Chances are, when you think of the Peace Corps, you imagine altruistic twentysomethings living in huts and toiling away to make life better for residents of undeveloped countries.
While that’s still often true, the Peace Corps is on a tear to attract volunteers 50 and older, hoping to tap their skills and place them around the world.
Today, eight percent of the program’s volunteers are 50 or older. “I’d like it to be closer to 15 percent,” Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet told me.
Purposeful Effort to Find Older Volunteers
“The Peace Corps has always been open to volunteers of all ages, but we’ve made a much more purposeful effort to recruit older volunteers,” said Hessler-Radelet, the fourth in her family to volunteer for the Peace Corps (at 24, she taught English in Western Samoa).
“We love having older volunteers who bring a lot to the table — a wealth of skills and tested maturity that allow them to make a difference in a community,” she added.
Hessler-Radelet is talking about encore career volunteers like Barbara Jue, 66, a former HR exec who’s now doing business development work for the Peace Corps in Moldova, a small, poor country between Romania and Ukraine. Specifically, Jue is fostering entrepreneurship for young people there, especially women.
“I grew up when JFK was president, so I was enamored by the Peace Corps when it first began,” Jue told me over a FaceTime call. “But I didn’t want to go into it right after college. I had school loans and felt I should go to work and earn a living first.” As Jue neared retirement in 2010, however, “I felt it would be nice to be able to live in another country and work alongside local people there.”
Applying Is Now Quicker and More Personalized
One enticement to lure boomers like Jue: A wholly revamped, simpler, and quicker Peace Corps application process (filling out the forms now takes under an hour, down from the cumbersome 60+-page version which took eight hours). There’s been a 46 percent increase in older applicants since the process was streamlined and 95 percent of those who start the application submit it.
What’s more, the Peace Corps now lets you list your top three choices of where you’d like to volunteer and what you’d like to do there — in the past, if you were selected you went where you were told and did what you were instructed.
You’re not guaranteed to get your first choice — in fact, you’re not guaranteed to be chosen at all (“the demand for the Peace Corps far outstrips the number of positions,” says Hessler-Radelet). But if you’re accepted and can’t get your first choice, the Peace Corps tries to give you your second or third.
Where You’ll Live and for How Long
Peace Corps volunteer tours generally last 27 months, but a Peace Corps Response program placement — for seasoned professionals with at least 10 years of work experience as well as returning Peace Corps volunteers — lasts three months to one year. That program’s application takes just 15 to 30 minutes to complete.
While older Peace Corps volunteers might end up living in huts, they could also wind up in apartments or homes of local residents, as Jue has (though her first home in Moldova had an indoor toilet, an outhouse and no hot running water).
“Older volunteers are more likely to be placed in slightly more developing economies, where we can support them medically,” said Hessler-Radelet. And since they often have job skills suited to business workplaces, “they’re more likely to be in capital cities than younger volunteers,” she added.
The Benefits of Multigenerational Volunteering
One reason the Peace Corps is eager to attract older volunteers is that they and younger ones can be useful to each other. “The older ones can learn a lot about how to navigate tricky cultural, social and work situations because they’ve had more experience. And the younger ones have a lot to teach the older volunteers, especially around social media,” said Hessler-Radelet.
Jue has personal experience along those lines.
“I’ve spoken with other older Peace Corps volunteers and we’ve shared the observation that we know how to tackle a project, to initiate plans and organize teams,” she said. “Many of the younger volunteers have heard about those things in theory in school, but they don’t have a lot of hands-on experience. We take more time to plan, versus the younger ones who want to dive in.”
Challenges for Older Volunteers
Being an older volunteer has its challenges, though.
“I think learning another language when you’re older is extremely difficult,” said Jue. She’s still trying to master Romanian. “I can make myself understood for basic things, but carrying on a conversation is extremely hard. I’m lucky that my co-workers have a pretty good understanding of English.”
Jue said her time in the Peace Corps has been a “great experience,” but noted that becoming a volunteer in the program isn’t for everybody.
The Ideal Candidates
Hessler-Radelet echoed that sentiment, with a nod to the organization’s motto: The toughest job you’ll ever love.
“Peace Corps service is tough. It’s absolutely not for everyone,” she said. “The living conditions can be rough and you’re living away from your family for two years, although you can build strong relationships with your community.”
The ideal candidate, she said, is someone who loves a challenge and is: highly-motivated, driven by a desire to serve, willing to be flexible and interested in other cultures.
Jue is now considering applying for the Response program after her Moldova experience ends next August and she spends some time back home in California. “If I feel healthy, I might be interested in that,” she said.