March 23, 2010
Approximately 30% of applicants to the Peace Corps are invited to join the U.S. government's international volunteer service agency that currently has more than 7,000 volunteers in 76 countries. How to successfully apply and what's involved in serving in the Peace Corps were among the topics covered by a series of speakers on the Knox campus to mark Peace Corps Week in March.
"I've gotten through the interview," said Knox College student and Peace Corps applicant Jeff Wozencraft, in his campus talk. "You're asked things like, 'Give an example of how you have overcome adversity,' and 'give an example of when you took the initiative.' "
More than 60% of applicants are interviewed, about 50% are 'nominated,' and approximately 30% are invited and begin service in the volunteer program, which was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Knox has a Peace Corps Preparatory Program designed to prepare students for international service. A special, internationally-focused curriculum aims at making Knox students strong candidates for the Peace Corps, ultimately helping the agency expand its pool of qualified candidates.
Photos above and right: Peace Corps applicant Jeff Wozencraft
Even with background checks and recommendations, Wozencraft told students, "the application process is not as intimidating as it looks." Wozencraft would like a position in the area of economic development in Latin America. "But I've also taken the training for Literacy Coalition -- that gives me an opportunity in teaching, in addition to working in business development," he said. "If you have experience in agriculture, mention that in your application. They want someone with youth experience -- I've coached soccer camps. If you have experience with Habitat for Humanity, mention that in your application. I speak Spanish, but this year I took French -- that could open me up to an opportunity in Africa."
Interest and experience in teaching are also valuable attributes for applicants. In particular the Peace Corps has openings in English teaching for applicants skilled in that area.
"One of my professors, Steve Cohn was a Peace Corps volunteer," Wozencraft said. "He encouraged me -- 'go out there, do something different.' I went to Spain last year. Last summer I worked with a microfinance project in Guatemala for eight weeks -- all volunteer." Wozencraft was awarded a Richter Grant from Knox College that covered some of his expenses for his time in Guatemala.
"In Guatemala I was there all by myself -- there were no other Americans. I saw it as a litmus test for myself," Wozencraft said. If he's accepted to the Peace Corps, he said, "I know I could be away from the comforts of the U.S. for two years, but I'm excited."
A senior from Arlington Heights, Illinois, who won all-conference honors in soccer, Wozencraft was the first of four speakers who discussed their experiences before, during, and after volunteer service in the Peace Corps.
Speakers Served in Gambia, Turkmeninstan
The other speakers were Sarah Stewart, who served in The Gambia in West Africa; and Heidi Britton and Leo Dion, who served as a married couple in Turkmenistan, a Central Asian nation that was once part of the Soviet Union.
Stewart, a teacher and principal in the ROWVA school district near Galesburg, said that Africa was her first choice. "My assignment was training teachers in The Gambia. I thought to myself -- 'I'm just out of college, I don't know if I'm qualified for this.' But I got a lot of training from the Peace Corps, and I did feel prepared. It's definitely an adjustment. Things look different, they taste different, smell different. The Peace Corps prepares you for the experience -- both language and cultural training."
"No regrets"... "Best decision ever"
At the conclusion of her two-years service, Stewart said she used her bonus, approximately $6,000, for a round the world tour. And last summer, she returned to the village where she served in 2002-2004. Of her time in the Peace Corps, Stewart said, "It was an incredible boost for my career. I have absolutely no regrets."
Britton, currently the administrator for the Knox County Health Department, called it "the best decision I've ever made." She and her husband served in Turkmenistan -- "When we filled out the form, asking where we wanted to go, we didn't specify a country -- we picked 'other'," she said. "We had never heard of Turkmenistan. When we were there, we only saw two other Americans."
Networking is another benefit, Britton said. "The great thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer is that no matter where you go, you find other Peace Corps volunteers. You know what you've been through, you know what others have been through. And when employers see 'Peace Corps' on your resume, they're interested."
Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 47 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.