The road to building a better, stronger Peace Corps

Peace Corps Volunteers serve worldwide, in countries with different cultures, languages, food and resources. As the New York Times points out, operating in these varying environments presents unique challenges that the Peace Corps faces each and every day.

The majority of Peace Corps Volunteers have a safe and productive volunteer experience that they cherish for the rest of their lives. While the Peace Corps has not been immune to tragedy over the years, the number of Volunteers who have died during service throughout the agency’s more than 50-year history is incredibly small – less than two-tenths of one percent.

Still, one death is one too many. Each one of these losses is personal – they are someone’s daughter or son, brother or sister, friend or loved one. We grieve for each and every one of them, including Nick Castle. We grieve because the loss of a Volunteer is also a tragic event for the entire Peace Corps family – from that Volunteer’s Country Director to their Medical Officer to Returned Volunteers across the globe. And as part of our commitment to honor the memory of these individuals, the Peace Corps is dedicated to doing everything it can, every single day, to protect the health, safety and security of our Volunteers.

The agency has focused intensely on improving the quality of support to Volunteers over the last few years, particularly when it comes to health care, safety and security, and programming and training. It’s all part of an ongoing, agency-wide reform effort spearheaded by Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

We have enacted measures to strengthen the delivery of health services and given Volunteers who have concerns, comments or questions about their healthcare a direct line to medical professionals at Peace Corps headquarters. And we have established a Health Care Quality Assurance Council to oversee, monitor and report on the quality of Peace Corps health services.

In the aftermath of a Volunteer death or major illness, the agency goes to great lengths to ensure that the emergency response is managed with the utmost sensitivity and respect for both the Volunteer and the Volunteer’s loved ones. Each case also invites reflection and introspection to determine what we can learn, so we can build a stronger, more effective Peace Corps.

We have trained Volunteers to better assess situations to keep themselves and each other safe, and created an Office of Victim Advocacy to support Volunteers who become victims of crime.

Today, the Peace Corps is not just a chance to make a difference but also a training ground and launching pad for a 21st century career. Volunteers gain cross-cultural, leadership and language skills that strengthen international ties and increase our country’s global competitiveness. But we know this can’t be possible without exemplary training and the highest quality programming for our Volunteers. One of our most important new initiatives is our Focus-In Train-Up strategy, which dramatically strengthens the quality of our technical training and program support for Volunteers. Peace Corps is also partnering with host governments, universities, NGOs and donors to ensure that our Volunteers are focusing on those projects that are wanted by their communities and have proven, through evidence, to be most effective at achieving development results. We are monitoring and evaluating our efforts so we can gauge the impact of our work. By giving Volunteers the training, tools and experience they need, they will increase impact today in their host communities, while becoming the next generation of American global leaders for tomorrow.

These are just some of the widespread changes we’ve made to continue to strengthen the Peace Corps today. We’re proud that the percentage of Volunteers who leave their service early, whether it’s due to medical, safety and security, or dissatisfaction with their assignment, is the lowest in the agency’s history. And while some reforms have brought immediate impact, others take time. But what we know definitively is that the Peace Corps has undergone nothing short of a complete culture change, and the agency’s approach is more Volunteer-centered than ever before, every step of the way.

As we move forward, our charge is to forge a modern-day Peace Corps that bridges our founding ideals with today’s realities. From boosting Volunteer support to enhancing training to revitalizing recruitment, the Peace Corps is more ready than ever to meet the needs of our country and our world.

Nothing is more important to the Peace Corps than our Volunteers, and though we can never fully overcome the fundamental challenges of operating abroad, we will never stop pushing the limit to try.

We’re changing the Peace Corps for the better, and we’re committed to doing it right.



Making a difference in the “Wild Kingdom”

In the fall of 1977, my wife, Diane, and I were assigned to be Peace Corps Environmental Education Specialists with the Paraguayan National Forest Service. At the time, unlike today, environmental education was an odd Peace Corps assignment, and we were the only “official” environmental educators in the country. Our job was pretty much what we could make it, so we ended up writing curricula, leading training workshops and developing interpretive programs in the national parks.

But it dawned on us that these efforts would essentially cease when we left the country. So we came up with an idea to establish a national natural history museum that would employ promising Paraguayan students as scientists-in-training. These students, we hoped, would end up working for conservation in Paraguay and educating their fellow citizens. It was a hare-brained idea, but our Paraguayan boss was in favor of giving it a shot. Continue reading

Why are you serving, PC trainee?

Craig_Chavis_Jr_060414_Peru_Staging_DSC_4924_pirate_photoCraig Chavis Jr.









“There are a lot of factors, first changing the world, second boost my career and third I’m addicted to travel. It’s like a perfect storm. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity!” says Craig Chavis Jr., who departed for service in Peru with his trainee class in early June. He made sure to pack a GoPro, because he loves shooting video, and hair clippers, because he’s also a barber.

In case you were wondering, Craig didn’t really go from piracy to Peace Corps. “I was at a Mardi Gras parade in Tampa dressed as a pirate on a float when I got the invitation email from Peace Corps.”

