This article originally appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen
Before some important changes were made earlier this year to the Peace Corps' initial application process, Meredith Gall used to describe the eight-hour, online experience as an illustrative introduction to what would-be applicants were getting themselves into.
"I used to joke that the application itself was a good test of the patience and flexibility that they would be needing as a Peace Corps volunteer," said Gall, the UI Peace Corps campus representative.
But Gall hasn't had to make that joke for nearly five months now — ever since July 1, when the 52-year-old State Department agency launched a streamlined, one-hour version of its application.
After the agency completed a comprehensive assessment in 2010, it started moving forward with plans to simplify that initial application experience as well as provide would-be Peace Corps volunteers with greater opportunity to say where they would like to go and what work they would like to do. (In the past, stating such preferences directly often would be held against an applicant or, at the very least, significantly delay the processing of an application.)
"The goal is still to get the best and the brightest people where they want to be and doing what they are most passionate about," Gall said. "So the changes really are about making the process friendlier and more transparent. … We follow up and get the additional information from particular people, but we figured out we don't need to get everything from everyone up-front."
Gall said the number of applications nationwide in July 2014 marked a 400 percent increase over July 2013, and the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — which included only three months under the new process — marked a 22-year high for the agency.
Yet "serving where needed most" continues to be a powerful force in leading college seniors to consider the Peace Corps as an option after graduation. Of the applications received by the Peace Corps since July 1, Gall said 54 percent of the applicants mark that, despite having other options, they still are willing to go wherever the Peace Corps wants to send them.
Flexibility still the No. 1 need
Although Gall doesn't need to joke about the application process any more, she said she does tell would-be applicants that "flexibility is still the highest need for a Peace Corps volunteer." And although providing a preference is no longer held against applicants, it is still up to applicants themselves to prove that they understand that, when they get to their community, they will "need to be flexible to what's needed."
That definitely was the experience of Aaron Miers, now a UI law student, when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo from 2011-13.
The Quad Cities-native served in the 1,000-person village of Timbou, where the village leaders had requested Peace Corps' help in alleviating gender inequity — especially in terms of persuading more parents to stop pulling their daughters from public school after the fifth grade.
As part of his volunteer work, Miers visited all the households in the village to assess their needs and figure out the best way to be of assistance. Eventually his efforts included overseeing the construction of a maternity ward to the local hospital. And his work was successful enough that the village requested another volunteer once he left.
Flexibility also was key to Iowa City native and City High graduate Claudia Garcia's experience as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2012-14 in the town of El Cortezo in Panama.
After majoring in international studies and Spanish at Central College in Pella, Garcia said she "wanted to do something completely different." So she was excited to be paired with a Panamanian elementary school teacher and spent her two years helping teacher and students alike to improve their ability to speak (and to teach) English.
"I was very lucky that she wanted to work with me," Garcia said.
Garcia, who now works in the alumni department at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, said she wouldn't have listed any specific preferences even if it had been a viable option when she applied.
"They said it would be harder for you to be placed sooner, and I wanted to go right away," Garcia said.
'My top choice'
When UI senior Brett Burk applied to the Peace Corps in late October — after the change in the application process — he noted that his No. 1 preference would be to go to China and his No. 2 would be Mongolia. For his No. 3 option, the Oskaloosa native and linguistics major said, "I'll take anywhere that the Peace Corps will send me."
Burk, who studied Chinese for 3½ years at UI and is scheduled to graduate in December, said he wants to teach English abroad for a few years before returning to the U.S. for graduate school. In case the Peace Corps doesn't work out, he also has applied for a Fulbright grant and is looking into a number of programs that allow Americans to teach English in China.
"But Peace Corps is my top choice," Burk said.
Burk won't know until at least January whether he is the top choice of the Peace Corps, as well. But, unlike with pre-July 1 applicants, Burk's preferences won't be held against him. And Gall said applicants like Burk have much more access than in the past to information about the know-by dates and the number of positions open in any one country at any one time.
'A dream come true'
Burk's application experience differs from that of Nyassa Kollie, who submitted her application in fall 2013, before the process changed. Undaunted by the eight-hour length of the initial application, the energetic and motivated UI English major had to wait nearly a year until she found out, on Nov. 14, that she had been selected for a position teaching English in Malawi.
Scheduled to graduate from UI in December, Kollie said she eventually plans to return to the U.S. to pursue a master's degree, but she hopes her time in the Peace Corps will expand her focus on African studies and African-American literature.
The daughter of naturalized Liberian immigrants, Kollie said she eventually hopes to work for agencies like U.S. AID or as a Foreign Service officer and she is looking to her two years in Malawi to provide her the insight and experience needed for such a career.
Scheduled to leave June 16, 2015, Kollie said she is also somewhat nervous. Having traveled to Liberia and South Africa in the past, she knows how people may expect her to speak the language fluently and could be disappointed with her for not already having the customs down — even though Malawi is in a different part of the continent altogether.
But Kollie said her parents are as ecstatic as she is over the opportunity.
"It literally is a dream come true," she said.
Like Kollie, UI senior Alec Bramel managed to endure the eight-hour application when he applied. And it took the political science and history major a year before he found out, on Oct. 15, that he had been selected for an agro-forestry position in Jamaica.
Growing up in Holy Cross, Bramel learned about animals from his father, who is a veterinarian, and gained much experience in agricultural work. He applied for the Peace Corps, he said, because he wanted to do "something out of the ordinary and adventurous."
Bramel said he has been going through a range of emotions since finding out that his application has been accepted.
"It's still hard to believe that I received the letter and I'm actually going to be starting on this adventure," Bramel said.
Until he leaves for Jamaica on March 9, 2015, Bramel said he will continue working at Fin and Feather's Iowa City store and interning with the Iowa City government.
Gall said that although more people are completing their application than before, they continue to be applying based on the same mix of motivations:
• Some simply crave a true, cross-cultural experience.
• Some are drawn by a fascination to learn more about a country, culture or language.
• And still others are focused on a specific issue — from HIV education, to water quality, to gender equity.
"If you were a strong candidate in the old system," Gall said, "you're going to be a strong applicant in the new system."