Is there a peace corps for teens?
Youth all over the world are strong voices for social change locally, nationally, and internationally. Many teens in the US seek Peace Corps-like volunteer opportunities abroad, and they should! If only the Peace Corp offered a program for teens that want to learn more about global issues and make a difference in other communities! Why isn’t there a Peace Corps for Teens? Perhaps there is a legitimate reason the Peace Corp does not have a volunteer program for high school students.
The Peace Corps’ Core
Some Peace Corps background: The idea for the organization took root during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign speech to an audience of students from the University of Michigan. He challenged them to give two years of their lives “to promote world peace and friendship.” In March of 1961, Kennedy established the Peace Corps and the first group of volunteers (51 of them) went abroad to Ghana in August to teach.
The Peace Corps’ goals specifically break down into three pillars of a successful volunteer. The first pillar requires that the volunteers live with the community at the economic level of the people they are partnering with, and the second is that the volunteer learns the language of his/her hosts. The latter requirement is representative of the fact that Peace Corps members commit to service for two years, not to mention the 3 months of in-country training before that, and the 9 month application period before that. Plenty of time to become fluent. These pillars are so important to the organization’s mission because a mutually beneficial partnership between people from such different lifestyles requires some common ground. The third pillar addresses another necessity for the organization’s goals: respect. A good volunteer not only learns from the people of the host country, but also gives them a “better understanding of Americans among host country nationals.” By upholding the first two characteristics, volunteers can assure people that Americans are not aloof and spoiled with superiority complexes. This allows for a more mutually respectful and friendly environment where volunteer and host can connect on more equal footing. It also allows the Peace Corp program to be as educational for the host families as it is for the traveler.
So, that’s a no on the Peace Corp for teens?
For all the good that the Peace Corp aspires to create (although it is certainly not without its critics), it’s still a program strictly for American citizens over the age of 18. However, there are many other organizations that seek to fill this gap, often under the banner of “volunteering abroad”, “community service abroad” or “service learning.” Many of them offer the promise of “making a difference.” One, Global Leadership Adventures, describes itself as a “peace corps inspired” volunteer experience for teens.
Global Leadership Adventures, founded by a returned Peace Corp volunteer offers students 2-3 week “peace corps inspired” adventures. On GLA programs, the company states teens will be able to “develop lasting relationships” with people from around the world, and to “make a meaningful difference in a community”. GLA appears confident in its assertion that this is just like the Peace Corps, just for teens.
Interestingly, GLA was started by a former executive at Cross Cultural Solutions, another organization capitalizing on the Peace Corps brand. Cross Cultural Solutions makes the somewhat more humble claim of being “a perfect introduction to the life of an international volunteer” and refers to itself as a “Peace Corp Alternative,” rather than something synonymous with it.
Should You Join a Peace Corps for Teens Program?
An altruistic desire to do good in this world and an interest in international development work is unquestionably a great thing! However, we think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider some of the tricky issues surrounding short-term volunteer work. Maybe there is a reason there is no “real” Peace Corps for Teens. While programs that claim to be extensions of the Peace Corps can be rewarding trips for teens, the true values of the Peace Corps is perhaps lost in translation. Trips that last less than a month, even trips that span several months, do not give volunteers enough time to connect to the community in the way that the Peace Corps strives to do. Thus, “lasting relationships” with the local community and the ability to “make a meaningful difference” are fundamentally constrained by time, to say nothing of the volunteer’s expertise. As one Peace Corp volunteer wrote:
“What was supposed to be two years turned into nine, as I became increasingly invested in the unique challenges and opportunities I discovered around me…I learned quickly that sustainable development is not just organizing a camp and passing out certificates, but also providing tedious, thoughtful, on-the-ground presence and support.”
The author goes on to detail the many failures and complexities of development work, the “messiness” of it all, and the very nuanced understanding of culture, place, and service that were necessary to make an impact, even a small one. This is a well-documented fact of sustainable development. This isn’t to say that teens can’t make a difference on a volunteer program. Rather, students and parents looking for a Peace Corp program for teens should understand the limitations of their service and recognize that the benefits to the volunteer may actually outweigh those provided to the “beneficiary.”
Choosing a Volunteer Program
Our advice is to seek out organizations that represent the volunteer experience in an honest way. If a company makes the bold claim that you will “Change lives” you should ask some hard questions about that claim. You will need to sift through the marketing hype, but do your homework and you’ll be rewarded. Service trips abroad, when done correctly, can provide an impactful educational experience to the volunteer and a meaningful benefit to the host community. Here are some additional tips on how to choose a high school service trip.
Here at Sustainable Summer, we don’t make any claims to be a Peace Corps facsimile, but we do target improved understanding of sustainable development as a key program objective. Instead of “service learning” we emphasize “learning service,” in other words an approach that prepares students for a lifetime of service rather than 2 – 3 weeks on a volunteer program. Students gain insight into global challenges and experience life in a different culture from the perspective of a student wanting to learn about sustainable development rather than an unskilled volunteer there to help those less fortunate. We think, and we’re not alone, that a “learning service” approach will better prepare students to make an impact on the world, and perhaps join the Peace Corps or other international organizations later in their educational career.