One well-respected exception to the typical career path is the Peace Corps, a volunteer program established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. In the last 58 years, Peace Corps volunteers have volunteered in 141 countries, supporting the social and economic development of their new communities. And each year, the Peace Corps publishes a list of colleges that produce the highest number of volunteers.
This year, the top Peace Corps colleges included University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Washington; George Washington University; St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and Macalester College. I was immediately excited to see big, medium, and small schools represented on the list, public and private schools, and colleges with a range of selectivities. As is the case with so many things, there are lots of schools that can successfully prepare you for whatever you want to do next, whether that’s applying to grad school, getting a job right away, or going into the Peace Corps.
Reading the Peace Corps’ annual list made me curious about people who have gone through the program and where they ended up. Notable Peace Corps alumni include former Senator Chris Dodd who spent two years in the Dominican Republic where he became fluent in Spanish. Or Reed Hastings, Chairman and CEO of Netflix, who taught math at a high school in Swaziland after graduating from Bowdoin College. Or Bob Vila, well-loved host of the TV show This Old House, who volunteered in Panama where he built his own one-room house that later became the community center.
But my favorite story was about Lillian Gordy Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter. As a young woman, Lillian had applied to serve as a nurse in the Army, but the program was cancelled. She went on to study nursing and worked as a nurse in her community while also raising her four children. Then, at age 68, she decided to join the Peace Corps, spending two years caring for people with leprosy at the Godrej Colony in Mumbai. She even published a book, Away from Home: Letters to my Family, collecting her correspondence from her time in India.
What I love about Lillian Carter’s story, and all the Peace Corps anecdotes I read, is that they provide more examples of the creative and unconventional ways that people build lives of meaning and purpose. There is no expiration date for doing something you care about, and no right or wrong way to craft a career you are proud of. And as Lillian Carter demonstrated, it’s never too late to join the Peace Corps.