Volunteer or Professional Organization?

Peace Corps Volunteers are called volunteers for a reason: the willingly sign up.  But don’t business professionals willingly sign up to work at X&Y company?  Especially with the growth of Peace Corps, not only in size and number of volunteers but also in terms of programming areas and effectiveness, the role of the volunteer has changed.  Volunteers are no longer just issued a plane ticket to country, sent-off, and wished the best of luck.  Peace Corps invests a lot in the volunteers, from various trainings before and during service, a medical unit, security staff, administrative, and technical support.  However, unlike being a lawyer or a general 9-to-5er, we never really get to take off the Peace Corps hat.  It’s said that our job is 24/7, and going home means going down the street, where (like it or not) you’re still representing the good ol USA and Peace Corps.

One of the items of contention the volunteers and administration share is Professionalism and Volunteering and where the line is between the two.  For example, our handbook has a dress code that isn’t demanding we wear uniforms or suits while in site, but does mandate length of hair and what you should wear while officially working.  I personally don’t disagree with the idea that wearing shorts and sandals while at a school, health post, or government institution is unprofessional. But what about when we’re off the clock. We can’t wear what we would like, as if we were back in our own home. And beyond social consequences, we face letters in our files for ‘repeat offenses’ (which matter if you’re needing a letter of recommendation for grad school or your next job) as well as the possibility of early termination (I can’t even imagine what the scenario is for that).

But joking aside, we’re always on the clock.  Is it appropriate to get drunk at a town party, where everyone will see you (even if they’re drunk, too)? Or do you abstain, frowning and scoffing your head at the local customs (getting ridiculously drunk at functions is generally socially acceptable as long as everyone is doing the same, here in Peru and in other countries world-wide)?

Likewise, many of our communications in the Peace Corps happen electronically, through email.  I can’t really think of a volunteer who has a separate email account for Peace Corps, so precious internet time is mixed between answering and mailing Peace Corps staff and responding to your friend’s ridiculous stories, coordinating for your family to come visit, and finding out an ex is getting married to a circus performer.  Yep, 24/7.  And sometimes is that you get rapid responses from your mom or your ex’s fiance who shoves his heads in lion’s mouths to pay rent, but emails to Peace Corps Peru staff go unanswered, even after re-sending them various times.

Both volunteers and administration, I believe, have differing views of the other.  I won’t speak for what we term ‘the Office’, but the general idea is that we volunteers in the field are first priority for the organization and it’s hard to understand why e-mails go unanswered in an office where you hear Microsoft Outlook sounds go off every minute.  But then again, maybe that’s it – overwhelmed staff?  Regardless, what else is there besides volunteers (sarcastic) to take care of? 

This is also not to say that Peace Corps is unresponsive.  The Medical and Security Units are always quick to pick up their ringing phones, but seemingly simple things often drag out and require many back-and-forths (over e-mail), forwards and cc’s.  However, volunteers are notorious for being slow and late to turn in their vacation requests, monthly reports (used the first 3 months of service) and tri-annual report – all of which are often incomplete and full of blanks. 

It’s really just a back and forth, I guess.  In the end, Peace Corps is largely what YOU make it to be – professional or semi pro.


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