Merle Rubine lived in relative luxury — a cinder block house in a big village that came with a nice bucket for bathing. Her lack of lights, movies, running water, and indoor plumbing mattered little because, as she is quick to state, she wasn’t in Cote d’Ivoire on vacation.
As a recruiter for the Peace Corps, Rubine refuses to promise anybody a rose garden. “It doesn’t work if people think they’re going to have a fun time,” she says. Not that it isn’t a great experience, it’s just a lot of work to teach and build businesses and introduce technology in parts of the world so poor that cinder block housing is considered comfortably middle class. And though she believes that anyone at any age should consider joining the Peace Corps, Rubine says that the amount of responsibility and commitment it takes to complete a 27-month tour of duty are best embodied by the audience she is in charge of recruiting — folks past the age of 50.
Rubine will bring her message to Princeton for “Wanted: A Lifetime of Experience,” a 50-plus Peace Corps information and recruitment session, on Thursday, May 1, at 10 a.m. at Terhune Orchards on Cold Soil Road (and owned by Pam and Gary Mount, themselves alumni of the Peace Corps). The event is free. Call 212-352-5463 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contrary to what many people think, Rubine says, the Peace Corps is not just a post-college thing. About five percent of the Peace Corps’ 4,000-strong volunteer force is above the age of 50, and Rubine hopes to increase that percentage considerably. She says the agency is an ideal place for the silver set because people 50 and older automatically come with something the best students at the best schools can never learn in class — life experience.
“The countries we’re working with are looking for more mature people,” Rubine says. As villages and nations develop, goals shift. Where once basic agriculture skills needed to be taught, an area now might need to learn how to run its own economy. The development of the world in general has borne this out — in 1961, when the Peace Corps was founded, there was no IT. But there was a need to introduce the principles of farming and agriculture. Today a mere six percent of Peace Corps volunteers are working in agriculture, says Rubine. But 17 percent of the corps is comprised of business advisors. And who better to fill those kinds of jobs than someone who has made a living in business for 30 or more years?
The up-side of aging. The older you get the more able you are to talk to people — and talk them into helping you. “You know how to schmooze,” Rubine says. “You can articulate better.” Better communications skills allow you to relate better with local shop owners, government officials, or the general public.
Being older also gives you a track record, something the Peace Corps wants to see in its applicants. Odds are, if you’re the type to willingly spend two years helping people out of the very depths of poverty, Rubine says, you likely are someone who has volunteered locally, spent time with people unlike yourself, and built a cultural sensitivity toward others.
Rubine, a former news producer with CBS and NBC in New York, grew up in Wisconsin. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father an attorney. When she left the news world, Rubine served as an English teacher in Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania. She started a preschool in Cote d’Ivoire — an unheard-of enterprise before she got there — where she taught the kids to do things American school children take for granted, such as coloring with crayons, making drawings and art, playing sports, and forming friendships with other children. To reward the kids for a job well done, Rubine routinely schmoozed local merchants out of cookies or supplies for their projects. She used the same tactics in Tanzania, where she helped kids develop and run a radio station that allowed voices and ideas from the village to be heard for the first time.
To your health. “It’s not a slam-dunk to get in,” Rubine says. In fact, for every volunteer accepted and assigned to the Peace Corps, three do not make it. Competition is keen and the more you can show that you are a serious, seasoned, sincere adult, the better your chances of getting assigned.
However, there are some common disqualifiers. Criminal records could work against you (“We’re not the French Foreign Legion”), as can lack of education, though Rubine says genuine experience in business or other areas could show you’re right for the job.
The number one disqualifier, though, is health. You will not be assigned to the lush mountains and posh hotels of Montenegro, you will be assigned to places in Africa, Latin America, or Eastern Europe, where indoor heating is only applicable in the summer. Good health, akin to that required for military service, is a necessity.
That said, Rubine is quick to point out that the Peace Corps makes accommodations for medical conditions. Assignments take into consideration whether a woman is over 40 and must, therefore, have access to mammograms; volunteers who need medications will be sent to areas where such medicine is available, and to areas in which refrigeration for medicines is available.
The language barrier. Inability to speak a foreign tongue is not a disqualifier, Rubine says, but it often is difficult for older people to learn a new language. Right now, she says, the Peace Corps has a “70-something” volunteer working in Ukraine. The hardest thing for him, she says, was learning to speak and read functional Russian.
The first three months of any Peace Corps assignment is spent in immersion, learning the local cultures and customs and, of course the language. Rubine says tutors are available to help volunteers who cannot learn in just 90 days. Over three months, she says, most people tend to grasp the basics and work well from there over the ensuing 24 months.
Tangible benefits. Though Peace Corps service is considered volunteer, members do get a stipend, based on the local economy of their assignment. Rubine says volunteers are calculated to live in the middle of the pack. Medical, dental, and vision coverage is also taken care of during the tour of duty. If something happens requiring hospitalization or specialized care, the Peace Corps will transport the patient to the closest hospital that can accommodate the need — even if the closest hospital is in Washington, D.C.
Family emergency leave also is covered — not the birth of your first grandchild, Rubine says, but actual medical emergencies in the immediate family. Travel is covered, as is return travel to the assignment.
Volunteers also get 48 days of paid vacation over the course of their tour. After your service is over, volunteers get a little more than $6,000 to reacclimate themselves to life in the States. The money is unrestricted. Volunteers also get 18 months of healthcare insurance at very reasonable rates, tuition breaks to many graduate schools, and the ability to defer or lighten student loans during the time of service.
Intangible benefits. Rubine, now 70, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in English and a yearning to be in New York’s hyper-paced news industry. She stayed in the industry for “a really, really, really long time,” then woke one day to the feeling that there was something far better to do for the world. “It didn’t make my heart melt,” she says. “I made a list of what to do next and I came up with five things.” The Peace Corps, she says, was a leftover from her 1960s self.
Hooking up with the Peace Corps, she says, reignited her in a way that she never expected. In fact, she credits her time abroad with adding 10 years back on her life. She became a recruiter specifically to remind people over 50 that life is far from over, even well past the half-century mark. She says, simply, “It’s revitalizing.”
If you go. Rubine says the May 1 recruiting event, though targeted to the over-50 crowd, is open to any U.S. citizen considering the Peace Corps. All you need to bring is “yourself and a good, healthy curiosity,” she says.
But be aware that, unlike the Army, signing up today doesn’t mean hopping on the bus to basic training immediately after. Right now assignments are booked into 2009 and the time between application submission and getting on the plane is usually 10 to 14 months. Also know that you will be assigned where you are needed, not necessarily where you would like to go.