Since he was a child, Gabriel Cortez had always been eager to learn about other countries and connect with new cultures. Peace Corps was a unique opportunity for him to do just that, and after graduating from his alma mater, he was accepted into the program and began his service in 2016.
He volunteered in the small town of Krasyliv, Ukraine, working as a secondary school English teacher. Cortez enjoyed serving in Ukraine so much that he extended his service an extra year, volunteering in cities across Ukraine.
Now a first-year Master of Global Policy Studies student at the LBJ School, Cortez is an avid Peace Corps advocate, enthusiastic to tell others about the unmatched experience and career opportunities it offers volunteers. He previously worked in the federal government handling noncompetitive eligibility jobs, which give Returned Peace Corps Volunteers greater accessibility to opportunities in the federal government. He now works as a Charles B. Rangel Fellow for the State Department, building toward his dream career of working as a U.S. foreign service officer.
Read about his experiences in the Q & A below.
Why did you decide to join Peace Corps?
Growing up, I discovered the joy of volunteering in my community and in different countries. For me, Peace Corps was the perfect opportunity—I could travel, learn a new language, discover new cultures, and most importantly, help others. I was also inspired by the over 200,000 Americans who have served in Peace Corps since 1961 and knew I wanted to be part of that mission.
Describe the community and location you were in during your service.
I served in Ukraine from 2016 to 2019. My site was a small town named Krasyliv in the western part of the country. Krasyliv is a quiet town, with about 15,000 people. Within a few weeks just about everyone in town knew who I was and that I would be living there for a few years. My community was incredibly generous and welcoming. Initially, I lived with my amazing host family. Later, I lived in an apartment not far my school.
Describe your job during your service.
I was a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer and worked at a secondary school as a teacher. I taught English to students from 4th to 11th grade and hosted several different English clubs for my school and the community. One of the wonderful things about Peace Corps is there is a lot of freedom to explore and create secondary projects. In addition to my primary teaching job I also conducted workshops for teachers, designed diversity and inclusion trainings, managed educational summer camps, organized cultural fairs and events, and much more. I extended my service by nearly a year to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, a position that allowed me to travel throughout Ukraine and lead different kinds of trainings and seminars.
Gabriel with his fifth grade students in the classroom
What was your favorite part about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?
My favorite part of Peace Corps was waking up every day and representing the U.S. in my community and throughout Ukraine. In Krasyliv and throughout the many villages and towns I visited, many Ukrainians had never met an American before. To be able to sit down with them, have a meal, exchange stories, and learn from one another—there simply wasn’t anything better.
Working alongside other Peace Corps Volunteers was another highlight. Sharing this experience together and working to improve our communities was a great feeling, and many of us keep in touch today.
What have you learned about yourself through your service?
Any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you one of the first skills you learn is the ability to adapt quickly. Throughout my service I learned a lot about perseverance and resilience. Some days things were perfect as could be, but other days projects had difficulties, buses didn’t show up when they were supposed to, and amenities like hot water were not available. Minor inconveniences that would have bothered me in the past I easily shrug off now, and I have learned not to take things for granted.
How has your service impacted your career or career goals?
My Peace Corps service has tremendously impacted my career goals. I applied to several different renowned graduate programs and each one was enthusiastic about accepting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Nearly all of them offered additional funding for returned volunteers.
People I speak to are always fascinated to hear about my Peace Corps service. It’s been a great way to meet new friends and build connections with people in my program and field.
I landed two internships specifically because of my Peace Corps service and the experience I gained working and living in Ukraine. As a future diplomat, Peace Corps was the perfect experience to hone the skills needed of a successful Foreign Service Officer.
Tell me about your current and past internships with the Department of State.
I am a 2019 Charles B. Rangel Fellow with the Department of State. The Fellowship is designed to find passionate and driven individuals in the field of international affairs and train them to become Foreign Service Officers—the diplomats of the United States. Fellows are provided funding for graduate school, and receive training through study programs, internships, mentoring, and professional development activities.
Right before I joined Peace Corps, I interned with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, working on diversity, inclusion, and noncompetitive eligibility.
What are the benefits of noncompetitive eligibility (NCE)?
NCE provides an incredible advantage to those who are seeking employment with the federal government after service. You can skip several of the laborious hiring steps and be hired within a much shorter time frame.
I have seen the wonderful things NCE can be to returned volunteers. I know several volunteers from Ukraine who went on to get jobs with the federal government in Washington D.C. and throughout the US.
How did Peace Corps help you achieve your career goals?
The Foreign Service is my dream career. Thanks to my Peace Corps service and professional background, I was selected as a Rangel fellow and will join the Foreign Service after completing my graduate degree. My Peace Corps services helped me shine among the hundreds of other exceptional candidates. I have no doubt my Peace Corps experiences will prove foundational to working as an American diplomat.
Why are you passionate about Peace Corps?
I cannot speak more highly of Peace Corps and the experience it provided me with. I learned so much throughout my service. I gained lifelong friends, immersed myself in an amazing culture, learned new languages, traveled all over, and much more. It is an experience like no other. I left Ukraine knowing I made a positive impact on my community and shared the best parts of American culture and values with my Ukrainian counterparts as well.
Gabriel and his fiancée Nia, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, on their last day of service in Ukraine
What would you say to current UT students considering applying to Peace Corps?
Please do not hesitate to reach out to the numerous resources out there to learn more about Peace Corps! Our wonderful UT Peace Corps recruiter is a phenomenal person to get in touch with about any questions related to Peace Corps.
Here in Austin we also have the Hearts of Texas Peace Corps Association, a local group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from every country and decade. We organize a lot of events for RPCVS, applicants, and trainees preparing to depart for their service. We are always happy to speak about our service and support those interested in joining. Lastly, apply! You won’t regret the adventure that awaits.
Learn more about how to start your Peace Corps service on the Texas Global Website.