My life in Colombia as a Peace Corps Volunteer looks astonishingly like my life did in the U.S. working at a Fortune 50 company.
As a Practical English for Success Volunteer, my schools serve as my office for 40 hours a week. In the evenings I teach an adult community English class. In my free time, I’m usually found at the gym, playing sports, or working from home. I cook my meals and clean up after myself. On weekends, I hang out with friends and try to hit up as many community events as possible.
At the same time, my life in Colombia is astonishingly different than my life in the U.S. My previous job measured results in numbers so large that letters like K and M are used behind numbers to eliminate the need for all the zeroes (my department was a $1.5M business). Here my numbers are never going to be above the 100s. At my previous job I had access to no fewer than ten different reports that would tell me how my department was doing on a daily basis. Here my daily measures of success are things like, “How many students understood the new material? How well did my counterpart and I execute the vague lesson plan we barely got on paper?” In my corporate life, I rarely had a direct impact on anyone else’s well-being. Here, I am affecting the lives of young people every day.
The result of evaluating myself in the same way in these starkly different situations? I feel, most days, like a total failure. The numbers I put on my Volunteer Report Form are small – almost always under 100. And even so, the metrics for marking something as “achieved” are not so difficult. As someone once explained it to me, “If you help someone move from 0 to 1, that person achieved. You don’t need to take someone from 0 to 10.” Small numbers of just barely noticeable change? That doesn’t exactly make me feel like I’m making an impact. But, I’ve learned that I am. I am a successful volunteer and I am making an impact because PCVs can determine for themselves how they measure success; there’s no need for computer-generated reporting.
This year alone, eight public school classes will receive better English education thanks to my support. In years to come, my counterparts will leverage the tools they learned and practiced with me, ensuring that future classes also receive improved English education. 50 adults in my town have stronger English skills because they’ve attended my community classes. 15 youth in an under-served neighborhood of my community have had the chance to explore their artistic abilities and show off their work in a photography workshop and exhibition because of a Peace Corps project. Hundreds of people at my site now have a better understanding of the United States and its people based on our interactions. Hundreds of people in the United States have a better understanding of Colombia and its people because of my storytelling. And hundreds of young people in my community see that bilingualism and global exploration is within their reach if they work for it, just because they see me living and working and interacting in their community.
Plus, I’ve experienced so much personal growth! Although I often feel like I’m in an existential crisis and have panic attacks about what kind of skills I am gaining that I can use for my future career, I know that I have developed so much here. I am more patient. I am more confident. I am less prone to misconstrue someone’s statements as a personal attack. I step out of my comfort zone with more ease. I have become a better active listener and more skilled mediator.
Because I can’t measure the impact of my work as easily was I could in my corporate life, it’s sometimes difficult for me to feel like I am a successful PCV. But I know that the hearts and lives of countless people – including my very own – have been changed because of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia, and that’s a much more satisfying result than making a giant company a boatload of money.