Jessica Schwendeman will be stepping off a plane soon in the Republic of Niger, not as a tourist, but as a volunteer for 27 months.

Schwendeman will be joining the 7,671 current volunteers and trainees with the Peace Corps, according to its website.

For Schwendeman, the decision to join the Peace Corps was an easy one. The recent UCF grad knew for years she wanted to serve as a volunteer.

According to Schwendeman, she made the decision to join the Corps one day back when she was in middle school. “I knew all throughout high school that it was a goal that I was working toward, and I started getting serious about it my sophomore year of college,” Schwendeman said.

She started the application process in September 2009 and found out June 1 that she would be going to Niger, a country in western Africa.

For her, the time between applying and being assigned a host country was short. That is not always the case.

There are six steps to the process beginning with an application, which includes two essays and three letters of recommendation, and ending with a preparation for departure.

In between is an interview, a nomination to serve, a medical review and an invitation to serve as Peace Corps volunteer.

Each applicant must also undergo a series of physical, eye and dental exams and must get any dental or eye work needed done and approved during this time.

According to Schwendeman, this step was the one that caused the most anxiety and pain. “One of the requirements is that you have to get your wisdom teeth pulled,” she said. “If there is a possibility that they have to be removed, you have to get them out before you leave.”

Schwendeman had her’s taken out during finals week.

The benefits can far outweigh the seemingly endless amounts of paperwork and doctors visits.

According to Rachel Mast, the recruitment officer for the Southeast Regional Office, involvement in the Peace Corps stands out on a resume. Volunteers learn skills that are very marketable for when they return to the states, Mast said.

The Peace Corps also offers graduates a chance to further their education through the Master’s International program and the Fellows/USA program.

The Master’s International program offers graduates the opportunity to serve for two years overseas, receiving academic credit toward their master’s degree. They then return to school to finish their studies, according to the Peace Corps website.

They can receive scholarships, reduced tuition, paid employment, health benefits, housing or living allowances, depending on the program, at more than 40 schools in exchange for professional internships helping underserved communities in the U.S., according to its website.

Volunteers in the Peace Corps undergo eight to 12 weeks of training aimed at teaching cultural sensitivity, improving their language skills and learning how to design and implement useful and sustainable projects.

Mast, who was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2002 to 2005 in Panama, said the most memorable part of the Peace Corps for her was being able to live in another country and learn about the people and their culture.

As a volunteer, Mast’s in-country expenses were paid for by the Peace Corps. She received enough money to live as the locals did as well as receive dental and medical benefits.

Mast says her experience was life-changing, a sentiment that is shared by UCF staff member Robert Williams, the engineering coordinator for co-ops and internships at the Office of Experiential Learning.

Williams served as a community development agent in Venezuela from 1963 to 1965 as part of an associate program with the Peace Corps called “Action in Venezuela.”

Williams said it was a chance to broaden his horizons, gain a sense of self-worth and see how people live in other countries.

“I found that the one and a half years [there] was a wonderful opportunity to expand my horizons and make a contribution to the world, however small,” Williams said.

Schwendeman is looking forward to having the same feelings as she prepares to leave.

“I’ve never traveled, and I wanted to go somewhere new,” she said. “I wanted an experience that I couldn’t get in America. You’re living at the level of the people who live there. You get to be a member of the community.”

The Peace Corps is actively recruiting to fill positions in six service sectors: agriculture, business, education, environment, health and HIV/AIDS, and youth development, according to a May 24 release.

According to the website, since its beginning in 1961, nearly 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation.

Source: Central Florida Future, UCF grad to begin journey with Peace Corps, by Jessica Martin, Variety Editor. Published: Sunday, June 6, 2010, updated: Sunday, June 6, 2010