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20 life lessons from my first year in Peace Corps

Jill Conway life lessons

After completing my first year of Peace Corps service as a Health Education Volunteer in Albania, here's what I've learned.

  1. Life is all about perspective. Perspective can make or break your Peace Corps service... and your life. If you look at everything through a negative lens, everything will seem negative. Maintain a positive perspective.
  2. Networking is important. Establishing relationships is a vital part of maintaining work and community connections. I learned that in order to get any work done in my community, it was imperative to have a positive relationship with my Albanian counterparts.
  3. Patience truly is a virtue. Things that would normally happen in a day in America can take a week or more here. Things that happen in a week can take a month; things that happen in a month, a full year. Whether waiting for over an hour to catch public transportation or dealing with a difficult work situation, I often remind myself to "just breathe."
  4. Don’t measure success only through work. This one was especially difficult for me. To be successful in life is so much more than doing a good job at work. Look instead at how many positive relationships you foster in your life or how many people you make smile in a day.
  5. Know when to say 'no' and when to say 'yes.' People often stop me to ask for things, but I honestly don’t have time to do everything and it's unrealistic to have a billion coffees with people every day. Guard your time and know when to accept and when to decline.
  6. Be grateful for something every day. Every day is full of special moments and something to be grateful for. Even just being grateful for a warm bed or the sun shining can turn a negative day in a positive one.
  7. Admit faults and failures. If you never fail, you're never pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. My service has been full of 'successful failures,' and admitting those failures has helped me grow and find projects truly worth my time.
  8. Don’t waste time in one-sided relationships. It isn’t worth it to stay in unhealthy, unsupportive relationships just because it is comfortable or easy. Relationships and friendships should be built on mutual understanding and compassion. I have realized the most important relationship in my life is the relationship with myself.
  9. Mental and physical health is key to maintaining sanity. Taking time out of my day to exercise and meditate has been my savior. Fitness doesn’t happen overnight, but I am now in the best shape of my life because I have taken time to work out daily. Now I can proudly say that, for the first time in my life, I can do a real push-up and I can run for over a mile outside without stopping.
  10. Kindness is more important than correctness. We all have different experiences, perspectives and ideas. Sometimes it's better to nicely disagree rather than arguing about who is right.
  11. Time is of the essence. Sometimes the days felt like years but looking back at my first 12 months in Albania, I sometimes find it hard to believe that I have already been here for a year. Use your time wisely -- whether that means picking up a new hobby or spending time reading or exploring, do one thing every day for yourself and remember that time doesn’t stop for you.
  12. No one is going to hold your hand. Being self-motivated is key to success in life and in the Peace Corps. Staff aren't following you around to see what you’re doing. You must motivate yourself to do things in your community that you want to do.
  13. Not everyone will like you. Everyone in life will not always get along and like each other. Spend time with people who do like you and forget about those who can’t see how amazing you are.
  14. Love yourself. Cliché, I know, but if you don’t love yourself how can you expect anyone else to? It took moving 5,869 miles from home to finally realize that I am worthy of love.
  15. Don't judge what you don't understand. It can be easy to judge things here that I don't understand, but I often put myself in check and realize that there are lots of things here that I will never understand. Rather than passing judgment, I try to learn from these experiences and expand my mind.
  16. Comparing yourself to others is deadly. Honestly, Peace Corps Volunteers often compare ourselves to each other, whether we admit it or not. We may be in the same country, but we all have vastly different experiences. Instead of comparing ourselves, let's support each other in our successes, failures and everything in between.
  17. Slow down. Take time to bike on the beach, sit and have coffee with your coworkers, stop and smell the roses -- literally. Life is too precious to rush through without noticing the little things that make it wonderful. Xhiro, and xhiro slowly.
  18. Set realistic goals, and set them often. I came into the Peace Corps knowing that I wouldn’t change the world, but I still wanted to try. Now I realize the importance of creating reasonable goals and reevaluating them often. Having sensible goals makes for a successful service and a successful life.
  19. Everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher. I have learned so much from my Albanian friends, students, coworkers and fellow Volunteers. Take time to learn from others. I even got a tattoo that says, in Albanian, "Sa të rrosh, do të mësosh," meaning in essence, "You are never too old to learn."
  20. Be yourself. I was so worried about acting in a certain way to fit in in a different culture. While it's good to be culturally sensitive, it's also essential to maintain your true character through it all. Be yourself, because YOU are awesome!