Learn about the Peace Corps, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011, from two former volunteers.
6 - 12+
Geography, Human Geography, U.S. History
The Peace Corps is a United States volunteer organization. It was created in March 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C. The mission of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and friendship by providing trained volunteers to countries who need them. By working together, people from the United States and countries around the world get to understand one another a little better.
To join the Peace Corps, you must be at least 18 years old, in good health, and a U.S. citizen. Over 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served, and no two people have the same experience. On the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, here are the stories of two of those Volunteers.
Kathleen Schwille is the Vice President for Educational Design and Development for National Geographic Education. She served in Mbekenyera, Tanzania, from January 1997 to December 1998.
Toni Schneider is the Coordinator for Foundation and Government Grants for the National Geographic Society. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Pernik, Bulgaria, from 2005 to 2007.
How did you first become interested in the Peace Corps, and what persuaded you to join?
Schwille: The Peace Corps was something I'd always wanted to do. I was in school to become a teacher, and I wanted to see more of the world. My husband and I went together. He was inspired to go by a speaker in high school.
Schneider: I spent my entire childhood growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in southern South Dakota, a place not so dissimilar to my Peace Corps work in the Roma ghettos in Bulgaria. [The Roma people are indigenous to Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey. They are also known as Gypsies.] Faced with not only soaring unemployment, but also below-average life expectancies, lack of opportunities, and inadequate education, most youth on the reservation and the Roma ghetto have little hope to succeed in either career or education.
I treated Peace Corps as an opportunity to be trained to work in impoverished communities, and the experience has given me many ideas about the types of programming and development methods that I hope I can one day help to apply to my home community.
What did you do while you were in the Peace Corps?
Schwille: I taught high school chemistry in Mbekenyera, Tanzania. My husband taught math and physics at the same school. It was my first teaching job. I graduated from college in June 1996 and left for the Peace Corps two months later.
Schneider: I worked in the Pernik Municipal Palace of Culture, where I helped create arts education projects. The grant-writing skills I use in my day-to-day life are the ones I learned on the job in Bulgaria.
All Peace Corps Volunteers serve 27 months: three months of training followed by 24 months service. Did you feel your training prepared you for the next two years?
Schwille: I was trained in Arusha, a large city in Tanzania. We stayed with host families the first three months. There were about 30 to 40 people in our training class. We were told about the local customs and cultures. We were given advice on everything—from how to take a bucket bath to how to manage the school system. [Tanzania's school system is based on the British system of O and A levels. A student must pass the O levels before they can go on to A levels.]
They also taught us what to expect from the students. Students are respectful of the teacher but don’t ask a lot of questions. Students rely a lot on rote memorization.
During our training, we were told we will make an impact on people's lives even if you think you aren't doing so at the time.
Did your language training prepare you for working in your host country?
Schwille: Our language training was really good. We learned how to speak Swahili, and in three months you do as much as you can. We really needed to know Swahili in Mbekenyera because not a lot of people in our village knew English. Even now I can still understand most of it. When I’m with other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), we still speak some Swahili.
Schneider: The first three months of Peace Corps are spent in technical and language training with a host family. Bulgarian is a Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so an initial challenge was learning to read the alphabet.
The Peace Corps’ language program was designed to teach us “survival language skills” that enabled us to travel safely, communicate with our friends and coworkers, and shop for food in local markets.
Outside of the classroom, Volunteers have ample time to communicate with their host families, attend parties, watch the news, and discover tasty new treats at the grocery store—all valuable language-learning experiences!
Becoming fluent in a language is certainly an ongoing process, and the training was a solid foundation to build upon. After I moved to my permanent city [Pernik], my language continued to grow leaps and bounds, and by the time I left Bulgaria, I could write grants in Bulgarian and frequently translated interviews from foreign guests for the local TV station.
Describe a typical day in the Peace Corps.
Schwille: I taught chemistry to students in ninth through twelfth grade. The school day started at seven in the morning and ended at three. At three o'clock the students would go home and would come back to do sports or possibly farming. Some students would return to school from seven to nine in the evening to study more.
Our school was very poorly equipped, and it was a challenge to teach without supplies. I would get battery acid from cars to do chemistry experiments. I could get sulfur because it was used as an anti-fungal on cashew plantations, and copper sulfate because it was an ingredient in fertilizer. I used anything I could get my hands on. My parents would order equipment for me from the Carolina Biological Supply Company [a Burlington, N.C.-based company that supplies science and math equipment to classrooms in the United States].
I taught some of the students how to bake a cake. We developed a cake-baking cooperative to sell the cakes at tea time. We also got a grant to build a girl’s dormitory in my second year as a PCV.
Schneider: My program assignment was called Youth Development, and I originally imagined myself working as a personal coach and camp counselor to minority youth in Bulgaria. One of the most valuable skills a PCV can learn is to be flexible and willing to adapt.
I spent about half of my time coaching youth in their late teens and early twenties to organize meetings, seminars, and activities for area youth around topics such as human trafficking, AIDS/HIV, drug and alcohol abuse, and education.
The other half of my time was spent working for the city arts council where I worked to secure funding for arts education programs, concert and lecture series, and funding for new or local authors.
I typically worked 35-40 hours a week in an office, and while many PCVs work “in the field,” I wouldn’t have traded my experience for another.
What were your living arrangements like?
Schwille: We had our own house that connected to a row of teacher houses. From there, we had a five-minute walk to the village. Life was relaxing and low-key. We read a lot of books and played a Tanzanian game called bao. It's similar to a game called mancala that's sold in stores in the U.S.
