How do I choose which Peace Corps assignment to take?
May 14, 2007 9:51 AM   Subscribe

How do I choose which Peace Corps assignment to take?

I have just completed the Peace Corps application process (forms, recs, interview) and my recruiter emailed me with three options. I need to answer him by Thursday (eep!) and the descriptions are very vague. In all three, the assignment is the same (Secondary English Education). I need to give the recruiter a definite ranking of my choices, so he can nominate me for my choice. I'm freaking out a little bit about how to rank my preferences.

Option one: Africa, French experience required (not a problem, see below).

Option two: Eastern Europe, no other language skill required.

Option three: Central Asia and Asia, no other language skill required, does mention I have to be "flexible between the two regions."

There are no major differences between departure time, the main choice I'm making here is location. Still, I feel like I have no real strong preference, all three sound like amazing opportunities.

About me: conversational French and German experience, elementary Czech experience. I am more familiar with Eastern Europe than the other two options. I feel like the experience in Eastern Europe would relate more to my areas of study, but I may never have the opportunity to visit Africa or Asia in this context ever again.

How should I choose? I'm looking for feedback, thoughts, or even just something I should consider that maybe I am not thinking about right now.

Thank you so much!
posted by piratebowling to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are you considering climate? I sure would.
posted by robinpME at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2007

I would base my decision on very selfish grounds. Which area will give you the greatest opportunities for quick and easy travel on your free time to the widest range of interesting sites? Of course, this depends upon what constitutes "interesting" for you. Urban vistas versus the wilderness?

You would also want to consider culture shock. Do you want something vaguely Westernish or completely new to you?

That being said, I'd choose Asia. As you said, you can imagine that you might hit Eastern Europe on your own at some point in the future, but if it's unlikely that you'd find yourself wandering about Tajikistan of your own volition, then that's the option to take.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 10:01 AM on May 14, 2007

What are you looking to get out of your Peace Corps experience? What are you looking to put into your PC experience?
posted by Pollomacho at 10:02 AM on May 14, 2007

I'd take Africa. The people I've known who've lived there have been permanently changed for the better.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2007

I have a friend that is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine teaching English in high school. She's been there for 1.5 years.

I can tell you that she has grown to love it, but that your experience greatly depends on where and who with you're stationed. Also, as she's come to find out, the cultural differences between Eastern Europe and the USA really aren't that significant. This can be good or bad, depending on what you want to experience.

As Midnight Creeper said, consider the proximity to travel destinations - you won't have a lot of free time but you'll definitely want to travel when you get the chance.
posted by JacksonEsquire at 10:07 AM on May 14, 2007

I would say Africa.

I only went to East Africa as a tourist years ago for like, 11 days, but it was amazing. I mean, fucking completely, mindblowingly amazing.

I would base my decision on what is the most difficult to get to from where you live currently, and without the assistance of the Peace Corps or another program like it, which is the place you are most unlikely to visit on your own steam later in life.

Africa, I think, qualifies. Do Africa. I am jealous. I want to go to Africa.
posted by mckenney at 10:15 AM on May 14, 2007

As subjective as an answer gets: there's no doubt in my minds that if I were you, I'd go to Africa.
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:16 AM on May 14, 2007

Yup, that's right -- neither of my four minds. No doubt at all.
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:17 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I, too, would choose Africa. I lived in Cameroon for several years, and it utterly changed my life. Additionally, you can narrow down the countries that might be involved. In addition to Cameroon, I'd guess your potential destinations might include:

Cote d'Ivoire
Namibia (b/c the Finnish Forest Service has been working there a lot recently, and consequently a lot of people speak french there)
Probably a couple others could be added to the list, but what a list! What an experience!

Wherever you go, it will be a challenge that demands your flexibility and resilience (basing this on friends' experiences). As you probably know, only a fraction of the Peace Corps volunteers actually stay out their term. In Africa, expect to be living very modestly. There is great, basic food (we still eat fufu and n'jama jama) but also interesting parasites and horrible roads. The hospital we worked at usually got ~2 peace corps workers a year- either from motorcycle accidents or parasites.

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 10:17 AM on May 14, 2007

Speaking from experience, Namibia does not require French language ability.

