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Getting my hands dirty

rachel holtzman nepal

The past two weeks at site have been a reminder of one of my central goals for joining the Peace Corps: to get my hands dirty.

Growing up in a family of academics and professionals, we spent most weekends at political rallies, documentary screenings, museums, concerts or any other number of events that widened our eyes, touched our hearts and challenged our brains to think about the way the world works. 

However, despite all of these amazing opportunities to use my eyes and heart and brain (which I am incredibly grateful for), we admittedly didn’t do as much of using our hands – working on a family garden, fixing our own clothes, cutting and collecting wood, making fires, etc. Yet these tangible, practical skills are something that I admire in others, and skills that I came into the Peace Corps hoping to acquire. 

Now, as I type, I’m looking at the hardening blisters that have started to form on my right hand. These past weeks, the nature of my work has shifted. Along with my usual work doing nutrition education with moms of children under 2 at our Village Development Committee’s Early Childhood Vaccination/Child Growth Monitoring clinics (which has only become easier as my Nepali language reaches an increasingly comfortable flow), I’ve recently also made a point to delve into more hands-on activities around my village. 

For example, I…

  • Made sarbottam pitho/lito with my cousin who is a health teacher at the government school. It’s a super flour, of sorts, which is a mix of two parts pulse (usually soybean), one part whole grain cereal (such as corn or rice) and one part whole grain cereal (like wheat) – however, as I saw from the mix my cousin made, some people choose to make it very differently. We started by roasting chickpeas, rice, wheat, corn and soybean (separately) over an open fire using an old blackened pot and a bundle of thin sticks for stirring. This took about two hours and I was glad to have my cousin there to help, because the repetitive stirring movement became tiring for my shoulder and arm muscles (not to mention that my wrists were getting really hot from staying on top of the fire’s heat). After everything had been sufficiently roasted, we took it all into my cousin’s house, where we used both our hands to grind it using a stone grinder (similar to, but bigger than, the one we used to make this flour during our pre-service training – see the photo below). This took about three hours, and by the end I could feel a strain in my back, my stomach muscles, my shoulders and the palm of my right hand where a few blisters had started to form. By the time we finished, the fire for cooking rice shone through the darkness that had fallen outside. I ended my day with a cup of the sarbottam pitho, mixed with steaming milk and a fresh banana – it was great to taste the immediate fruits of my labor!
  • Dug a 3 ft x 8 ft x 3 ft trench for my new vegetable garden.  The top four inches of the soil had already been cultivated by my host dad and me the previous day, but I decided to really invest in the soil’s health and dig a deeper (3-foot) trench to layer a good amount of ash, jungle top soil, green materials, compost and dry materials into the soil like we learned during a recent training. I spent about four hours digging the trench and was sweaty and breathing heavily by the time my 13-year-old cousin came over to help me finish the last bit (I’m sure he saw me struggling). We planted carrots, long green peas and spinach; I'm really excited to see if and how they germinate in the next few weeks (I feel like student doing a science experience for a school science fair!). In these next two weeks, I also plan to cultivate the land next to my first plot (my family lent me land that will make another three plots of the same size) to plant other greens and eggplant in one plot, kale and butterhead lettuce in a nursery in another and then early tomatoes in a hot bed nursery I’ll make in the third. And while this project will take a few weeks to produce, the hard soil work is an investment that will hopefully produce bountiful harvests for the next few seasons.
  • Helped to make a biogas plant at a neighbor’s house.  Biogas facilities are important ways to close the sustainability loop: raising livestock by feeding it materials collected from around the farm, collecting livestock waste (mainly water buffalo poop, called gobar), eating the livestock’s meat as well as vegetables grown by the family, making human waste, putting the livestock and human waste into a methane gas producer, then using the methane gas for cooking purposes and the solid waste as a fertilizer for vegetables that will go back into feeding the family and livestock. I’ve seen a lot of biogas inlets in my neighbors’ yards, but never understood how the actual methane gas compressor looked under ground. So when my neighbor, who is a licensed biogas plant constructor, invited me to another neighbor’s house to help make one, I excitedly said yes. Although my work was admittedly a very, very small piece of the work puzzle that day (as in, I was in charge of sifting through the gravel and dry cement mixture to pull out large rocks, leaves and pieces of hay that would compromise the integrity of the cement), it felt great to work side by side with 14 men to build something that will help create decades of energy sustainability for this family.