultural service learning: Impact on student development. Journal of College Student Personnel, 22(6), 590-514.
Weiler, D., LaGoy, A., Crane, E. & Rovner. E. (1998). An Evaluation of K-12 service-learning in California: Phase II final report. Emeryville, CA: RPP International Search Institute.
Dr. K. Richard ‘Dick’ Pyle has a 50+ year career with both academia and the Peace Corps. As an academic he has served as a counseling and career development director, dean of students and school services director. In the Peace Corps he has served as a Volunteer, Training Center Director, Country Director and mental health and career development executive at the Peace Corps headquarters. He is the co-author of Group Career Counseling: Practices and Principles (NCDA, 2015). He can be reached at email@example.com