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17 tips to energize your Volunteer experience

Anna Nathanson Cameroon

There are as many different ways to be a Peace Corps Volunteer as there are Peace Corps Volunteers.

As you might have heard, the Peace Corps is, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Well, 27 months is a long time to be miserable. So one year after I arrived in Cameroon, here are 17 insights that keep me motivated:

  1. Feel whatever you need to feel.
  2. Write. Write down your goals and review them often, keep a blog, use a journal, write letters, or write emails (or all of the above).
  3. Put some inspirational quotes on your wall to keep you going.
  4. Take yourself seriously. Even though Peace Corps sometimes feels laid back, it is still a job. Keep your supervisor updated on what you are doing, send in reports beyond your Volunteer Reporting Form, offer to do extra work to help other coworkers, follow the rules, and make the most of your time to network and integrate into your community and beyond.
  5. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Yes, you have a two-year commitment. But when life has you down, try to see the long-term perspective. No one is perfect at everything all the time and that is okay.
  6. Never stop learning. Engage in conversations with your community. Ask them how they farm, how they eat or how they save money. Make as few assumptions as possible.
  7. Try not to watch too many movies or TV. They are a huge time suck. Use that time productively. Look at your list of goals. When I came to Peace Corps I thought I would have a good deal of “free time,” so I planned to read, exercise and meditate more.
  8. Nourish yourself. I definitely do not skimp on good food! In the beginning I ate with people every day, which was important to integrate with my community. There is also nothing like coming home at the end of a long satisfying day and eating a big bowl of bulgur wheat and stewed lentils, or waking up in the morning to a bowl of yogurt and granola.
  9. See everything your country has to offer. You have a huge opportunity to see places normal tourists will not see. Go out there and explore. Don’t feel guilty about wanting to discover your beautiful country. Work hard at site and enjoy your vacations.
  10. Take on something that will last your whole service. Do not be afraid to be ambitious: Ambition is a key to success. Your project does not need to be overly grand. Starting a gardening club at a school that continues after you leave is perfectly fine. Remember, quality over quantity.
  11. Do not go into the ocean with open wounds. Learn from my mistakes.
  12. Write thank-you notes. Write them to Peace Corps officials in your country. Write them to the people in your community, too. Express your gratitude because you will never regret telling someone thank you.
  13. Do not compare yourself with anyone. Not with other Volunteers in your region, your sector or elsewhere. You have a unique experience and connection with your community.
  14. Do not be too hard on yourself. Do not feel bad about taking some “me time.” Sometimes you have to lock all your doors, close the blinds, lie on your couch, turn down the lights and listen to the playlist you made. That’s okay.
  15. Trust in the way things are. People do not make decisions they think are bad; they make decisions they think are good. Start a discussion with them to learn more. Even if you don’t agree, choose your battles, because I’m sure there are plenty of things we Americans do that they might not agree with either.
  16. Spread the love. Sometimes you just need to vent, but it is best to keep it to one or two trusted confidantes. When you are with big groups, celebrate, laugh, eat well and, for the sake of all that is good, try to keep the mood positive.
  17. When all else fails, chalk it up to adventure. If only you knew what I have experienced in Cameroon – dancing with a benevolent spirit in the form of a man on stilts with a Scream mask, sitting in my living room at dawn while I was prayed over, or jumping onstage during a live performance of Cameroonian mega-hit “Palla Palla” – remember, life is an adventure.
Just before I left for Cameroon someone told me I would get out a lot more from my service than I gave – that I would learn so much more than I would teach. He was right.