Eastern Caribbean

Country Director's Message

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) can be a person’s most rewarding personal and professional experience. That’s a big statement, but I’m biased. I was a PCV for two tours in the Philippines. My service helped me grow personally and professionally, as I learned so much about myself and others. My work as part of a team to provide long-term land tenure to an oppressed cultural minority tribe is my most satisfying professional achievement. My service helped me obtain fellowships for graduate school and launch a career in international conservation and development in 11 other countries. And I had a lot of fun with Filipinos and other PCVs, some of whom are still my dearest friends.

That’s not to say that the experience is always easy. I’m reminded of a quotation in “The Last Navigator,” a book written by a young American, Steve who went to a Micronesia atoll to teach modern navigation techniques and to learn from a Master Navigator the traditional navigation techniques using stars, wind, clouds, currents, wave patterns, sea birds and other techniques to sail tiny outrigger canoes across hundreds of miles of ocean to find tiny island destinations when European sailors in large ships stayed in sight of land. The Master Navigator admitted that at times, “when I am caught in strong winds, I am afraid. I am afraid. But when the wind dies and waves are lower I make myself strong again to search for the island and keep going.” Just as everyone in his society does not have the courage to navigate ocean voyages, not everyone in the United States is brave enough sail into the unknown waters of a Peace Corps experience. You already have considerable resilience skills you have developed to overcome personal, academic or work-related obstacles. Your capacities will be tested, and our staff are available to help you further hone your abilities.

Most of the challenges of being a PCV are similar no matter the country, but there are some unique challenges to small, middle-income countries like ours. One is that the experience might not be quite as dramatic or seem to be as helpful as serving in a country with more extreme poverty. It can be disconcerting to some that their apartments or houses are nicer than the ones they had at home. At times some Volunteers feel they are not truly needed or having the traditional Peace Corps experience. Rest assured that there is poverty in our “island paradises,” with the percentage of people living below the poverty line up to 38% in some of our countries, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that our Volunteers report achievements in helping individuals and host organizations build their capacities. Another challenge in our small countries is that it is easy to spend too much time with other Volunteers or tourists. Although it is understandable to socialize occasionally with other Volunteers and cultural peers, Volunteers who make the effort to not overdo it integrate more effectively into their work and communities, and thus are more effective, achieve greater impacts, and have an even more enjoyable experience.

Wherever you decide to serve as a Volunteer, I hope you have an experience similar to mine, that of more than 240,000 other Volunteers who have served before you, and Steve, who described it more poetically than I can. At the end of his time he went to say goodbye to the Master Navigator. Due to some cultural gaffes he had made, he wasn’t sure how the man would respond. He used a farewell voyagers traditionally used when they left on a perilous sea passage from which they might not return, which goes “I am leaving behind me the island of Palulap, for I will reach behind, I will reach ahead, and after my voyage, will you still hold me?” The Navigator initially replied with a joke, and Steve wrote that his heart “sank like a stone in the sea. But then he wrote, the Navigator grew serious, his eyes softened, and gave the traditional response: “After your voyage I will still hold you. I will still hold you because your flesh is my flesh, your name is my name, your earth is my earth.”

Dale Withington
Eastern Caribbean Country Director