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What will my counterpart be like?

What will my counterpart be like? Amy DeCola

For those not familiar with Peace Corps lingo, a counterpart is a person in a Volunteer’s host community who works alongside the Volunteer. 

Counterparts are essential to advancing the Peace Corps mission to promote world peace and friendship through community-based development and cross-cultural understanding. To this day, I am grateful for my counterpart, Veron, who was my support and friend during my service in the Philippines.

Your counterpart will play an important role in your service, just as Veron did in mine. Any ideas for change – if they are to be sustainable – must come from within the community. It also takes a lot of guts to be that person, someone who is willing to do things differently, take a risk and work with the new “foreigner” while not getting any extra monetary reward.

Community entry and integration can be one of the most difficult obstacles a Volunteer faces, so major role that a counterpart plays is introducing the Volunteer to their new community, including your new friends, neighbors and others who will work with you. Veron took me to the local market and taught me how to get the best bargains for fruits and vegetables. She patiently explained some of the unfamiliar customs and celebrations that I encountered. We even danced together in front of a large town gathering in honor of World Teachers' Day!

Your counterpart also serves as a sociocultural guide who can help increase the long-term positive impact of your activities by making sure that they are culturally, politically, and economically appropriate and sustainable. Veron introduced me to our mayor and facilitated an improved relationship between the mayor and our elementary school. That relationship ultimately culminated in a partnership between the Peace Corps and the town to create an elementary school library. 

Veron had the connections to locate the best carpenters and painters, and understood the subtle but crucial cultural negotiations for a project of this size. I used my early childhood education connections and Peace Corps resources to gather books, puzzles and hands-on literacy materials. Our library project was truly completed by “many hands” – hands that only someone who truly knew and understood the community, like Veron, could have recruited.

Every Volunteer and counterpart relationship is different. Your country of service may assign an initial counterpart, you may have more than one counterpart and, over time, your counterpart may change. Make every effort to create an open communication channel with your counterpart. When you run into challenges in your work, you will be able to discuss and solve them together. Best of all: When you are successful, you will be able to celebrate together!

Yes, Veron and I had our share of misunderstandings and cultural differences, but with humility and humor we managed to persevere and flourish in our professional and personal lives. When I first met her she was quiet and reserved, having never before worked with an American. Over my two years, she grew as my valued counterpart who surprised her friends and family by co-facilitating a three-day workshop for new Volunteers and counterparts.

Veron was my partner in development, my co-teacher, my translator (literally and culturally) and, most of all, my friend. Just as I could not have been a successful Volunteer without Veron, your counterpart will be valuable in your service too.

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