5 ways Peace Corps service is like 'Star Trek'

By Elizabeth Riley
April 17, 2015

As any Peace Corps Volunteer knows, there can be a lot of downtime during your service. Meetings are late, people don’t show up to events they said they would, no one comes to school on a rainy day, time is just… slower.

My sitemate Stacey and I have taken advantage of the downtime by watching “Star Trek.” Sure, there are some good, science-fiction-y plot devices, but the heart and soul of the various series are the themes of exploration, humanity (and what exactly that means) and a demonstration of the greatness of Patrick Stewart. (Just kidding. Sort of.) 

Through my viewing of "Star Trek," I’ve found five themes that relate to my Peace Corps service.

1. The Prime Directive

This is the overall governing policy of the United Federation of Planets. Basically, Starfleet officers are not supposed to get involved in the natural progression of a civilization or culture. Things get weird when we involve time travel so there is, of course, a Temporal Prime Directive: don’t interfere in the natural progression of a timeline. 

Introducing warp or time travel technology to civilizations that aren’t there is a serious offense. Watching a culture get conquered by a vicious dictator isn’t easy. But imagine the implications if the Federation got involved in every single dispute or introduced advanced technology to the human equivalent of cave men. If a group or civilization asks for help, on the other hand, it is typically given. 

Of course, Peace Corps is kind of the opposite of the Prime Directive. We are supposed to get involved in the local culture. We’re supposed to integrate and make friends and, ultimately, “change behaviors.” 

That’s what I like about the Peace Corps: We live in a community, involve community members, identify needs and use a community’s strengths to solve a problem.

2. Cultivating family

“Star Trek” takes place in the 24th century. At this point we’ve developed warp technology and are exploring different planets, sectors and galaxies. Different species and civilizations can join the Federation and become Starfleet officers, leading to a rich diversity of officers and citizens. Naturally, some of these species have historical conflicts and not everyone gets along.  

The definition of family comes up frequently in each iteration of the series, both the family we choose and the family we don’t. 

My happiness during my Peace Corps service is so inextricably linked with the family I have cultivated here. Like “Deep Space Nine,” we are a rag-tag bunch of Volunteers from all over the place, having a huge variety of experiences and backgrounds. But now we share this one thing — Peace Corps service in Jamaica — and it feels like we’ll be in this secret little club that no one else really understands. The family that we choose and the one that we cultivate are often different, but both are essential to our (well, at least my) happiness.

3. The Federation is bureaucratic

The United Federation of Planets is the huge governing organization that oversees all of the goings-on in the universe. If that sounds like a big job, it is. 

Well, guess what? The Peace Corps is a government organization. There are going to be rules that sometimes, on the surface at least, don’t make sense. There is going to be paperwork, endless pages of forms to fill out.

4. What does culture mean?

At its core, “Star Trek” is about the exchange of cultures. During the 24th century, Earth has one unified government and is a member of the United Federation of Planets. Individuals still maintain their respective cultural identities, but borders, hunger and poverty have been “solved,” which is why the Federation explores new planets and invites new species to join in the fun (and what fun it is!).  

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I had a very rudimentary understanding of what culture was. I thought it extended to language, food, greetings, music and architecture. Now I realize it is so much more than that. It encompasses everything from the way people walk on the street to the etiquette they use in a business setting and how they clean their homes. Being cognizant of these differences and not getting frustrated when they impede our work is incredibly important to our mental health as PCVs.

5. Being an outsider

In each series, there is usually one or more “outsider” character: Spock, Worf, Data and Odo all serve this role in a variety of ways. They each have several episodes that focus on this status and how they wrestle with their identity. How can they really fit in with the Federation? Each of these outsider characters have to wrestle with their identities, relate to their fellow crewmembers and still do their jobs. 

Obviously, being an outsider is a fundamental part of the Peace Corps experience. We are dispatched to foreign countries to perform a job. We are by definition outsiders. Never really fitting in is part of the job description. No matter how much we integrate, how many dead yards we attend or how much the kids love us, a little part of us will still be an outsider. 

But going back home, it’s hard to relate to the friends we left behind. We’ve just been through this huge experience that they can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to describe the Peace Corps experience, and even more difficult for family and friends back home to understand. This will define me from now on. 

Elizabeth Riley

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