Is the Peace Corps sending too many inexperienced volunteers abroad?

During my final year of college, I was faced with the decision that hits every young person of a certain age: What the hell am I going to do with my life? I knew that I loved travel and I had a vague notion that I ought to be doing good works on this planet, so I rather seriously considered joining the Peace Corps. I even went so far as to submit the application and participate in a telephone interview with a recruiter, before deciding that it wasn’t for me.

A week ago, a former Peace Corps country director wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Too Many Innocents Abroad,” praising the aid organization’s new plan to recruit older volunteers and questioning whether there aren’t too many recent college grads “finding themselves” abroad:

“[E]ven if the Peace Corps reaches its goal of having 15 percent of its volunteers over 50, the overwhelming majority will remain recently minted college graduates. And too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.”

Indeed, many volunteers, especially those just out of college, quit before their two-year commitment is up. A lack of maturity probably contributes to this in many cases– two years is an impossibly long time for a 22-year-old– but so does the feeling that they’re trying to grind away at a mountain with a fingernail file. One of the most brutal realizations that occurs to lots of PC volunteers, from what I’ve heard, is that their work in-country probably won’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. There’s nothing that sends a person packing faster than feeling useless.

Of course, one way to improve the odds of volunteers feeling like they are affecting real change is to recruit only the highest-quality, most experienced volunteers. This is almost sure to lower their numbers, so that fewer countries are served by the Peace Corps, but it might be a worthy trade-off if it means that each volunteer accomplishes more.

Note that, despite the oft-cited criticism of the Peace Corps that their volunteers receive more from the cultural exchange than the people they are serving, I have a hell of a lot of respect for PC volunteers. Dedicating two years of your life to helping others, no matter what the results, is mighty admirable– for people of any age.

Hat tip: World Hum.