Schneider: I initially lived with a host family in a single-family home. Most [Bulgarian] homes are multi-generational homes with children, parents, grandparents, and sometimes in-laws living together.
When I moved to my permanent city of Pernik, I lived in a ten-story Soviet-style block apartment. My apartment came unfurnished, though I eventually procured a couch, stove, refrigerator, bed, and wardrobe. I was lucky enough to have central heating (no air conditioning), but before the city turned on the heat in late fall, there were always a few nights where I wore multiple sweaters, socks, hats, and gloves just to stay warm!
I was also lucky enough to have Internet access in my apartment. It was a huge monthly expense, but I frequently searched for grant opportunities or collaborated on projects with other PCVs over Skype.
How did you feel after you returned? Did you experience culture shock? Do you still keep in touch with people you met through the Peace Corps?
Schwille: I didn't have a lot of culture shock. We came home right before Christmas, and we love Christmas, and we loved our family and loved being home.
I still miss the more relaxed part of the Peace Corps. The randomness of life—school’s canceled because the kids have to work on the cashew farm! We got to travel in Tanzania, and there was always a network of PCVs to stay with. We went on safari in Zanzibar [a tropical archipelago off the coast of Tanzania]. Sometimes we would head out and didn’t come back for a few days. There was a sense of freedom and a welcoming population of people—and if we wanted to climb a mountain and we didn’t have a tent, we didn’t let that stop us.
Schneider: I keep in very close contact with both Bulgarians I met and PCVs I worked with in Bulgaria. I often write to my former coworkers and friends, and two or three times a year I call.
In 2010, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Bulgaria with my friends and adoptive families. I was worried that it might be hard to connect or awkward, but returning to Bulgaria felt like a homecoming. Everyone welcomed me with open arms, and we all remarked that it was if no time had passed. Getting the chance to see all of my friends just made my soul feel good.
Bulgaria is so dear to my heart that even in D.C. I manage to keep a connection. I have several Bulgarian friends, and I sing in a Bulgarian folk choir to keep the feeling alive. I also regularly organize parties on Bulgarian holidays for local PCVs to attend.
What advice would you give to someone interested in joining the Peace Corps?
Schwille: That they should go. If you want to go you should. It usually takes nine to twelve months to be placed, and it'll take longer if you're married. If you’re willing to go anywhere, there are more opportunities.
You have to have a sense of adventure and be open to the place you’re going to go, because the place you’re going is not the place you think it is.
Schneider: The biggest piece of advice I could share is avoid the tendency to compare your own Peace Corps experience to other PCVs. Each experience is so unique and every experience is incredibly valuable. There is no one way to measure the “success” or “impact” a volunteer has in their community.
In what ways has the Peace Corps affected your life, and would you do it again?
Schwille: Maybe I’ll do it again when I retire. It’s a huge break in your life. The Peace Corps can totally change the direction of your life. For me, it didn’t really change what I wanted to do because I’m still in education, but it definitely changed my outlook on life. I’m much more patient. I try to see things from other people’s point of view.
Schneider: Every PCV is asked, “Would you do it again?” For me, I’ve already shouted “Yes!” before the question has been finished. Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer completely changed my perspective on the world, without changing the person that I am.
Finally, is there anything you'd like to add about your time in the Peace Corps—a memory you'd like to share, a favorite story, or a moment where you felt you were making a difference?
Schwille: I have two. In Tanzania, female students have a really tough time. They have more challenges and don't have as much support as the male students. In our school, we had a morning assembly where one student is chosen to recite something in English. One time a very shy female student was selected. She was extremely nervous. We worked and practiced for a week. On the morning of the assembly, she got in front of the school and panicked. Afterward I sat at my desk feeling despondent. Then she walked into my office and said, “I want to try it again tomorrow.” The fact that she wanted to try it again was an amazing moment for me. Tiny moments like that are so important. It is my hope that one day she will send her daughters to school.
The second one revolved around a core group of students who were hungry to learn anything. My husband’s parents had brought an eyepiece and a telescope lens from the U.S. The experience of showing them the moon, the stars, Jupiter, was an amazing experience. We watched them think about all that possibility. One student passed his O levels and went on to pass his A levels. Right now he's in Dar es Salaam [the largest city in Tanzania] getting a master's degree in chemistry. He wants to come to the U.S. and get his PhD. We’re Facebook friends and we text each other once a month.
Schneider: While living with a host family, we were always overfed with amazing food. It was so delicious, but my family gave me more than twice the amount of food I normally could consume. After about two weeks in the country, I was beginning to learn the language and my pants were beginning to get a bit tight. I decided to show off my Bulgarian by letting my host sister know I was totally stuffed.
After polishing off an especially large plate of food one night, my host sister said "Toni, would you like some more?"
In a horrific miscommunication, I understood her to say, "Toni, are you finished?"
When I enthusiastically answered "yes," I was greeted by yet another overflowing plate of delicious Balkan food. That was the last time I confused the words "more" and "finish!"
Piecing Out the Peace Corps
March 1, 1961
Americans who have served:
More than 200,000
Peace Corps Director:
Aaron S. Williams (Peace Corps Volunteer in Dominican Republic, 1967-1970)
Volunteers and trainees:
60% female, 40% male
93% single, 7% married
Volunteers over 50:
90% have at least an undergraduate degree
To Be a Volunteer
What are They Doing?
Peace Corps Program Sectors, as of 2010:
Where are the Volunteers?
Percentage of total Peace Corps Volunteers serving, by geographic region, in 2010:
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May 20, 2022
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