Does Age Matter in the Peace Corps?

An older female Volunteer teaches a older Malawian female how to ride a bike
By Birgit McMullen
March 27, 2018
I am sitting at my brand new table, hand-made by the local carpenter in front of my living room window overlooking a sea of jungle green that grows between my front porch and the tarmac.

It is 9am here and sweat is running down my back and my forehead. Behind me, my cat Tonga is hunting futuristically large insects, proving that she is not dependent on me feeding her plain rice. My signature red reading glasses perch on the tip of my nose and I am typing with the four finger system that unmistakably gives away my age. Yes, I grew up without computers, and yes, my reading glasses get stronger and stronger every year.

Last year around this time my life seemed un-changeable in its course. Today, nothing is predictable from one day to the next.

During our first week of Pre-Service Training (PST) our Country Director asked me why I chose to join the Peace Corps during this stage of my life, “mid-career” they call it. And I answered that I wanted, that I needed, change.

As an organization, Peace Corps is geared towards young college graduates, but a few years ago they started actively recruiting mature adults. The medium age of Peace Corps Volunteers is 28, with the percentage of adults 50+ right around 7%. While one does not have to join the Peace Corps to change one’s life, this was my chosen path. And it is with, within, and under the framework of Peace Corps that I strain against old patterns and struggle to find a new path in my life.

Working with my fellow Volunteers (who mostly could be my children, and wonderful children at that) I am constantly reminded of that time in my life when I was so passionate, so full of energy, drive, hope, and hunger for a promising, fulfilling life. I am also reminded that, at their age, I considered people like me “old”, just biding their time to retirement. They seemed boring, hesitant, judgmental, and frankly, a mere appendix to the “happening” society.

So, where do I fit in? Am I young because I do what young people do, or am I old, because the demands of an older body and mind set me apart? I still cannot answer this question, but I can reflect on my experience with an openness to change and learning. Volunteers in the 50+ range are a minority, the instructors are either young or never had our experience. It is frustrating to compete with the speed, energy, and brain elasticity of 23 year-old students. Many times did I ask myself: what do I have to offer that the youngsters could not do faster and better? I still don’t know.

Has my life changed? Absolutely. I am living on another continent. I live similarly to many Malawian villagers; no running water, electricity, internet, or luxury except a decent mattress on my concrete floor. I know how to sweep the dirt, I am learning a completely foreign language, I’m living alone for the very first time in my life, and I teach children subjects I have never taught before. I am starting over.
An older Volunteer stands with her Malawian high school students
Birgit poses with her students.

My previous life has not prepared me for this. In this, I am just like my 23-year-old fellow Volunteers. Does change come easy? Absolutely not. I am probably slightly uncomfortable 80% of my time. Meeting new people is hard, communicating is hard, living a simple life with fetching water and cooking on charcoal is hard, not having access to fresh vegetables without a 10km bike ride is hard, being alone is hard, and not being able to share my darkest moments with anybody is hard. My friends could be my children, and one does not break down in front of one’s children. There is a code. The older ones give advice; the younger ones seek council. And here is my biggest surprise, being older does not change anything about how one feels about or perceives the world. I still feel frightened, I feel inadequate in the face of challenges, I feel lonely, I cry, I sometimes want to give up, I feel heartbroken. And yet I feel excited, and I am proud, I am in love, and feel giddy, over-the-top hopeful, and I feel so happy to live a meaningful life.

Most of the time I am excited about the changes I have made. I like the simple life.  I like to have time to sit and reflect. I like that my life experience is valued here, and I like that I am respected as a teacher. I like to teach in a place where the naughtiest students sleep in class or wear their hair too long. I like the weather and how my life is lived mostly outdoors. I love how you can/must be creative without having to be perfect. And I actually like the hole in the ground that I call my toilet, because, really, it is more suited to what you are physiologically supposed to do there. I like that having a mattress on the floor and a table with two chairs is considered enough. I like that people remain in their natural bodies with no veneer.

Peace Corps requires a fast pace of learning. Teaching and reporting styles are geared towards the capacities of young people. I have always been proud of my brain functions, my ability to connect the dots fast, to grasp the relationships of concepts. Learning with 23-year-olds is different. The speed in which they comprehend completely new concepts is beyond my understanding. How can I be so slow? How can I forget so many details? How are 30 minutes of study time enough to retain 9 hours’ worth of lecture? During our Peace Corps training I felt older than I had ever felt before in my life. I gained a new understanding of the frustrations a slow learner faces every day in school. If you have learning challenges you don’t just miss out on learning. You also miss out on all the fun.

I am getting a new appreciation of the young generation. They are go-getters, compassionate, innovative, self-confident, and compassionate. They are everything we taught them to be. It is a joy to watch them. They will go far to places we never even dreamed off. But where does this leave me? Am I worth the investment of a large organization? Where is my place? What can I contribute that 23-year-olds cannot?

In my experience, age matters. I would say there is a (slight) bias against age, against the changes that come with age. We have a slower processing speed, our bodies and minds can perform as high as young people’s, but we need a longer time to rest and recuperate. We are slower in learning entirely new concepts, but we can easily and efficiently integrate new information that is somehow connected to previous knowledge. We can attach new knowledge to old and use it in completely new ways. We have more patience, greater wisdom, more experience, and an ability to differentiate when assessing and responding to life problems. In Malawian culture, the elders are revered. Many times did I witness a rude business man on the bus turn soft, wait patiently until an elderly person boards the bus, finds her seat, helps her store all her bulky belongings.

Would I set out on the path of changing my life again? Absolutely. Would I wish for more differentiation in instruction? Absolutely. Am I absolutely sure of my advantages compared to 23-year-olds? No, I still do not. Do I wish for more emotional support? Yes. Will I continue on the path of changing my life and others? Absolutely. Will I bear witness to the difficulties? You bet. Change and learning are not in the sole domain of young people. Change and learning are in all of our hands. Are we all equally supported? No. But should this stop us? No again.

Age matters in all of this. We are pioneers. Our experiences count. And I am happy to experience the different ways that different cultures approach age. Outside of the training situation, I don’t feel the pressure and age-inappropriate treatment anymore. I am myself. I forge my own path for better or worse. Change is happening. Learning is happening. Comparisons are toxic. Individual skill sets are everything. Kindness matters more than intellect, and the ability to press on after setbacks will determine our success. Human connections are the key to a worthwhile life in the US, in Malawi, in Germany, or anywhere else on this beautiful earth.

Age matters, but fortunately it is not everything. So go on and keep fighting, keep changing, keep learning, keep teaching at whatever pace you feel comfortable. The most important things are not quantifiable.

A white, female Volunteer over 50 years of age smiles next to a Malawian woman.