I'd go to Africa.
posted by handful of rain at 10:19 AM on May 14, 2007

Hi piratebowling! Well, here is some anecdotal evidence: I have a friend that went to Africa and was stationed in a remote area and had a tough go of it. She completed her term, but found the process extremely stressful and also felt that she was unable to make as much of a difference as she would have liked. I also have a friend who went to CHina and taught English at a university in one of the western cities of China. I can't remember the name of the city, but it was huge. He had a very good experience. Draw what conclusions you will. And good luck!
posted by taliaferro at 10:25 AM on May 14, 2007

Do you have difficulty with extremes of either hot or cold? Definitely take that into account. Friends who did the Peace Corps in Mongolia talk about all the layers of clothes they had to wear and about the giant poop-sicle that would grow in the outhouse in the winter. They loved their time there, but if you're extremely cold-adverse, take that into account in your decision-making. Personally, I'd got for either Central Asia or Africa, just because those would probably be the most different from your current life.
posted by MsMolly at 10:26 AM on May 14, 2007

My landlady is currently in Botswana for the PC. Previously, a few decades ago she was in Sieera Leone. She was, this year, briefly in Kiribati in a program that got cancelled due to lack of transportation. She left for Africa in the middle of April and we can't heard from her. I assume you are expecting this but you can assume you will be WAY out of touch in Africa. My guess is the same is not going to be true for Eastern Europe.

One thing you migh twan tto think about is, assuming your profile is accurate, what it's like to be famele in these countries [and possibly young]. My landlady is in her 70s so was totally comfortable being in those places but when a friend went to Cote D'Ivoire they were forever trying to set him up with a wife. My landlady reported that the gender politics in Kiribati made it a little difficult to be female there. In many cases, this meant that the need fo rwhat she was doing [primary school ed, I think] was greater, to be a good role model, etc. On the other hand it can sometimes mean that you have a harder time doing what you want, or you have barriers in your way.

As with many PC topics, one of the questions is how well you handle adversity not just of the eating grubs sort but of the dealing with cultures that are very different form your own. So things like religion (my atheist landlady was required to go to church in the South Pacific and they went a lot), sex and gender issues, diet and customs should all bve things you shoudl think about. Thiings like climate, your safety and whether you want to do additional travelling are also good things to keep in mind.

That said, pretty much any choice will be the "right" choice if you're committed to the PC ideals, so I'd pick, roll the dice and have an awesome few PC years.
posted by jessamyn at 10:26 AM on May 14, 2007

Personally I would recommend Africa. But that's because I lived there for four years (high school) and was permanently changed for the better (as per croutonsupafreak).

But that's just me. You and I don't know one another, so you don't know whether our values and priorities are similar and whether my recommendation means that you should sign up or stay away.

What I suggest is trying to meet people who have been abroad, asking them what they found most valuable and seeing who you feel a greater sympathy for. For instance, someone might say "Yeah, _______ was great! The people there really showed me how to drink. And the girls are totally hot for Americans! I could lay a different girl every weekend." Some people would think that this is a strong recommendation because this is exactly the kind of lifestyle they are looking for and they would be happy to find out that it's available in this part of the world. Other people would wrinkle their noses and think that this guy was hanging out with the wrong kinds of people, and move on to get input from someone else with less of a party outlook on life.

Talk to the Peace Corps people and see if they can put you in touch with some ex-Corpers. Talk to people in your network and ask to be put in touch with people who have been overseas. If you have contacts with a church they could probably put you in touch with some missionaries.

When you meet people you like, take their advice.
posted by kika at 10:27 AM on May 14, 2007

Handful of Rain,

I was lucky enough to work in Namibia for several months- the French came in handy on a daily basis.
posted by arnicae at 10:31 AM on May 14, 2007

funny, i'm in the midst of applying to the peace corps and having similar questions myself. i think i'm a bit older than you and have more definite career goals, so i personally would lean toward eastern europe, but i nth the above: consider what you want to get out of the pc experience. do you want to further your current interests or do something completely different? both are totally valid reasons to choose.

i suppose it is also worth considering your life outside of work--if you are not in a major urban area and if you are religious, are you okay with not having a house of worship nearby? or a bookstore or news outlet? or not having much to do on your days off/weekends? do you have dietary issues? i would imagine it might be more difficult to be a vegetarian, avoid lactose, be diabetic- or celiac-friendly, or keep kosher in some places than others.

none of these may be an issue for you, just things i'm tossing out.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:32 AM on May 14, 2007

arnicae- I'm referring to the Peace Corps requirements. From a Peace Corps point of view, Namibia is not a country that requires prior French language experience.
posted by handful of rain at 10:36 AM on May 14, 2007

My brother is in the PC, stationed in Senegal. He's loving it (besides all of the usual troubles of living almost entirely off the grid in a tiny town that is a 45 minute bikeride from the nearest very-very-small town).

