Growing Your Career After the Peace Corps

Man walking with backpack on a road

From becoming fluent in a new language and adapting to a different culture, to exploring a part of the world you’d never thought you would see, the Peace Corps provides a unique experience that most volunteers will never forget.

The skills you learn and experiences you have in the Peace Corps can benefit your career in ways you never imagined. But transitioning back to the United States after time spent abroad is sometimes no easy feat, as you are bound to face challenges as you ease back into your old life, stateside.

Thinking of joining the Peace Corps? About to come home after your two years of service abroad? Read on to learn what three returned Peace Corps volunteers have to say about what has helped them advance their respective careers.

Allow the experience to guide your career

Spending two years in the Peace Corps may change your career path and worldview. And that can be a good thing. Former Peace Corps volunteers say their time serving shaped them into who they are today. Their advice: Go into the Peace Corps with an open mind, and when you finish your service, allow that experience to help guide you toward your next step.

The universe works in mysterious ways. Be open. Learn as much as you can.

The Peace Corps helped Steve Calanog realize he wanted to work in science. He joined the team at the Environmental Protection Agency after his stint in Paraguay from 1989 to 1991 and still works there today. He wouldn’t have known that this was his calling if he hadn’t worked in environmental sanitation during his service. Today, he is a federal on-scene coordinator overseeing natural disaster cleanups, and he couldn’t be happier with his career.

Steve’s advice: “The universe works in mysterious ways. Be open. Learn as much as you can.”

Learn from the communities in which you work

Latonya Dawson’s life changed after her time in Ecuador from 2004 to 2006. She always knew she wanted to help people, and so she was a bit surprised when her experience taught her that people need to be empowered, not helped.

Have no expectations and be humble.

Her advice: “Have no expectations and be humble. Never assume you know more than the people you are working with.”

Today, she is a fifth-grade teacher on a reservation in South Dakota with Teach for America. Because she learned how to work with diverse communities and respect other cultures, her job is a natural fit. She credits her time in the Peace Corp with teaching her how to interact with people with different perspectives and backgrounds.

Consider grad school

If you are a returning Peace Corps volunteer interested in graduate school, you’re in luck. The Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program provides financial assistance for returning volunteers. More than 150 programs at 90 graduate schools across the country accept Peace Corps fellows and offer scholarships. There are programs ranging from business to classic literature to engineering at both the masters and Phd level.

Gariety Pruit went into the Peace Corp knowing she wanted to earn a graduate degree in political science. After serving in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009 she earned a dual MA from Fordham University in Elections and Campaign Management and Latin American and Latino Studies.

“The life skills that you learn when you are not in a classroom are vital,” she said. “When you know yourself and you know what you want to do you are more effective as a grad school student and as a leader.”

Her advice: “Stop comparing yourself to friends and colleagues who entered grad school or the workforce immediately after undergrad. It may feel like you are taking time off, but you are not.”

She currently works for Working America AFL-CIO as the State Campaigns Director for Nevada, where she says she uses what she learned in the Peace Corps every day.

Work for the federal government

Serving in the Peace Corps also gives you a leg up if you want to work for the federal government. Returning volunteers have a noncompetitive eligibility hiring status for one year after returning. And if you enter graduate school immediately upon finishing your service and then decide you want to work for the federal government, that noncompetitive status is still an option for you.

Steve, for example, knew he wanted to go to work immediately at the EPA when he returned, and so he is grateful that the Peace Corps helped point him in that direction. He advises returning volunteers to seriously consider employment with the federal government since Peace Corps alums have the ability to bypass some of the bureaucracy that can be related to government hiring.

Continue to work abroad

For some, two years in the Peace Corps might be what inspires them to travel even more. Latonya earned her MSW from Columbia University in 2011 after coming back from Ecuador. She enjoyed her time abroad so much that she went back to the Peace Corps as a response volunteer, where she was sent to Malawi for a year and then straight to Guyana for another year. Her work in both countries continued to focus on health education; specifically, HIV education and prevention.

Peace Corps Response is an ideal program for former volunteers who want to go abroad again. Each service lasts between three and 12 months. It is also an option for those who haven’t served, if they have expertise in health, community economic development, agriculture, or education.

Pro Tip: If you want to learn about other opportunities for working and volunteering abroad, read “Finding a Job Abroad” for all sorts of advice.

Share your story

One of the most important things about serving in the Peace Corp is coming back home and sharing your story. All the former volunteers interviewed for this post agree that talking about your experiences abroad is an important way to advance tolerance and acceptance back in the United States.

“Never be afraid to talk about your experiences,” Latonya said. “It gives you a wider perspective. Everything isn’t as black and white as you may have thought. We need to have more people speaking out about different perspectives.”

And we want to hear from you! Tell us what made your Peace Corps experience unique and how you have used your skills and experience to advance your public impact career. Do you have tips for transitioning back to the United States? Or advice for folks thinking of entering the Peace Corps? Share your stories and questions in the comments.

Looking for more tips about the Peace Corps? Check out “3 Tips to Help you Adjust to Life After the Peace Corps.

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Samantha has worked for nonprofit organizations in NY, TX, and NV. She has experience in nearly every niche of nonprofit work, received her journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, and her law degree from New York Law School.
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