All things counted, Peace Corps service is 27 months: two years of service preceded by 3 months of in country training, called Pre Service Training (PST).
Every country has some form of 3 month PST. When the Peace Corps was first founded, this resembled a military boot camp in some ways and took place in the States. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t preparing volunteers as effectively as it could, and over the years various changes have been made to reach the point it’s at today. Now, training is hosted in country and lead majorly by host country nationals .
Just as a note, this general structure is similar to other countries as far as I know, but there could be quite a lot of variation depending on your region and sector. For instance, I know the language requirement for Health and Agriculture and Forestry is lower than education. So take all this with a grain of salt, hopefully it helps anyone who is as curious about the training process as I was before I went through it!
PST is like many trainings—during the week we have sessions, on the weekend we have free time that is sometimes filled with outings and other times filled with—you guessed it—more sessions. Most sessions fall into one of three categories: Peace Corps policy, technical training, and language and culture.
Peace Corps Policy
This is a general category of material that includes anything from rules and regulations, transportation policy, health information (Read: how do I not get Malaria?), and the project framework for the country. For the first month, almost every other session is one of these. They are really important, but not the most interesting to talk about, so that’s all I’ll say about that.
This training is directly related to our job in country. For my cohort and me, that’s teaching. The distribution of subjects being taught can vary by country, but in Guinea we have Math, Chemistry, Physics, and English teachers. Most of us do not have teaching experience, and even for those of us who do, we’re teaching in an unfamiliar environment and our second language. Our formateurs are here to make it so that even those of us with no French and no teaching background are comfortable and effective on the first day of class.
This obviously takes a lot of work. We start off both discussing theory and putting it to work. The theory involves classroom management, how plan a lesson, the structure of the Guinean education system, among other things. The practice starts by having us teach small things to each other (I remember distinctly an hour of watching fifteen people teach long division problems one after another in French) and works up to practice school, which is three weeks of daily two-hour classes with real students.
Many people were most nervous about this part of the training, but you needn’t be. The formateurs all have diverse teaching backgrounds and have a lot of experience with Peace Corps and teacher training. You can trust them to get you ready.
Language and Culture
This is by far the most important and interesting part of training. If Peace Corps Policy sessions answer the questions “What is my job?” and Technical Training answers “How do I do my job?” then Language and Culture training answers “How do I spend two (or more) years of my life integrating into a community with a different language(s) and culture than my own?”
The biggest portion of this training is of course learning French. To swear in and become an education volunteer in Guinea one needs to reach “Intermediate-High,” which functionally means be able to introduce yourself, say hello in the community, buy things at the market, teach a class or tutor students in any number of subjects, develop friendships, and begin to defend your option. As you can guess, as someone who came in knowing no French, this is a pretty intimidating goal. From day one we were in classes of 3 or 4 other trainees based on our level. We studied grammar and some vocabulary, but the focus is practice, practice, practice. This ranges from completing a few worksheets to conducting interviews and surveys in the community. It’s said that Peace Corps language training is some of the best in the world, and I would agree. After three months I still have a lot of French to learn, but I can comfortably live and develop relationships in a French speaking community.
Culture is the other essential piece of this puzzle. As volunteers, our goal isn’t only surviving within a community, but integrating. Therefore, it’s necessary that we know customs and traditions more than an expat or tourist might. Most of this is learned via practice (see below where I talk about living with a host family) but we also have sessions on holidays, how we’re expected to act, and how to serve as positive forces in the community.
Living with a Host Family
To further solidify all of our training, each of us lives with a Guinean family. These are families from the local community who believe in the Peace Corps mission and are kind enough to take us in for three months. During training, we are as much a part of their family as any of their blood family. They feed us, take us on day trips, and celebrate birthdays and holidays with us. We help out with chores, learn to cook in the Guinean way, and practice speaking with them.
It’s not without its challenges but I’m so thankful to have a family here who is willing to take me in and be patient while I try and fail and try again to learn the way they do things. Really, developing relationships with your host family is the first step towards future integration at site.
Even with a supportive host family, it’s difficult and stressful living in another culture. That’s why I’m always thankful for the other 42 Americans that are here training with me. It’s nice to be able to shoot a message to the group chat saying “You all will never believe what happened to me!” or “Help! Can someone bring me toilet paper?” On the weekends when there aren’t family activities going on, we’ll meet at the market, help each other plan lessons, or explore a new part of the area.
No matter how interested your family and friends back home are in your new life, they’ll never understand the cultural or day to day intricacies that go on. And no matter how good your relationships with host country friends or family are, there are plenty of American cultural intricacies that they’ll never understand. Your Peace Corps family is the only one that can truly understand everything.
The experience being in Peace Corps is hard to explain. It’s often described as the hardest job you’ll ever love, which so far seems very true. We’re constantly thrown into unknown situations where we don’t know the language and culture and yet are still expected to behave as representatives of our cultures and respectable individuals in our community. Despite the difficulties though, the constant challenge is exhilarating and I’m surrounded by motivated and caring people who make me want to do more. I’m thankful for all the support I’ve received thus far from family, friends, Peace Corps staff, and my fellow trainees. Looking forward to swearing in next week and officially joining the Peace Corps family!