He has gotten to travel some (but not extensively) in west africa.

He also has not used French for more than a passing couple of phrases. He learned Wolof and another african language. So don't be afraid of your French being rusty or anything.
posted by zpousman at 10:41 AM on May 14, 2007

I've been nominated for a computer education position in Africa (anglophone) leaving in September, still waiting for a placement. I requested Africa basically for 3 reasons: I wanted to go somewhere I'd really be needed, I'd read about lots of positive experiences from current Africa volunteers while browsing Peace Corps blogs, and I wanted to be able to use my French (that one doesn't seem to have panned out). Other anecdotal evidence that Africa is popular among PCVs right now: a girl I met in the elevator where I work two weeks ago is leaving for Mali this summer. If you're still undecided, I'd recommend reading some blogs by current volunteers in your three areas.
posted by gsteff at 10:50 AM on May 14, 2007

I also would suggest Africa. I spent five months in Malawi in 2005, am moving back there in September, and its pretty amazing.

Also, a hugely important consideration is language. The amount of good you can do is going to be directly proportional to your ability to communicate with people. No matter where you go, you are going to have to learn something new (yes, Francophone Africans speak French, but the more rural areas -- where you might be posted -- are also going to speak Bambara (in Mali) or something related to it, and it will have nothing to do with French or any other language you've ever studied). But, the good news is that African languages are generally not that difficult to learn. I got to be reasonably good at Chichewa in about five months and I wasn't working too hard at it and doing a lot of my communication in English. But I would vote against Asia because the language is going to be more challenging, and two years is not a very long time to learn a new language AND be an effective volunteer.
posted by bluenausea at 10:57 AM on May 14, 2007

Wow, Africa is the overwhelming favorite. A friend of mine did three years in the Ivory Coast; she loved it and would have stayed longer were it not for the civil war. The only downside for her that I'm aware of was the parasites, which sound pretty icky. But she's constantly trying to figure out how she can go back.

Good luck with your decision!
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:14 AM on May 14, 2007

Some small data points, for what they're worth:

A coworker did a PC tour in Senegal, and when she wasn't deathly ill, she was bored to tears. And apparently Senegalese is horrifically bland and monotonous (or at least her village's cuisine was).

A friend of a friend had an amazing time in the PC in Ghana. Introduced them to cheeseburgers.

Another friend of a friend was in the PC in Tanzania, I think it was, and had an interesting experience running a field trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Another friend of a friend had a pretty depressing PC experience in Kazakhstan.

(The friend of mine with all the other PC friends is currently doing his PC tour in Ecuador, and he seems an order of magnitude happier than he's ever been.)
posted by J-Train at 11:14 AM on May 14, 2007

I don't know if this helps, but my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are currently in Tanzania in the Peace Corps. They are in an extremely remote and impoverished village (by any standard; I know most Peace Corps assignments are in impoverished places, but they have been told theirs is worse than most). They are accomplishing a lot, but it's definitely a huge battle day-to-day. Of course, if they want French, that wouldn't be Tanzania. And if it's English education, that definitely wouldn't be such a small town.

Perhaps the thing I can tell you that will be most (or least) helpful is that their recruiter had them "all set" and "fully assigned" someplace in Southeast Asia, which apparently fell through, resulting in their current assignment. Apparently, the Peace Corps isn't always so organized in these things, so the decision you make might not be so terribly final. Hopefully, that will reduce your stress somewhat.
posted by JMOZ at 11:19 AM on May 14, 2007

Another vote for Africa. "Anecodatal "evidence" - I spent just two weeks working in Douala in Cameroon. I wish I had seen more of the country, but what I saw was amazing. One small thing - the music of Africa is so rich and varied that if you're into music maybe you'd really enjoy being immersed in that.

More "anecodatal "evidence" - I knew a guy who did a PC tour in Turkmenistan. It was an extremely difficult, frustrating and frightening experience. He tried his best but it was tough. Some of the members of his host family were heroin addicts. He got very little support from the Peace Corps in dealing with it. If you're a woman, this region could be challenging for additional reasons. If you can't rule out central Asia, unfortunately I wouldn't go for Asia. It's too bad because the Far East could be incredible.

