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What is the Peace Corps?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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The Peace Corps is an agency of the United States federal government that sends volunteers worldwide to assist developing nations. These volunteers teach in schools, build houses, assist with sex education programs, and participate in a variety of other services to communities around the globe. The Peace Corps is internationally recognized as a service organization. More than 210,000 people had volunteered in nations all over the world by 2011, the 50th anniversary of the organization's founding.

Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps was inspired by a speech made by John F. Kennedy in 1960 during his successful presidential campaign. He challenged students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to find a meaningful way to contribute to their world. The famous speech motivated the students, and shortly after taking office, President Kennedy signed an executive order to form the organization. Volunteers were eager to sign up for assignments in Ghana, Tanzania, the Philippines, Chile, and St. Lucia. Approximately 5,000 individuals arrived to take the first qualifying examination offered.

In 1964, the Peace Corps Partnership Project was founded, to allow individuals at home to support the organization if they were unable to serve overseas. The program became wildly popular, and enrollment continued to increase. As the 1970s dawned, the Peace Corps began to attract volunteers with professional skills, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, and botanists. These volunteers made up 1/5 of the total volunteer population, and their services proved invaluable in far flung corners of the globe across five continents.

The Peace Corps continues to grow and develop, with participants ranging from recent college graduates to older, more experienced individuals in singles and couples. In 2011, the group was working in 75 countries with more than 9,000 volunteers who came from all walks of life. It does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, or cultural background. The average age of a volunteer is 28, but 7% are over age 50, and the organization does prefer volunteers with experience and skill sets. Many college graduates choose to spend several years in the Peace Corps before pursuing a career, and there are student loan deferments and payoff programs offered as an incentive to recent graduates.

Service in the Peace Corps is not for everyone. The work is often physically and emotionally demanding, and some individuals may not be suited to a term of service, which lasts for two years. For others, volunteering is a wonderful way to learn new languages and see the world. Many former volunteers are also on the permanent staff of the organization, encouraging others to explore this type of service.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Jan 28, 2014

@MrsPramm - Well, you don't get to choose where they send you. I had some French so it was apparently almost inevitable that I was going to be sent to Africa and I ended up in Mali which is about as far from the beach as you can get.

It was amazing, of course, but it was also very difficult. The physical hardships are what people think of first, but you get used to that in a few months (or you leave). It's the emotional trauma that can make it hard to adjust. So many people in my town died for various reasons while I was there. And there just isn't that much you can do to help people unless you get lucky.

I wouldn't discourage anyone from doing it, but if you can manage to try a Peace Corps alternative for a few months in order to see what the work is like, I would definitely recommend doing that first.

By MrsPramm — On Jan 28, 2014

@Ana1234 - There's actually quite a few interesting interesting stories about the Peace Corps if you dig into the history. I met some people from Peace Corps Tonga while I was over there for a vacation and it was actually pretty interesting. I'm not sure I could ever do that kind of work, but it must be nice to spend two years on the beach, helping people.

By Ana1234 — On Jan 28, 2014

One of the most interesting stories I've ever heard about the Peace Corps was that right after it started one of the first people to have a Peace Corps job decided to write a postcard to her family. She described the living conditions as primitive and was fairly down about the whole thing, although it was mostly homesickness.

Unfortunately, because it was a postcard, somehow it got into the hands of students at a local university and they were outraged at what she had written about their country. There were demonstrations and the Peace Corps almost needed to be evacuated. They managed to talk it out with the people before that happened.

Afterwards, Kennedy gave a short speech to the next group of trainees and jokingly added that they should, of course, send letters home, "...but no postcards!"

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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