From Fu Fu to Thin Mints: A Path from the Peace Corps to the Girl Scouts
Karen Unger, Liberia 1976–1978
I believe from the moment you decide to join the Peace Corps your service never really ends. Peace Corps service changes you profoundly—so deeply and so thoroughly that you can't shed it—you carry it with you forever.
At least that is true for me and for the RPCVs I know.
Having started out to teach elementary school or high school English—a job that I announced I wanted in the second grade and from which I never wavered right through student teaching, I graduated from college to discover the job market for freshly-minted teachers absolutely stunk. So there were my choices: work in a home finance company calling people about their past-due loans, work as a sales clerk in a department store, try to find a job as a sub-assistant assistant editor for a publishing company and cram with fifteen people into a studio apartment or having vowed to be a teacher, look at jobs with the Federal Department of Education—perhaps on an American Indian reservation or look at the Peace Corps. With no true life experience and possessing the post-adolescent nerviness that leads you to believe you can do anything, anywhere, I applied to the Peace Corps. And was accepted. Unbelievably. Fortunately. For everything else has flowed from there.
"Liberia?" That's where I was going after the program to Korea folded. I started to look up Libya knowing as much about the world as the average USA-centrically educated American. (I think though today's kids do learn more widely and technology does inform a more aware world view. Enough? Probably not - but better.) And so arms sore from vaccinations and suitcase packed with the wrong stuff, I arrived to teach high school English classes of sixty plus students, most older and bigger than I was, stuffed three to a desk, with no books, chalk, paper, using a model based on a musty US curriculum - (How do you teach "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" seven degrees above the equator-or better yet, why?)
And, as is the Peace Corps truth, I gained so much more than I gave. How generous and forgiving my students and the community were. How passionate to learn - even in the most meager of circumstances and from the most inexperienced teacher. The recipe of me pre-Peace Corps, my certainties, my facts, my tomorrow, was stirred, sifted, and refined. The results are still surprising me from time to time years later.
A clear product: choosing to teach English as a Second Language to foreign students rather than teaching the seventh grade and "The Scarlet Letter" in a suburban middle school. I craved and couldn't live without that global, cross-cultural fix. A slightly less-clear consequence: deciding later to work for Girl Scouts of the USA.
But, Girl Scouts does make sense when you think about it as an organization that is totally international. Girl Scouts of the USA is a member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts whose membership includes groups in over a hundred countries with a shared history and mission to provide service to others, to make the world a better place, to become part of an international sisterhood and through all that and more, to become a better person in the process. Girls learn respect for each other and respect for others they haven't yet met. Girl Scouts from the very youngest members share a world view. They learn to become stewards of the earth - from tending a community garden, to marking storm drains, to planting trees and their activities progress as their abilities and ages allow them to grow into more adventurous and sophisticated experiences so that by high school, girls may be meeting their international counterparts on joint service projects in Costa Rica or India or Mexico or even Antarctica.
Girl Scouts of the USA operates locally so that a local Girl Scout organization or its volunteers and staff can partner with a RPCV group, benefit from World Wise School activities, connect with a volunteer overseas whose community's needs would make the perfect service project for girls completing leadership awards. Girl Scouting also teaches the value of volunteerism-doing things that matter. The organizations share a perspective and an attitude that working or volunteering for one or the other fit quite nicely. Still in that post-Peace Corps re-entry daze or have you discovered that corporate life is not for you? Think about Girl Scouts-or other youth-serving agencies-as career possibilities.
Whatever I do binds me to the Peace Corps. Getting a graduate degree in creative writing may not be so obvious. Having a story published interwoven with Liberian references? Almost a cliché. Writing a nonfiction book for middle school students may not seem that direct. Making sure it included a section on volunteering: a double Girl Scout-Peace Corps whammy! And so it goes. From going to my child's school to do a show and tell about Liberia to watching the BBC news rather than a local station to making time to volunteer to contacting the Peace Corps Writers group, Peace Corps is stuck to me-for life.
Last updated Jan 22 2013
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