When most of us think of the Peace Corps, we picture fresh-faced and idealistic college graduates heading off with their backpacks and hiking boots to make the world a better place. But is this an accurate representation of today's Peace Corps volunteer?
In the fall of 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy called upon college students to "serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries" [source: Peace Corps]. After his election, President Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. He envisioned a civilian service corps in which college students would spend two years after graduation to aid developing countries [source: Grabianowski]. Since then, more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries, lending their efforts to everything from education and HIV/AIDS prevention to environmental conservation and youth development [source: Peace Corps].
Over the years, the composition of the Peace Corps has changed to reflect times. In 1966, the 68-year-old Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter, began her service in India [source: Peace Corps]. In 1985, female volunteers outnumbered male volunteers for the first time in Peace Corps history; in 2011 women make up 60 percent of the volunteer base [source: Peace Corps].
In 2011, as the first wave of baby boomers turns 65 and approaches retirement, many are seeking new experiences and looking for ways to give back to society. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, but volunteers age 50 and older now account for 7 percent of the volunteer force [sources: Peace Corps].
The number of older volunteers continues to climb even as the overall number of Peace Corps volunteers has dropped from its peak of 15,000 in 1964 to around 8,600 in 2011 [sources: Weiner, Peace Corps]. But the application process is still competitive, and the Peace Corps continues to receive more applications than there are positions available. So does the Peace Corps want these retired volunteers to join its ranks? Read on to find out.
At Home and Abroad
More and more retired volunteers are joining the Peace Corps these days, but does the civilian service corps welcome this trend? In short, the answer is an emphatic "yes." The Peace Corps not only accepts retired volunteers, it actively recruits them through its "50 Plus Initiative," a program designed to reach out to members of the boomer generation who still clearly and fondly recall JFK's call to "ask not what your country can do for you" [source: Weiner]. And it's not just about the numbers. Retired volunteers offer something that even the most willing and enthusiastic new college grad cannot: decades of valuable work and life experience.
Active retirees and soon-to-retire baby boomers have long helped their communities through their volunteer efforts on the home front. But how do their experiences here in the States compare with the jobs that Peace Corps volunteers are asked to do around the world?
Just as many retirees in the United States volunteer their time teaching and tutoring at-risk children, teens and even adults, Peace Corps volunteers lead youth and community development programs and teach English, math, science, HIV/AIDS education and environmental awareness in classrooms around the world [source: Peace Corps]. Peace Corps volunteers also participate in technology initiatives that bring communications and computer skills to their host communities and help farmers find ways to increase their food production in an environmentally sustainable manner [source: Peace Corps].
Of course, in addition to their experience in the volunteer world, retirees and baby boomers possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise gained through years in the business community. Retired Peace Corps volunteers come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, including education, nonprofit, medicine, law, social work, business, construction, politics, academics and science [source: Peace Corps].
It's clear that the Peace Corps seeks and values the contributions of its older volunteers, and host communities have proven to be receptive to help and advice from experienced workers, as well [source: Peace Corps]. But what issues do retired volunteers need to consider before signing on for long-term assignments that, by all accounts, are as strenuous and challenging as they are rewarding? Read on to learn about special considerations for retired Peace Corps volunteers.
Special Considerations for Retired Peace Corps Volunteers
Every Peace Corps volunteer is required to undergo a medical evaluation as part of the application process, and retirees are no exception. The process is the same for all applicants, regardless of their age. The Peace Corps Web site describes the evaluation as a "comprehensive medical and dental assessment," while at least one 63-year-old applicant described it as "extensive, detailed and maddening" [sources: Peace Corps, Weiner].
One advantage younger volunteers may have over retirees is that they have fewer obligations to consider when packing up to leave home for two-plus years. Older volunteers often own their homes, have spouses who may or may not wish to join them on their adventure (7 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are married), have children in college, and have more complicated financial affairs to attend to, including possible implications for their tax liabilities and Social Security earnings [source: Peace Corps]. Some retirees choose to sell their homes before embarking on their adventure, while others rent the property or hire a property manager to care for it in their absence.
Many retirees are concerned that they will feel lonely or out of place in a corps of 20-something volunteers, or that they will have difficulty learning a new language. But the Peace Corps training program includes three months of in-country language training by native speakers, and volunteers learn technical skills related to their jobs and become familiar with their host country's culture. The organization encourages volunteers to alleviate loneliness by building relationships with other volunteers, Peace Corps staff and friends in their host communities [source: Peace Corps]. Additionally, volunteers are welcome to travel on days off and have guests from home come visit during their volunteer term, and most are able to maintain contact with family and friends through e-mail and telephone.
According to the Peace Corps Web site, many older volunteers ultimately find their age to be an asset rather than a hindrance in their overseas placements, "as people of developing nations respect and appreciate the decades of work and wisdom older volunteers bring to their communities" [source: Peace Corps].
- Burkhart, Ford. "From Boxing to Diplomat: Jack Vaughn shares his life and times." AARP. March 1, 2011. (May 9, 2011)
- Gandel, Cathie. "Boomers Mean Business." AARP. March 1, 2011. (May 9, 2011) http://www.aarp.org/work/work-life/info-02-2011/boomers-mean-business.4.html
- Grabianowski, Ed. "How the Peace Corps Works." HowStuffWorks.com. (May 9, 2011) https://money.howstuffworks.com/peace-corps5.htm
- The Peace Corps. "Fast Facts." (May 9, 2011) http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=about.fastfacts
- The Peace Corps. "Life is calling. How far will you go?" (May 9, 2011) http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/50plus/index.html
- The Peace Corps. "Volunteering at Age 50+." (May 2, 2011) http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/learn/whovol/Volunteering_50+.pdf
- The Peace Corps. "What Do Volunteers Do?" (May 2, 2011) http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whatvol
- Weiner, Eric. "The Peace Corps Wants You! Why 'Kennedy's Kids' are again in demand during the agency's 50th anniversary." AARP. Feb. 2011. (May 10, 2011)