THE wages are paltry, the conditions harsh, and the work often lonely. Yet Americans are flocking to the Peace Corps in record numbers.
At a time when many Americans see the world as hostile and hazardous, it is heartening to see that applications to the Peace Corps are at a 29-year high. The number increased by 10 percent from 2003 to 2004, with 7,733 volunteers now serving in 71 countries.
Whether beekeeping in Bolivia or teaching in Tanzania, the jobs of Peace Corps volunteers are rarely glamorous. The pay is kept comparable to the wages in developing countries, often between $100 and $200 per month. Communication with loved ones is often limited by poor mail service and many volunteers face extremes of hot or cold.
But for Peace Corps workers, the payoff is huge. People join the Peace Corps for many reasons, whether it's the opportunity to help people in need, learn a language, reconnect with nature, or just postpone the search for a "real job."
Experiences in the Peace Corps often shape lives, whether people devote their careers to international development or simply carry their experiences with them into other fields.
It's also worth saying that these days, when much of the Muslim world is suspicious of Americans, Peace Corps volunteers are one of the best (and cheapest) ways to restore trust. Hardworking volunteers can change more minds than any large-scale U.S. publicity campaign. Currently, about 20 percent of Peace Corps volunteers work in Muslim countries.
Many Peace Corps recruits are recent college graduates, but older Americans can volunteer, too. After all, compassion and service know no age.