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When the darkness of evacuation and the light of hope collide

Montenegro - Dzamija Sunset

Standing alone on that balcony in Tirana in March gave me a sense of separation I thought I wouldn’t have to confront for another two years. But here it was: the eve of our evacuation back to the United States. We were already going home.

On the night of March 14, 2020, I stood on the balcony of a hotel in Tirana, Albania. I was alone, but I felt more than alone, I felt lost.

Tirana was where my journey started as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Balkans, just two months before, in January, when I was part of the first-ever cohort to Montenegro. The view out my hotel window in Tirana then held so much promise. So much excitement for the future. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Standing alone on that balcony in Tirana in March gave me a sense of separation I thought I wouldn’t have to confront for another two years. But here it was: the eve of our evacuation back to the United States. We were already going home.

There was this immense stillness that held Tirana in its hands that evening, as if by a spell. Early on into a strict lockdown, the capital of Albania was quiet and dark. Looking out over the sleeping buildings and resting streets, I felt I had the whole city to myself to use as a mirror for reflection. I reflected on the expectations I brought with me when I arrived from Washington, D.C., in January; the dreams I nurtured in the classrooms in my Montenegrin school, and the visions I cultivated when I worked in the olive grove with my host family near our village.

Tirana, Albania - View from Hotel
Wiley Reid's view from his hotel room in Tirana, Albania.

Like any Peace Corps Volunteer, I had expectations, dreams, and visions of making some sort of difference or profound change during my service—I also thought I’d need at least two years to do that, because even two years is a short time in the life of a community.

By returning to the U.S. after two months instead of two years, I felt my expectations, dreams, and visions didn’t have the time to mature into anything of note. The stories I’d imagined would remain unwritten. But in the darkness of that Tirana balcony, my phone lit up—it was Darijan.

Darijan, a member of my host family, was a student at the school where I trained in the Montenegrin village of Pečurice. Entering his teenage years and preparing to head to high school, he had already become an incredibly gifted young artist. As an artist myself, we connected immediately.

In our earliest conversations about art, though, I saw that in Montenegro the pedagogy surrounding the arts was much more traditional and less expressive than I had expected. Students seemed to receive praise for a realistic drawing, but not much encouragement for the nuances of expression and risk-taking in their art. That was what I saw. In response to this, I made sure that Darijan and I had many discussions about experimenting with drawing, about using art as a direct medium for expression, and taking the leap to “break the rules” of formality that can crop up in the art world.

Montenegro - Ottoman Graveyard
Wiley Reid and Darijan visited Ottoman cemeteries (above) and other areas of the village in search of interesting things to draw.

I showed him how to make his own sketchbook, and we took many walks around the hills of the village in search of interesting things to draw: old Ottoman cemeteries that looked out over the Adriatic Sea, the farmland of the family’s home, the olive trees that punctuated the landscape. We never stopped drawing.

It was a joy to share what I learned in art school and to learn from him by seeing art through his eyes. Most importantly, it served as a great way for us to build a meaningful friendship. Yet, I didn’t directly connect my time with Darijan to my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Perhaps art was too intuitive or immediate of a subject for me to understand it in that way.

Darijan's sketches of olive leaves.
One of Darijan's sketches of olive leaves.

Back on that balcony in Tirana though, as I spent my last evening under the Balkan moon, the messages coming in from Darijan showed me that perhaps my two-month stay in Montenegro was more impactful than I realized. He told me what I didn’t know I needed to hear – that the expectations, dreams, and visions I had hoped would unfold for me in Montenegro had already begun to sprout.

He told me that the sense of wonder I’d encouraged him to feel about the landscape we walked through would be lasting. He told me that the freedom to take risks in art would stay with him. He told me that the sense of humor about our land, our art, and our lives—humor that I held as sacred—would follow him in his memory. He told me directly that “this campaign has changed [his] life.”

Standing on that balcony in Tirana, the whole world seemed to stand still, silent, and blanketed in darkness and nervous anticipation. Perhaps the luminescence of the moon overhead and the messages coming in on my phone from Darijan illuminated the darkness a bit.

The light of his words and the radiance of his hope certainly did.