Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wasted Potential of RPCVs

I’ve been back in the U.S. for almost seven months now (Whoa, where did the time go?! I still feel like I just returned). While I have a job, albeit a temporary one, some of the returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) in my group and groups that followed mine are still jobless and trying to readjust to life in America. As I talk with my RPCV friends and read blogs, I realize this is quite common nationwide. Many dedicated, smart, responsible, young Americans are being under-utilized in this country, due in large part to the current economy. I see a lot of wasted potential and wonder, is this a Peace Corps epidemic?

When you return from Peace Corps, you feel on top of the world. You’ve accomplished something you set out to do – you pushed through 27 months of blood, sweat, and tears (not to mention vomit, diarrhea, dirt, manure and torrential rains). In Peace Corps, you command respect in your community.  You can call together a meeting of the mayor, local leaders, teachers and parents with a simple handwritten note. They will attend because you are the token American. Your opinion and you matter. After such a positive experience, you return to the U.S. ready for a change.  You're ready to see family and friends, enjoy creature comforts, and to make some money!

My Peace Corps cohort with our end of service certificates. 
Ready to go back to the U.S. - we had no idea what was coming....
But reality quickly sets in. Back in the U.S., you’re just another face in the crowd of 20-somethings looking for a job. Yes, Peace Corps sets you apart and can often make the difference when you’re looking for a job; but in the current economy, this might not matter. When my cohort left for Peace Corps (the day after President Obama was sworn-in), the economy was just beginning its downward spiral. We felt lucky; we were leaving at just the right time. By the time we finished our service, the economy would be on the upswing, right? Right? Wrong. The deep valley of the recession seems to have no end.

Looking at the RPCVs from my cohort, I see that a few are now in graduate school (the ones that filled out grad school applications while in Peace Corps - not an easy feat!), a few are working in professional jobs, but the majority seems to be struggling to answer the question of “what’s next?” One of my RPCV friends wrote on Facebook recently that she was “wondering what to do with this life??” Some, lacking direction or not wanting a long-term commitment, decide to do another stint in Peace Corps in the “Peace Corps Response” program. The Response program allows RPCVs to serve 6-12 months in Peace Corps’ countries working in more advanced and managerial positions than normal volunteers. Others join AmeriCorps or Teach for America, continuing in the theme of service, and still living in poverty. A few of my RPCV friends are working various part-time jobs and networking and applying with a vengeance to jobs in their career field. One girl has visited numerous RPCV career fairs in Chicago and Washington DC; applied to probably 50 jobs; flown out to DC two times for interviews; but she is still working as a part-time caterer and cow-milker. Way to use your youth, America.

I feel lucky to live in Alaska right now where the recession is being felt somewhat less than in most states. Jobs seem plentiful, and although they may not be in my idea career field (International Relations), I can get good experience and make some money to save up for graduate school and beyond. I get frustrated though when I see my RPCV friends’ Facebook updates and we talk on the phone. I can tell many of them are getting burned out in the job search and are starting to feel without direction and lost in the crowd. I know that I'm just one job offer away from that as well. Who knows, maybe if this goes on for long enough we’ll all go back to Nicaragua or maybe we’ll give up on the whole idea of a career and a successful life in the U.S altogether. Nah – we’re Peace Corps volunteers. We can take a beating and we come back for more. Anyone who has been puked on by multiple small children in a “chicken bus” or pooped their pants from a bacterial infection and lived to tell the tale should never be underestimated.

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