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In Response To Dwindling Applications, Peace Corps Makes Big Changes

In this 2011 photo, more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers are sworn in before heading to villages in southern Cambodia.
Heng Sinith
In this 2011 photo, more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers are sworn in before heading to villages in southern Cambodia.

In a bid to shore up sagging numbers, the Peace Corps on Tuesday announced significant changes to its application process.

Sixty-page forms that used to take more than eight hours to fill out have now been shortened and streamlined and can be completed online in less than an hour, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said on NPR's Here and Now.

The number of people who actually complete the application process has fallen by more than a third from its peak in 2009.

In addition to being less cumbersome, the forms now allow prospective volunteers to express preferences about which of more than 60 countries they'd prefer to serve in. Throughout the Peace Corps' half-century history, volunteers have simply been sent wherever they were needed most.

"We are offering our applicants the opportunity to choose the specific country and the specific program they want to apply to," Hessler-Radelet says. "That's a big change for us."

Peace Corps alumni said in interviews with The Washington Post that they'd waited more than a year before being accepted to the program, complaining that this kept their lives on hold and brought on "restless applicant syndrome."

The Peace Corps is pledging to cut wait times to six months. And Hessler-Radelet says those who fill out their forms ahead of their specific application deadlines will be given a definite date on which they'll find out whether they've been accepted, and what their departure date to another country would be.

She told Here and Now that she's not concerned that applicants will avoid countries they consider dangerous. Some of the people who are drawn to volunteering overseas for two years, she says, will always want to go to "the farthest, most difficult, most remote post."

Despite the drop in applications, the Peace Corps still has more people trying to sign up than it can afford to send abroad.

Hessler-Radelet says making it easier to apply will be one tool the agency will use to boost relatively anemic participation by nonwhites. The Peace Corps has hired 20 recruiters who will be targeting "diverse communities," she said.

But the broader changes it's putting in place are meant to appeal to all potential volunteers.

"In the early days when Peace Corps began, it really was the only opportunity for people who wanted to work or live overseas," Hessler-Radelet says. "Our applicants have lots of choices now."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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