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Returned Volunteer Profile

Jason C.

“Value yourself and your experience. Hiring managers and organizations love, love, love RPCVs.”

RPCV Jason C. headshot

1. What were your primary responsibilities during service?

I was an Agroforestry Volunteer assigned to the town of Llano Grande de Ocu, Panama. The town’s main source of income was small scale cattle farming supplemented by dry rice and yam farming. The primary need of the community was to improve their management of pastures. While I wasn’t initially trained in that technique, as a typical Peace Corps Volunteer, I was resourceful and teamed up with other Volunteers to organize field trips, demonstration plots, and technical exchanges among the farmers, creating an improved grassland management silvopastoral program. I also had a large worm bin that I shared with community members.

I had the fortune to visit my community five years later and was approached by a gentlemen who was a middleman during my time. He fell on hard times and had to give up his car. He told me that he remembered my work in pasture management, got seed stock from one of the farmers I worked with and was so successful in his cattle farming that he was making way more money than when he was a middleman.

In addition to that work, I taught in the school, helped kids with their English homework and played on the town’s softball team. I was a Volunteer Leader the last six months of my service, developing sites and visiting Volunteers.

2. What projects did you collaborate on with your community?

The big projects I supported were working one on one with interested farmers on a wide variety of activities. I had a demonstration plot in the school garden demonstrating drought resistant pasture grasses and green manures. I worked with local leaders to improve their community leadership skills. I also collaborated with Panama Verde, a youth environmental group. At a regional level, I collaborated with other Volunteers organizing field trips for ranchers to visit the Ministry of Agriculture demonstration plots so that farmer could replicate the plots on their land. Finally, I was just there, visiting, making friendships, playing softball and enjoying the community.

Volunteer Jason C. running an agroforestry project in Panama
Volunteer Jason C. running an agroforestry project in Panama

3. How did Peace Corps service influence your professional path and development?

Peace Corps changed everything. When I received my assignment, my mother prophetically said, “You now have two phases of your life—before Peace Corps, and after Peace Corps.” When I went into my service, I figured I would do my two years, go home and get a Ph.D. in animal behavior with the dream to study under famed behaviorist Marc Bekoff.

However, Peace Corps opened an entire new world of possibilities. I loved the work and being overseas, and wanted to find a career that would pay me to travel. It took a new Associate Peace Corps Director, Joe Torres, to help me realize all the skills I had to offer and what I accomplished over my service.

After a brief break in the U.S., I parlayed my experience in Peace Corps into a graduate research project that I sold to a professor at McGill University. They were opening up a pilot masters program with 50% of the time in Montreal and 50% of the time with Smithsonian Research Institute in Panama. I took the questions I had about the farmer-to-farmer program and turned it into my master’s research project.

As I was finishing up my work, I helped Peace Corps Panama with a training and found out that an Agriculture job was open. I applied, was hired, and worked for the Peace Corps in Panama, as director of programming and training in Paraguay and Colombia. I took those skills to the Department of Agriculture where I am now director of Western Hemisphere Operations for the Foreign Agriculture Service.

I never would have done any of this if it hadn't been for the Peace Corps. At some point, I reached back to Dr. Bekoff to share my story of how my path diverged. He celebrated my new path and encouraged me to continue helping to change the world. I fulfilled my goal to find a career that allowed me to travel, as through my job I have traveled to over 15 countries.

4. How do you use some of the skills you honed during service in your current job?

Currently, I am the Director of Western Hemisphere Operations with the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I support our overseas offices, including foreign service officers and locally employed staff, so they can carry out their job of developing markets for U.S. farmers and ranchers.

The skills I developed as a Peace Corps Volunteer—flexibility, adaptability, leadership, Spanish—all have been honed over 20 years of government service. When I came to FAS from Peace Corps, I was the most experienced manager, and my leadership skills, including coaching and training, have been valuable as I have mentored managers and staff. In my current position, my deep understanding of Latin American culture as well as Spanish, gives me credibility with the staff as we have an instant connection. My experience working overseas and in the embassy, helps me support foreign service officers as I know what they are going through. Furthermore, flexibility, resilience, and resourcefulness are skills that I use every day in a fast-paced, constantly changing work environment.

At one point our agency was 30 percent RPCVs. We are a kindred spirit and often swap stories of service, with the same conclusion that our Volunteer service was a fundamental time period in our life that set us apart and up for career success.

5. How have you shared your experience to help those at home understand the value of Peace Corps service and communities abroad?

I share about it informally in conversations with neighbors and coworkers. I was PTA president for a spell and always talked with teachers about the Peace Corps, and I bring it up with students in my confirmation classes. At work, I have helped organize our RPCVs and shared with hiring managers the benefits of noncompetitive eligibility and hiring RPCVs. My son’s best friend's parents were Volunteers, and we love to share stories and remind our boys that they are Peace Corps babies!

6. What Peace Corps benefits have been useful to you?

The readjustment allowance was good to get me started on reentry, and I used it for a down payment on rent and a car. The biggest benefit as a Peace Corps staff member was noncompetitive eligibility. It helped me get into FAS and I have touted it to our hiring managers as a key hiring tool. In 2016-2017 when there was a pending hiring freeze, our hiring managers scrambled and hired dozens of RPCVs using that authority. If you want to work with the federal government it is a powerful benefit, especially for entry-level positions.

7. How have you remained involved with the Peace Corps community following service?

I keep active in an informal way. In Washington, D.C., the RPCV community is large, so it is easy to keep up with activities. Within USDA we have an employee resource group that puts on several events. Furthermore, I keep in touch with my Peace Corps work colleagues through many different social events. Many of my former Volunteers reach out with life updates or seeking career advice, and I keep in contact with local staff I used to work with. On work trips I reach out to Peace Corps in country and meet up, seeking areas of collaboration. I was interviewed for a podcast with the National Peace Corps Association, with a focus on federal employment. I try to connect my RPCV foreign service officers in the field with the Peace Corps office, where they provide support, attend close of service conferences, swear-in ceremonies, etc.

Finally, I met my wife during service, and while she wasn’t in my community, her family and my host families have grown close, and we keep in touch with everyone through social media, WhatsApp, etc.

8. What advice/tips do you have for Volunteers just returning from service?

Value yourself and your experience. When you are with other Peace Corps Volunteers, you constantly compare yourself to them and you are with the best of the best. You fall into the trap of undervaluing what you went through because everyone else you know is doing the same thing. What you do not realize is that hiring managers and organizations love, love, love RPCVs.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I was on a hiring committee with people who were not familiar with the Peace Corps. They wound up hiring an RPCV who was fantastic. One hiring manager moved to a different agency and three weeks later called me to help her learn more about non-competitive eligibility, saying that RPCVs are amazing and she wants to hire more.

You have skills, mad skills. Flexibility, adaptability, a language, resilience, perseverance, creativity, great attitudes, coachability, trainability, etc. Give yourself permission to value what you have done and sell it to a hiring manager. Furthermore—and most importantly—network, network, network. Start with RPCVs, go to the career center, etc. There are many of us out there and we love to help each other out. I probably talk to about 20 RPCVs a year, trying to help them figure out their next steps; this giving back is one of my favorite things to do. In this day and age there are so many tools to do this, so take full advantage of them.