By Elizabeth Erbeznik, ISA Curriculum Specialist
Study abroad is a process of discovery. You will discover new places and new passions. You will discover skills and strengths you didn’t know you had. And, it’s entirely possible that you might also discover that you’re nowhere near ready to trade your travel backpack for a cubicle.
Study abroad can really wreck your plans (in a good way) and leave you searching for a new path. If you returned home from abroad only to start Googling jobs overseas, you’ve probably considered applying to the Peace Corps.
Like most jobs, applying to the Peace Corps can be very competitive. Since changing the application process in 2014, the Peace Corps now receives over 20,000 applications for only 4,000 open positions each year.
Our experiences abroad show us the world – and ourselves. You can leverage your international experience to determine if the Peace Corps is right for you and, likewise, convince a Peace Corps placement officer that YOU are right for the Peace Corps.
Throughout the month of May, as thousands of students graduate from college and move forward with their careers, ISA will publish a series of stories from ISA staff members about how their study abroad experiences laid the foundation for their time with the Peace Corps.
Elizabeth Erbeznik, Curriculum Specialist
Study Abroad: Switzerland and France
Peace Corps: Madagascar
I never planned on spending a significant part of my late-teens/early-20s abroad. But when given the chance to participate in an exchange program in French-speaking Switzerland while in high school, I immediately applied for a passport and convinced my parents that it would be a life-changing opportunity. Turns out, I was right.
Those three weeks in Switzerland led to a year-long study abroad adventure in France. I was back home from France for less than a month before starting my Peace Corps application. Here’s how those experiences in Switzerland and France prepared me (sort of) for my time in Madagascar:
French proficiency. Did you know that French is spoken in about a dozen countries (mostly in Africa) where the Peace Corps currently operates? Because I was already proficient in French, my language instruction during training focused exclusively on learning Malagasy. This meant that I had much more practice in the local language than the volunteers who needed to devote time to learning French as well.
Confidence. I remember that first day at my French university, petitioning professors to allow me to take their classes (one said no!), sitting through lectures delivered entirely in French, hoping to understand just enough to allow me to pass my courses. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But, somehow, I did. Was I fully prepared, then, to start teaching English to packed classrooms full of middle- and high-schoolers on my third day on site in Madagascar? Honestly, not really. But I knew that what felt impossible at first would grow easier with time. And, of course, it did.
Resiliency. There were days in France when going grocery shopping, sending a package, or doing laundry seemed like insurmountable struggles. There were times (yes, multiple times) when I’d get on the metro (or tube, or subway, or tram – depending on what European city I was in) only to realize, several stops later, that I was going in the wrong direction. Let’s just say that I failed at supposedly easy things. A lot. Guess what I did in Peace Corps? I failed at supposedly easy things. A lot. I couldn’t light a charcoal fire without help from my neighbor’s children. I never grasped the conversion between kilograms and pounds and once bought several kilos of lychees that, while delicious, induced gastrointestinal distress. There were days (and sometimes days that stretched into weeks) when I questioned whether I was doing anything worthwhile for the local community. But the failures became a part of my experience, fueling my growth, and reminding me that, sometimes, success just means showing up.
My advice to anyone interested in becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is to, first and foremost, ensure that you have the skills required by the position for which you are applying. But don’t forget to highlight how your prior international experiences have equipped you to handle the unique pressures of such an immersive experience abroad.