When I walked across the stage at my university graduation ceremony and gathered that nicely rolled bachelors degree, I felt like the world was finally my stage. College was over and now it was my turn to choose what would come next. There were literally hundreds of options. So, looking back I find it surprising that I considered graduate school as one of the top possibilities. But I don’t think I’m the only one to overlook such an opportune time to do something different, either. Many current students see continuing their education as the “next step,” and fail to considerer the other options that may serve as a less traditional education. And one in particular deserves thoughtful consideration – the United States Peace Corps.
It wasn’t until one of my professors suggested I join the Peace Corps that I began to think seriously about postponing graduate school. As he explained why he felt so strongly, I pushed back. “Think of it like a master’s degree in life,” he said. And that got my attention.
Almost three years later, I’ve successfully completed a Peace Corps service and have once again begun contemplating graduate school. But what I learned confirmed what Dr. White told me. What a mater’s degree leaves to the imagination, a Peace Corps service reviews daily. Compassion and empathy, extreme problem solving, development of a true worldview, flexibility and patience, independence, and travel have no place in a syllabus, but as the days of a Peace Corps service are marked off one by one, the fibers of a degree are being woven. And indeed, it is a degree with a focus on life’s most important lessons.
A Peace Corps service is two years long. It requires an arduous application process and an even more demanding commitment to serve through thick and thin. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw personal growth that will influence every job I ever have. Story after story comes to mind during interviews and networking opportunities that demonstrate this growth. The following anecdote comes to mind as one that brought the world and its drastic differences across borders into focus: On a day when I was covering creativity with my advanced life skills class we were making “beauty collages.” Near the end of class I approached a boy at the back and asked him to explain his collage. “This side is things that scare me. This side is things that make me happy,” he said, pointing to opposite sides of the poster. I noticed that on his “scary” side there was a picture of a man with a dog exercising on the beach. “Why is this scary?” I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy; Why wouldn’t a dog chasing a man be scary?
The very next day for the very same group of students, I was forced to teach outside under a tree because the school guard had wandered off with our key. That evening I rewired the electricity in my house because I didn’t have the language skills to explain to my landlady what the problem was. A few weeks later when summer began, I hiked out to an ancient, remote rock-hewn church and accepted a coffee invitation from a kind priest. Through the dry season that followed I carried water with my neighbors and while we walked, we discussed their lives and the things that made them happy. Further along in my service, after witnessing a child succumb to a treatable heart defect, I cried with her family and silently vowed to be grateful forever for the medical treatment I am afforded as a citizen of a developed nation.
This was my job. This was my education. What I have earned is truly a Master’s Degree in Life.
Whether working towards an MBA, an MD or a MPH, graduate school is the correct choice for many students, but for those of us willing to wait two more years, Peace Corps might just be the answer. And with those two years of service come a more well-rounded and thorough education that will carry us further than classroom-PowerPoint-group project master’s degree ever could.