THE DAILY STUDENT NEWSPAPER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

Peace Corps a virtuous, potentially dangerous job

Zach Harr | September 27, 2012    

It’s been 51 years since President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps. And since,…It’s been 51 years since President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps. And since, according to its official website, more than 210,000 volunteers have been assigned locations around the world to complete his mission of promoting world peace and friendship.

But packing up and heading to an unknown part of the world can be a daunting mission, one that can be fraught with danger and difficulty.

Rashawna Chapman from San Diego recently returned from her 27-month commitment with the Corps and described her experience abroad as “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” She presented her experiences along with past Peace Corps volunteer and now-recruiter Jonnett Maurer Tuesday evening at an info session in room 538 of the William Pitt Union.

Chapman volunteered in the Commonwealth of Dominica, a Caribbean island northwest of Martinique, and Maurer spent 2001 to 2003 volunteering in the West African country of Togo.

Benefits to attract applicants that are associated with the Peace Corps include student loan assistance, travel to and from volunteer service locations, full medical and dental coverage and 48 paid vacation days.

“There should be no financial commitment on your part to serve in Peace Corps,” Maurer said to the roughly 30 people in attendance. “There’s no fee to participate. Everything is provided for you.”

But interested applicants have to consider the safety and security measures surrounding joining the Peace Corps.

Sarah Winston, a junior majoring in Spanish and anthropology, was among those who attended Tuesday night’s info session. Winston understands the dangers that could come her way as a possible volunteer.

“The stories are out there,” she said. “I really try to keep them out of my mind. In terms of being prepared, I trust the Peace Corps to give me the tools necessary to be safe and make good decisions no matter where I am,” she said.

“The safety and security of our volunteers is the Peace Corps’ top priority,” an emailed statement from the Peace Corps said. “Over the past couple of years we have put in place new practices and safeguards to better protect volunteers and ensure victims of crime receive compassionate and effective support.”

The importance of keeping safety and security strong for volunteers was reaffirmed in a testimony from Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October 2011.

“The Peace Corps has had many successes, but there have been setbacks too,” he said. “In order to build on our achievements, improve our operations and ensure we meet new challenges and opportunities head-on, the agency has embarked on a wide-ranging series of reforms.”

Among those reforms include hiring the Peace Corps’s first victim advocate for victims to turn to for help, issuing “a set of core principles to ensure [the Peace Corps employees] provide timely, effective and compassionate support to victims of sexual assault” and improving previously provided sexual assault training.

A month after Williams’ testimony, President Barack Obama signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, named after and in honor of a Peace Corps volunteer murdered while serving in Benin in 2009.

According to govtrack.us, a website promoting government transparency, the bill amended the Peace Corps Act to require sexual assault risk-reduction and response training while also establishing the Office of the Victim Advocate and a Sexual Assault Advisory Council.

The first three months of the 27-month commitment are focused on training for the remaining two years of a volunteer’s assignment.

In an email interview, senior Priyanka Kaura, who was at the information session and is considering applying for the Peace Corps, also said she has thought about possible dangers and what she could do to prepare.

“I don’t think there’s much to do except for taking a self-defense class, reading about the area where I get placed and acting confident while traveling,” Kaura said.

Chapman offered some advice to applicants wary of joining because of possible dangers.

“[The Peace Corps] is not worth giving up for possible dangers,” she said in a later email. “We live every day of our lives with possible dangers whether we live in the U.S. or not. Push your way through the long application process. It is well worth the wait.”

The time from starting the application to becoming an official volunteer can take upward of a year or more.

Maurer stressed during the info session that interested students should apply before the Sept. 30 deadline to be eligible to leave for an assignment in the spring and summer of 2013.

While going through age statistics for those who serve with the Peace Corps, Maurer gave an example which drew a few mouths agape with surprise.

“There’s no upper-age limit,” she said. “The oldest volunteer right now is 85, and he’s in Botswana. So certainly, as long as you’re able to serve and have skills to offer and are medically able to serve, we will put you into service.”

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