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By Kelsey McMahon and Vanessa Dickey

Peace Corps

Listen to the podcast interview with the author;


The Peace Corps emphasises collaborating with host country partners to determine local priorities, which has resulted in a long tradition of empowering youth to address community issues. Nearly 80 percent of all Peace Corps’ project indicators are focused on youth, a testament to how partners and the Peace Corps agree that investing in today’s young people will be instrumental to tomorrow’s growth. 

Generations of Peace Corps Volunteers also remark that working with the youth via clubs, camps, classes, and trainings was a deeply meaningful experience. And while the Peace Corps mission remains rooted in world peace and friendship, the agency continues to reimagine how Americans serve the world’s youth, responding to both the ever-changing needs of partner organisations and to Volunteer preferences on length and style of service. 

Case in point? In 2020, when the global pandemic temporarily halted on-the-ground efforts, the Peace Corps launched a new service model, Virtual Service, after partners requested continued support and Returned Volunteers expressed an interest in remaining connected. An overwhelmingly positive response from participating partners and post staff inspired the agency to continue virtual engagement which, now that normal operations have resumed, complements the contributions of in-person Volunteers.

Peace Corps’ three service models

Today, the agency boasts a portfolio of three service models, each with their own unique benefits. All three models are designed to build capacity across the agency’s six programmatic sectors: agriculture, education, environment, health, community economic development, and of course, youth in development.

Long-term, on-site service:

Since President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, American citizens have had the opportunity to live and work abroad for two years. By immersing themselves in a new culture, Volunteers gain valuable communication skills and exchange hands-on knowledge in various cultural contexts. 

The two-year program provides in-person Volunteers three months of training, including local language and intercultural competence skills. In terms of youth development, the two-year program provides adequate time for Volunteers and their counterparts to build strong relationships, not to mention start and complete sustainable, youth-driven initiatives.

Volunteers often co-facilitate classes or clubs designed to strengthen language and life skills. For example, in Ecuador, a two-year Volunteer and her counterpart teamed up with a local university to build awareness among secondary students regarding potential career opportunities and valuable skills for the competitive workforce.

Short-term, on-site service:

The agency launched its second service model, Crisis Corps, in 1996 to engage former Volunteers in short-term assignments related to disaster relief and humanitarian response efforts. Now known as Peace Corps Response, the program, which is now open to all qualified U.S. citizens, evolved to meet changing partner demands for short-term, highly skilled technical assistance. The assignments progressed from emergency situations to more general development projects. 

Experienced professionals with specialised skills collaborate with counterparts at universities, medical and nursing schools, local nonprofits, grassroot organisations, small businesses, as well as national agencies and ministries for up to 12 months.

A Response Volunteer in Guinea and her Dare to Innovate (DTI) counterparts conducted trainings for 40 young entrepreneurs that ranged from basic business classes to leveraging social media promotions. These trainings provide youth with foundational knowledge to bring their business ideas to life.

This short-term, onsite program is a viable option for community-level projects that require technical support from a highly experienced individual. It also helps the agency represent America’s true diversity by attracting citizens who are not able to commit to two years of service but would like to apply their advanced skills in a new way and gain international experience.

Short-term, virtual service:

Virtual Service, Peace Corps newest initiative, is now entering its fourth year. Virtual Service is currently only available to returned Volunteers, but the agency is preparing to open eligibility to all qualified U.S. citizens in 2024.

"The one-on-one virtual relationship creates a unique opportunity to develop a mentoring and collaborative, capacity-strengthening relationship with counterparts that emphasises the counterpart as the principal actor in community development."

Online collaboration also means that partners in regions who would otherwise not receive on-the-ground Volunteers can still collaborate with the Peace Corps. Take Ukraine for example: A registered, board-certified art therapist and counselor currently supports displaced youth with special needs and their caregivers living in Ukraine’s active conflict areas from the safety of his home in the U.S.

As of August 2023, over 700 returned Peace Corps Volunteers have participated in Virtual Service as private donors to the agency. Unlike Volunteers who engage full time, onsite, and receive training and other benefits, Virtual Service participants engage for three to six months on a part-time basis – between five  and 15 hours each week. Many of the participants, who complete virtual engagement tasks while balancing their full-time careers, advanced degree studies, and personal commitments, have enjoyed the experience so much that after they finished their initial engagement, they contribute to a second, third, or even fourth project. 

If Peace Corps’ service evolution has taught us anything, it’s that organisations need to adapt to changing needs abroad and at home. Could the agency one day offer four, five, or even six service models? It’s possible. The Peace Corps’ unwavering commitment to youth development has spanned six decades and will continue through innovative yet thoughtful initiatives designed to engage and empower tomorrow’s changemakers. 

Watch the video interview below as the author unpacks the topic;