We spoke with Jersey City-based Peace Corps recruiter and Rutgers alum Daniel Turkel (RC’10) about the ups and downs of Peace Corps service—and the reality of working with potential applicants.
What was it that made you want to help others?
Looking back at my childhood, I can’t really pinpoint it to any one person or experience that I had; growing up I felt like I was always looking to help others out make others’ lives easier on them because I found it kind of inherently satisfying. I want to live my life so that I’m in a position enabling others to live better lives.
You’re a Peace Corps recruiter. Is there a myth about the Peace Corps that you find yourself constantly dispelling when talking with potential recruits?
I don’t know about myth, but I’d say what I’m confronted with most is, “How do I get in? I hear Peace Corps is competitive,” and I end up going into detail with the person. I start out talking to them and figuring out why they want to get involved and then try and relate their interests and experiences and aspiration to the Peace Corps. I walk them through how they can best fit in, and then I go into detail about what makes a qualified candidate for the Peace Corps.
Is there anyone you meet that you don’t think would be a good fit for the Peace Corps?
I really never try to discourage anyone. If anyone ever comes up to me with an interest in the Peace Corps, I really give them as much advice as I can. In retrospect, there have been a few people that I have had to tell, “This is not right for you right now because you do not meet our baseline requirements.” In order to be a Peace Corps volunteer, you have to be an American citizen over the age of 18; I have spoken to people in the past that are not over the age of 18 or an American citizen. But I do say to those folks, “Please stay involved and come back to us when you meet the criteria.”
Do you try to turn people from the more popular destinations who might just want to go the beach for a few years?
I often tell people the bottom line is we are looking for individuals with skill sets that are in line with the needs of communities overseas. Those skill sets are clearly outlined for every single volunteer program we have on our website, so I encourage people to give that a good look. There are two sections—required skills and desired skills—and that’s something I speak about very regularly. The more your experience is in line with what we’re looking for, the more likely you’re going to be a qualified candidate. So, I wouldn’t discourage people from going to Fiji just because it’s beautiful, but I would say to look at the programs that are open in Fiji and really do research into whether or not your skill set and aspirations are in line with what we have open in Fiji.
What about your personal life while you’re away? Did you have breaks to go home or even just breaks throughout the work day to make calls or write emails?
We always say that everyone’s experience is different. There’s no set experience that everyone is going to follow. For instance, our volunteers that work in schools typically have more structured schedules since they normally adhere to curriculums within their schools, but volunteers have a fair amount of freedom in deciding what type of work they’d want to get involved with. I ended up deciding to work at an HIV/AIDS clinic during my time in Albania, and I chose to go there on Wednesdays and Fridays, and then I went to a community health education center the other days of the week. I figured out from my own service over time where I would be a better fit and incorporated that into my schedule.
With regards to vacation time, Peace Corps do approve two days of vacation time per month for the two years that they’re serving—all together that totals 48 days during which you can travel, visit friends or family, or go whatever you’d like.
To clarify, there’s no pay, but you volunteers get put up with room and board basically?
There technically is pay, you receive a living allowance on a monthly basis that enables you to kind of live at the same level as the people in the community—it’s just one more way to integrate with the community which is a huge part of the service. We want you to work at that grassroots level and become part of that community. You can better understand things from a host country national perspective and it ends up going a long way with a lot of benefits associated with that.
With that living allowance, you have enough money to pay for your rent, your groceries, or really anything you would need in your daily life. That money would be provided to you so you can live comfortably and focus on your volunteer work.
What would you say was the most satisfying moment of your service?
During the beginning of my service, I ended up meeting a man who worked in the local municipality and he told me that his wife became ill while she was giving birth to their child in the city’s main hospital. She got sick because the hospital couldn’t provide a sterile environment because of lack of equipment. It really spoke to me.
Over the course of about a year, I worked together with this man to get a grant to gain funds to donate medical equipment to this hospital—a majority of which was donated to the maternity ward. We organized a symposium for the nurses and doctors and ended giving the equipment during the event. It was a huge success; we had the mayor there and everything. I even gave a presentation in their native language at this symposium, so all those months of studying and being immersed in the language paid off
A couple of months after, I ended up going back to that hospital, and I found myself walking down the hallways and I just turned right, and I saw a newborn child making use of the equipment we had donated —and at that moment I really knew that my time there was well worth it.
What would you say was one of the hardest parts of your service?
I was in a long-distance relationship during my service, and that was by far the hardest part of my time overseas. Two years isn’t a short amount of time and being away from my girlfriend for that long wasn’t easy, but I was able to communicate with her through Skype and she was able to visit me, so that helped the situation—but it certainly didn’t make it much easier. Anyway, now I can say we’re happily together after all that.
You mentioned fluency benefits language immersion?
Definitely. If you are at a school anywhere taking a language course, you can only go so far, but when you immerse yourself in a culture where the primary language is what you’re studying—that just takes it to an entirely different level and allows you to pick it up in a way that is very hard to do otherwise. I feel like I would never have been able to get to the level of proficiency with the Albanian language if I wasn’t there.
Can people do two Peace Corps programs?
Yes. We have plenty of volunteers who reapply to serve in the Peace Corps. I know people who have served two, three, four, or five times—it’s in their blood.
Do people leave before their term is up?
It does happen.
What do you think are some of the top reasons and are there countermeasures to prevent that?
I would say a couple common reasons are medical reasons and just becoming homesick. You never know how you’re going to deal with it until after you’re out there, and we’re not going to force people to stay. However, we really try to help our volunteers understand what they’re getting into ahead of time because as volunteers throughout the world, we’re kind of like ambassadors. When a community is expecting a volunteer to be there for two years and then they suddenly leave, that doesn’t look very good. So, we try to encourage people to take that 27-month term seriously because they will be expected to stay.