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International Volunteerism and Developing Cultural Agility

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a reception to honor the first Peace Corps volunteers. Now in their seventies, these individuals were in their twenties when they answered President Kennedy’s call for young Americans to serve their country to perpetuate peace through living and working in developing nations.

Nicknamed “Colombia 1” for their service destination, the men (all men at that time) trained for three months at Rutgers University in the summer of 1961. Thirty-five of the original 62 volunteers returned to the place where their life-altering journey started. Rutgers was honored to have them return.

At the reception Kevin Quigley, the President of the National Peace Corps Association, described three certainties: “…death, taxes, and the fact that the Peace Corps will change your life for the better”. The honored gray-haired guests, those original volunteers, roared in applause when he spoke those words.

It was as though Kevin had shared their treasured secret, a secret they had waited 50 years to pass on.

Since 1989, I have been researching what makes people successful in their global careers. One thing I know for sure is that significant international experiences can be highly developmental, greatly increasing the competencies needed to be effective in global organizations. This is probably not surprising to you. What may be surprising, however, is that those “international experiences” need not be within formal business organizations. Some of the richest international experiences happen as the result of study abroad and international volunteerism experiences.

There are two conditions which make international experiences highly developmental:

  1. significant peer-to-peer interactions and
  2. opportunities to question and test your assumptions and understand the limits of your knowledge.

Dr. Ibraiz Tarique and I recently completed a large research study through support of the SHRM Foundation examining the predictors of global leadership success.  One interesting finding was that global business leaders’ cumulative non-work international experiences (such as studying abroad and international volunteerism) were related to global leadership competencies -- increased cultural flexibility, greater tolerance of ambiguity, and lower ethnocentrism.  These competencies, in turn, were related to supervisors’ ratings of global leadership success.

The former Peace Corps volunteers would not be surprised at these results. At the reception, the volunteers described opportunities to work shoulder-to-shoulder with host nationals and the fact that they needed to learn how to be effective in country.  I loved hearing their stories as my research results began to come alive. Many of the former volunteers shared stories of professional business and military successes after their Peace Corps experiences.

The mandate outlined in The Peace Corps Act has not changed in 50 years. The overarching goal is to "promote world peace and friendship" with three specific goals. The first is “to help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained men and women”. The second and third goals are “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” – and vice versa, for Americans to better understand people from different nations.

Even though the Peace Corps has fallen far short of the one hundred thousand volunteers John F. Kennedy originally envisioned sending abroad annually, the goals of the Peace Corps are continually met – one positive interaction and powerful international experience at a time.

If you are interested in the Peace Corps or other volunteer opportunities, please visit the Peace Corps website at

Really enjoyed this piece

Great post!

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