Summer of change at Peace Corps

Some things never change, like Peace Corps Volunteers’ commitment to rolling up their sleeves to make a difference in a community abroad. The Volunteers I meet today are no different than the Volunteers I served with in Samoa in the 1980’s – they are creative, passionate and willing to try anything (including some pretty unexpected food options). Yet at the same time, today’s Volunteers bring new skills, interests and perspectives, and it is our responsibility to modernize our operations to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

So starting this summer, we’re shaking things up at Peace Corps. We’re revitalizing recruitment and outreach to cast a wider net of applicants than ever. We’re cutting red tape and putting in place sweeping changes to make applying for the Peace Corps simpler, faster and more personalized. Applicants will now be able to choose their country of service and apply to specific programs that meet their personal and professional goals – whether that means focusing on a certain area of the world, a particular language or one of our program sectors that most interests them. Continue reading

Corps to Career: Turning a nutritious West African treat into a business


“Figure out a way you can bring home what you learned in Peace Corps,” advises Lisa Curtis, an RPCV and founder of Kuli Kuli, a business that makes nutrition bars out of moringa, a food grown in West Africa. This isn’t just advice she gives, it is a principle she lives by.

Lisa first found out about moringa while serving with Peace Corps in Niger from 2010 to 2011. However, her relationship with Peace Corps started long before she set off for service. Even when she was in high school, Lisa knew she wanted to be a part of Peace Corps. When she got to college, she took classes on African politics and decided she wanted to travel upon graduation, so she applied. When she got her assignment, she had no idea what to expect; all she knew about Niger was the little information she gained by Googling the country, and she had no idea how big of an impact her community would have on her.

The village she was assigned to lacked fresh fruits and vegetables, and soon she began to feel fatigue and lose weight — early signs of malnutrition. Continue reading

The 4 things we’ve done to make applying for Peace Corps easier than ever

VRSchanges The notion of going to another country to teach skills and learn about a different culture doesn’t seem out of the ordinary today, but for much of the Peace Corps’ history, we were the only volunteer program that let Americans make a difference and see the world. Over the course of 53 years, Peace Corps has sent 215,000 trained and skilled Americans to work beside people in host countries, learn new languages, embrace new cultures, and open hearts and minds – including their own.

We recognize that the Peace Corps has to modernize our processes to keep up with a rapidly changing world. That’s why today we’re announcing a brand new Peace Corps application and online user experience for people who want to make Peace Corps a part of their lives. Here are four new things that make it easier than ever to apply for Peace Corps service: Continue reading

Reaching the end of the road in Malawi

This piece originally appeared in full on “The Enterprise.”

There’s a combined good and sad feeling about leaving Malawi for home following two years of becoming part of a unique community. The time it takes to understand the realities of this country has quickly flashed by, and I’m left with impressions that are so different from my expectations. These days I try to reflect on how Africa and, more specifically, Malawi has changed me. Every moment now seems to offer a time of reflection.

Maybe it’s the words from the late 1960′s Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now” that ring true for what has happened to me. “Oh but now old friends are acting strange/They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed/Well something’s lost but something’s gained In living every day.” But what has been gained far surpasses what’s been lost. Even the infamous regular mini-bus ride to neighboring Dedza provides a moment to measure the change. Continue reading

Ending GHSP service on a high note


A few days before I closed my Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) service, the residents at my post in Uganda hosted a dinner for me at the Buffalo Inn. Two of my colleagues, Drs. Kumba and Kiwanuka joined the evening’s festivities.

Following dinner, my counterparts gave speeches in my honor. Dr. Olive Keneema, Resident in Pediatrics at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, kicked off the evening and spoke for the Senior House Officers. Dr. Keneema said these residents (two of whom are pictured with me above) enjoyed working with me, especially for both my sense of humor and for how I could make the difficult more bearable. Then Dr. Kumba spoke, acknowledging that I was a great addition to the department, and how I often contributed a “different pair of eyes” to help give a non-Ugandan perspective to cases. He also praised my wife both for her charm and loveliness when they met, and also for her willing sacrifice of me for this year.

Dr. Kiwanuka amazed me. He said that, although it is not customary in Uganda to say good things about people until their funerals, in this case he wanted to acknowledge my contribution to the department “while I could hear it,” which received good-natured laughter from everyone. Continue reading

Corps to career: Stateside, but blogging about all things abroad

BeckBooksTop5 Today, Jessie Beck writes and edits blogs advising prospective travelers on vetting volunteer groups, learning languages and making the most of escapades abroad. But before Beck became Content and Teach Abroad Director for GoOverseas, she was an Education PCV in Madagascar from 2011 to 2013. We spoke with Beck about shifting from service life to career, harnessing social networks and keeping those “that one time in the Peace Corps…” anecdotes short and sweet. Continue reading

Reflection: How Peace Corps changed my life


Now that I am back in the United States, reconnecting with my friends and family and adjusting to the realities of American life, many people ask me with fascination and respect, “So what exactly did you do down there?”

It’s a good question. Many Americans do not have a real understanding of the mission undertaken by the more than 7,200 current PCVs serving in 65 countries around the world. To answer them, I reflect back on my service, an incredible, personal, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing and maddening ride through life in the Surinamese rainforest.

The most accurate response (which I rarely provide) is that I gained far more than I ever sacrificed.

Continue reading