Last month marked the 55th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy’s speech on the steps of the Michigan Union proposing the organization of a United States Peace Corps.

Many things have changed since the program’s inception in 1961, most notably the advancement of technology— which has had a profound influence on the application, deployment and service experience of Peace Corps volunteers in recent years, particularly among University participants.

Application process

In August 2012, the Peace Corps officially switched to an online application process that allows applicants to apply only to regions in which they have an interest. The previous system accepted only general applications — volunteer assignment locations were later determined based on each location’s varying level of need.

Jeanne Paul, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil from 1964 to 1966, said because applicants can choose which regions they apply to, certain less desirable locations may no longer have enough volunteers. She said the Peace Corps changed their method of application to appeal to more applicants with a wider variety of experiences and qualifications.

“The irony here is that when you allow people to make these choices and to feel that they can determine where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do, you may be attracting people at the same time who won’t easily adjust to the communities where they’re serving,” Paul said.

Paul is the founder and administrator of the Southeast Michigan Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Applicant-Mentoring Program, a program which matches former volunteers with students and community members interested in applying. The program works in conjunction with the School of Information and the Peace Corps.

Rackham student Benjamin Morse, a former Peace Corps volunteer and strategic campus recruiter for the corps, served in Hawzen, Ethiopia from 2011 to 2013.

In addition to being able to apply to specific regions, Morse said the online application process has also allowed volunteers to gain more information about where they’re going before they leave. When he was deployed, prior to the online application, he said he had no information until right before he departed.

“It was this elusive process where you never really knew where you were going until right at the end,” Morse said.

Because he could not, at that time, apply to any particular region, after being admitted, Morse was nominated by the corps for a specific region. Morse was asked to serve in sub-Saharan Africa, and told he would depart that October. Morse said he was not permitted to know what country he was going to until 10 days after he was told his region.

Technology access during service

University alum Rachel Bielajew currently serves as a math education Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and will complete her service in September 2017. Rackham student Megan Barnes served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.

Though technological advancement is seen as vital in the Western world, both Barnes and Bielajew said they found little use for advanced technology in the field.

Bielajew said her work teaching math largely lacks technological tools.

“In my work as a teacher I use very little (technology),” Bielajew said. “Day to day, it’s just a chalkboard, chalk and me.”

Bielajew said her school is currently trying to acquire a computer, despite limited funds. She brought her laptop to Malawi and is using it to teach her fellow teachers and community members how to use a computer, or to show films to her students to help them practice English.

In contrast, Barnes said she remembered visiting a remote community with no electricity that had been gifted a complete solar-powered computer lab. She said the gift went largely unused.

“It was reputed that no one knew how to use or fix the computers so they went unused,” Barnes said. “I thought a thing like that would be nice for my community, but saw the sustainability challenges with installing a ‘gifted’ technology suite’that would then be left to gather dust.”

Charging a cell phone is quite a feat in the Peace Corps. Using car batteries to charge phones or traveling to a city to sit in a coffee shop are the norm for many volunteers who are seeking electricity. Paul said she’s had return volunteers tell her they have to walk to the highest elevation in the area to find cell phone reception, even if that spot is hours away. Even so, she said, every volunteer brings a cell phone.

Though technology is not largely used for teaching purposes, both Barnes and Bielajew brought cell phones to their countries of deployment, and used them regularly. Bielajew said she was one of few community members to have a smartphone.  

“I use my smartphone all the time for personal reasons, like talking with other volunteers and friends back at home through WhatsApp,” Bielajew said. “Many of the members of my community have a cell phone, but only a few of the more well-off people have a smartphone.”

Barnes said she was unsure of what to expect of the technology in Guatemala, and she heard mixed accounts of cell phone access and the presence of Internet cafes. She said as unpredictable as it was, media access provided her comfort during her service.

“I use Facebook occasionally to update friends and family back home and try to share with them some of what I’m learning about the culture of Malawi,” Bielajew said. “ I don’t remember the last time I read or watched the news because it just takes too long to load on my phone.”

Reintegration into society

It can be difficult for Peace Corps volunteers to reintegrate into society upon return.

Paul said a smooth integration to a new society is influenced by the volunteers’ expectations. Negative expectations can make reintegration difficult for those returning. She said volunteers return with one foot in the culture of the host community and another foot in their native culture, which can be difficult to reconcile.

“They expect culture shock when they go, they don’t expect culture shock when they come back and it’s very painful to discover most Americans are not interested in what they learned,” Paul said. “And when they come back they’re very different people.”

When Paul returned, the landscape of American culture had gone through an upheaval during her 27 months in Brazil.

“Women were ironing their hair on an ironing board, women were all wearing miniskirts, there was mass murder in this country for the first time and there was inflation — a term we’d never heard before,” Paul said.

For Barnes, the reintegration period was not as difficult, largely due to access to technology, which Paul did not have during his service. Due to access to communication mediums like e-mail and Facebook, Barnes said, it did not feel as though the world had moved on without her.

“I was a little behind the times as far as popular culture and music went,” Barnes said. “But I had at least heard of ‘Game of Thrones’ — even if I didn’t know what it was.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.