“Why in the world would you do that?” I let the question hang in the air for a moment, and waited for the one that always followed.
“Won’t that set back your career?”
They were questions I’d been asked several times since I’d decided to leave the business world for the real world and join the Peace Corps.
And they were questions that, perhaps naively, I thought had obvious answers to. I had never considered that I was giving up anything by joining the Peace Corps. I had always thought of it in terms of what I was gaining. In addition to being a chance to make a difference in someone’s life, I saw the Peace Corps as an opportunity to expand my skills, to gain experience, to challenge myself. Joining the Peace Corps was something I’d always wanted to do. I can still remember seeing Peace Corps commercials as a child. As a teenager, I talked with some people who had served as Volunteers and it made a lasting impression on me. In college, my roommate served in Honduras for two years.
I had considered it many times, but as is often the case, life got in the way. After graduating from college with an economics degree, I stepped right onto the corporate ladder. First as a marketing representative in Boston, then as a fund raiser for a small college and prep school.
Finally, after eight years in the business world, I sent in my Peace Corps application. I never had a second thought. Especially after I found out that I would be serving as a business Volunteer in Ukraine. It was an opportunity to be a part of an historic transition.
Before I knew it, I was living in a Soviet-era apartment building with no water or electricity at times, no air-conditioning in the hot and humid summers, and occasionally no heat in the sub-zero winters.
My job at the International Management Institute was to teach business communications and advise the marketing department. I also set up a new career placement center to help students find jobs after graduation.
In some ways, the job was very similar to working in America. I dressed much like I did back in Boston and used my laptop at home to prepare for the next day’s class. But there were exciting changes going on that made it much different.
The country was in the middle of drafting a new constitution, establishing a new currency, and opening its first stock market. To witness the foundation of an economy being built and to be a small part of it is an experience few will ever have, and one that was not lost on me. Each day, I found myself learning nearly as much as my students. I shared the excitement and eagerness in the classroom as students embraced the spirit of free enterprise. They wanted to learn how free markets work and how to compete within them, both at home and abroad. They worked hard to provide themselves with a framework for a better job, a better way of life.
There were many questions as they crossed the bridge from one economic system to another. What could they take with them? What experience would be relevant in the new economy? How could they apply the skills they had? These were challenges I helped them address, and often I think I felt more satisfaction than they did when they overcame the challenges. I know whenever I look back on it, I feel like I benefited more from the experience.
I know I discovered skills that I didn’t know I had, I developed the ones that I did, and I gained experience that will help me for the rest of my career.
And often when I tell people about all that I brought back from my Peace Corps experience they say, “What a great boost to your career.”
And I let the statement hang in the air for a moment, and wait for the one that always follows.
“I wish I’d done that.”
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