Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

21 May 2012

So you want to join the Peace Corps?

For some reason, most of us who write blogs during our Peace Corps service decide at some point to impose our thoughts, opinions, and advise regarding Peace Corps on anyone among our readership that may be considering such an endeavor. It could be because we benefited from similar advice (I can't say I did) or because we have finally figured this whole experience out (um... that'd be an emphatic no...) and want to make it easier on those who follow in our footsteps, but I think we just like to hear ourselves talk. Maybe that's a bit harsh. I think writing about it helps us process our own experience and come to terms with what we have accomplished and/or failed to accomplish during our service. It appears that I am not immune to this little indulgence.

I don't remember the first time I saw this video, but I have constantly come back to it over the last few years when thinking about how to thrive/survive as a Peace Corps volunteer. I highly recommend that anyone considering joining the Peace Corps watch it. I can, without a single reservation, say that if you join the Peace Corps you will have moments when you are both of the video's characters. Hopefully you will spend most of your time somewhere in the middle. Below I've constructed a little analysis of that middle using five of the video's central claims.

Claim #1: In the Peace Corps you will be helping people and giving of yourself which will, in turn, give meaning to your life.
My short answer to this claim would be: yes, yes, and uh oh you're in trouble.
My long answer is a bit, well, longer. Peace Corps is, in fact, a great opportunity to be of assistance to the people in your community. The first part of our mission asserts that we exist to provide technical assistance and training to host country organizations and individuals in response to their requests. It is also a simple statement of fact that as a Peace Corps volunteer you will give of yourself to your community, maybe/often to an extent that exceeds what you planned, wanted, or even thought yourself capable. The extent to which many volunteers come to care about their host countries and host communities is one of the things that truly sets Peace Corps apart. The mental/emotional toll that the same characteristic can take on a volunteer is one of the things that makes Peace Corps truly challenging.
So I've agreed on the first two points. My caution comes on the third. I believe that, regardless of whether you have a positive or negative experience, the Peace Corps will be a meaningful and important period in your life, but I stop well short of claiming it will provide meaning in itself. Your work will teach you things (probably more than you succeed in teaching others) and it may make you happy, but it will also frustrate you to no end and occasionally convince you (wrongly) that everything you're doing is worthless. If that feeling is allowed to translated itself to “my work is worthless therefore I am worthless”, you are indeed in trouble. 

Claim #2: You will learn a new language, children/people will not be able to understand you, and you will be motivated by these challenges (see also: you're a real piece of work).
There is nothing quite like asking a group of kids to repeat a word you didn't hear or understand only to have them start saying it over and over with increasing velocity until it becomes a perverse game with you at its center. That being said, there's also nothing quite like finding that you can function nearly effortlessly in a language that isn't your own.
Language is one of the toughest parts of PC because the most frustrating thing of all is to not be able to communicate— be it frustrations, needs, successes, or feelings. I came to Nicaragua speaking passable Spanish and language was still one of the most challenging parts of my experience. Sure, the challenges can be motivating and they should be, but they are also tough and frustrating. Its ok to acknowledge them as such, in fact it is both healthy and will keep everyone around you from thinking you're a real piece of work.

Claim #3: You will be 1) healthy and active and engaged in your community, or 2) sick all the time, sleep late and read dumb books.
Most people I know in Peace Corps would simply say: yes. In Nicaragua I have been as sick as I've ever been in my life and I've also run a half-marathon. I've eaten wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables and eaten more instant noodles in a month than I did in my whole college career. I've had months where I woke up at 5:00 am without an alarm and with a spring in my step and months were I drug myself out of bed only to plop back down in my hammock. I have read books I would never have touched back in the States, but I've also learned to play guitar and read a lot of wonderful books that I'd never have had time for if I were living a faced paced life back home. I've worked with over 600 students and helped them with 72 student business projects. I've worked with health volunteers to increase access to sexual health resources and with farmers to market new products and improve business practices. And then there are the things that aren't so easily quantifiable, drawing with kids, talking about culture, teaching people to make popcorn...
I guess the crux of the issue is time. In Peace Corps you will have to deal with a lot of time. Twenty-four months worth of it (in your community). You can put it to all sorts of wonderful uses, both work-related and personal. Hopefully you will feel good about how you use this time. It is important to remember, though, that you will need to dedicate more of that time than you probably think to staying sane. Dumb books have a purpose. Sometime you just need to relax and let your mind have a rest. That's ok. 

Claim #4: You will 1) Never leave your site not wanting to miss out on the “pulse of the community” or 2) Spend your time in the city with your ex-pat friends and hide from your neighbors.
Hopefully you will love your site and love your community. I do. I rarely leave site unless it is for work (partially because I live really far away from... everything). There are, however, plenty of times when I have shut myself in my house and pretended not to be home when a gaggle of children started pounding on my door demanding entrance so they could play with my colored pencils. I'm not proud of it, but I need space.
Getting out of your community can be a good thing. It gives you a chance to see the rest of your host country and to share experiences, frustrations, and successes with your fellow PCVs. The better you know your host country's culture the more able you'll be to find the “pulse” of the community when you're back in site. Also, it can present some pretty cool work opportunities. In the States we take travel for granted. Over the last few years I've had the opportunity to travel with some kids from my community that had never been more than an hour away from home. It's fun to watch them react and interact with other kids from around the country.
Also, like I've said before, sometimes you just need to recharge. You can't give much if you're completely out of gas. Everyone finds their preferred spot to escape. Mine is... well that's a secret.

Claim #5: Peace Corps service will be a time of personal growth and you will love/hate it even though it is the hardest/easiest job you've ever had.
Two years is, at once, a long time and no time at all. I think it is safe to say that Peace Corps will be a time of personal growth, though what form and direction that growth takes is hard to say. Maybe you'll decide to dedicate your life to working in development in a foreign country. Maybe you'll decide you're never leaving the U.S. again. There is really only one way to find out. Yes, some days Peace Corps will be tough and you'll love it. On my best days I'm up before the sun to milk cows, hardly speak English, walk two hours home because a bus broke down, and deal with 50 high-schoolers who may or may have any intention to learn what I'm trying to teach them. I also inevitably say/do something stupid and get laughed at, am mocked for being really white/speaking English, and may not get to take a shower because the water isn't running. Those days I go to bed happy. It is the other days, the days I give one hour of class and spend the rest of the day reading a magazine in my hammock or talking on the phone to another PCV, that I find myself wanting nothing more than to go home.

The Bottom Line (according to me, anyway):
Every Peace Corps country is different and ever Volunteer has a different experience. I'm not sure anything can really predict whether or not you'll have a positive/productive Peace Corps experience except for, well, being in the Peace Corps. Even then there is a huge element of luck involved: right country, right program, right community, right relationships. One thing that is certain is that, as a PCV (you will get used to acronyms... wait, that's not it) you will fulfill three roles in your community. You will be, each in its moment, a learner, a change agent, and a mentor. You can't help but be. Everything around you will be new and different and you will need to understand it if you want to be happy/healthy/productive. You bring with you different life experiences and a new perspective that will help you draw attention to opportunities and generate new ideas in your community (change agent). And finally, everyone will be watching what you do. Little kids, big kids, adults, men, women, everyone. You may never even know who is using your words and your behavior as an example. In all three of these roles, you are on duty 24/7 for 27 months. That's Peace Corps.

So you still want to join the Peace Corps? Go for it then. I'm glad I did.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all the posts! I'll be coming to Nicaragua as TEFL Teacher and Trainer this September, and reading your blog has been great.