And finally, I've travelled a lot in Eastern Europe and I agree that the culture is not fundamentally as different from American culture as in some of the other places you could choose. And right now there is a rush towards embracing consumerism that I find, while very understandable, fairly depressing.
posted by hazyjane at 12:42 PM on May 14, 2007

I suspect this will serve you as well in this situation as it would if these were actual pretties.
posted by hermitosis at 1:30 PM on May 14, 2007

Which one is least likely to get you killed?
posted by drstein at 3:02 PM on May 14, 2007

Africa. No question.

This is going to sound a little swaggery and lets compare stamps in our passports, but as datapoints i offer that i've lived in francophone africa (CdI), eastern europe (hungary and slovakia - though i'd assume you'd be in ukraine, unless they have a program in Moldova) and central asia (uzbekistan) and seen pcvs in all of those places and by far the happiest and most fulfilled were in Africa. I think its because its where they were most appreciated and felt of value to the community.

And also because if you're making a peace corps salary in those other places, many of the locals and all of the other expats are making more money you than you are, and noble poverty gets a little tiresome after a while.

Unless of course the Asia they're offering is something like Thailand, or Indonesia. But even thats not worth the risk that you'll end up in the mountains of tajikistan or somewhere out by the aral sea for a couple of years. (Not saying those aren't fascinating wonderful places to visit, but two years?)
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 3:22 PM on May 14, 2007

My uncle was in the Peace Corps in the 1960's teaching tilapia farming in the Cameroon in order to help them generate stable sources of food, and came away with - in addition to a wide smattering of parasites, infections, and communicable diseases including a near-fatal bout of TB all of which kept him in quarantine for months upon his return - the general impression that men in the Cameroon are more interested in getting drunk and sitting in the shade then digging massive holes in the ground.

A few months ago he met a young woman who had just come back from the Peace Corps. "What did you do?" he asked. To which she replied: "I was part of an effort to increase the agricultural self-sufficiency of West Africa by teaching them to farm tilapia, but the men there seemed more interested in getting drunk all day than digging big holes for fish and the project hasn't gotten very far." So 30 years on and The Cameroon is no closer to producing its own stock of tilapia than I am.

I guess my point is this: the best way to determine where to go in the Peace Corps is to ask someone who just came back from there how it was. Anything else that anybody here tells you ("Africa is beautiful! Go somewhere exotic!") is all nice but totally irrelevant. It seems that many times the Peace Corps runs these projects with more concern for now they look in a promotional brochure than how much change they actually affect.

Of course, the experience above isn't the exclusive one: a classmate of mine from high school was also in the Peace Corps in West Africa but was so discouraged, frustrated, and lonely that she "went native" and took to sitting in the shade and getting drunk all day. She was in rehab for months when she got back.
posted by ChasFile at 4:27 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

A friend was in pc in Malawi in about 1999. It was amazing, a great transforming perspective experience for her, but she felt that she couldn't do anything to help the people there. She said her site was so badly managed and under-resourced that something like 90% of her effort just getting food for herself and other basics. She was so frustrated with the situation, she left before her term was up, seeking a place where the organizational basics were in place so she could actually contribute.

(I don't know if Malawi is on the French list or not)
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:07 PM on May 14, 2007

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Africa. I'd caution against collecting opinions from one volunteer in each continent and making your conclusion from that - Africa alone has 30 different countries which are very different. Even in one country, villages, towns, cities, or regions of the country differed in ways you would not imagine.

I do not know how I would select between Asia and Africa, but I would probably eliminate Eastern Europe because it is easy to travel there.

As for my experience in Africa, I am glad I had the experience although it was hard at times. There were a few opportunities I would not have had as a tourist, and for that reason I'm glad I had a chance to live and work there. For example, watching ceremonies that were part of the local religion and listening to explanations - everything from funerals to healing ceremonies. I also had a lot of time to travel - as a volunteer you have 6 weeks vacation and you can travel when you are finished - so I had a chance to see Malawi, Kenya, and a few other countries during training.

E-mail is in my profile if you would like more info. If you don't feel comfortable, as another poster suggested, contact the PC office and they will provide you with contact info for other volunteers.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 6:10 PM on May 14, 2007

Response by poster: A bit of a sad update on all this. I ultimately chose to go for the Africa region. I got an invitation recently. It was for a country under Islamic law, and given the restrictions they spelled out in the invitation packet alone, I felt I would be really limited in what I could accomplish and pretty isolated. So, in the mean time, I may get another invitation, but they made no promises and gave me no timeline to expect a response. So, just in case this I get o response, plan B is being formulated as we speak.
posted by piratebowling at 8:50 AM on April 5, 2008

Response by poster: MeTa Update.
posted by piratebowling at 9:13 AM on May 9, 2008

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