City Year to Peace Corps: How service changed the way I see the world
It’s been four and a half years since I started service work, and I feel like I have gained the experience of two lifetimes.
One of the most valuable parts of this experience was that it allowed me to see the best and worst of humanity. I saw outside influences putting the students I was working with in awful situations. Good kids who had been let down by the adults around them, good parents who just couldn’t catch a break, and good teachers who were doing everything in their power but saw only slow progress. At some point in service everyone starts to feel overwhelmed by all of the injustice involved.
The inspiring thing was, as dark as things seemed, there were always people there to push back. Teachers more dedicated than I could have imagined staying until 8 or 9 at night; skilled City Year AmeriCorps and staff members turning down higher paying jobs to help schools in need; and executives at huge companies continuously asking what else they could do to support us and our students.
The passion, skill and commitment of the people I worked with inspired me. They showed me not only that I should make a difference, but that I could make a difference and that I was not alone.
In Uganda I have seen some hard things, but if anything my time here has just increased my overall faith in humanity. From the commitment of my Peace Corps colleagues to the passion shown by many of the Ugandans I work with, I know now more then ever that not only are we not alone in this fight, but that we can win it by working together.
Because I live in a village away from most of my Peace Corps colleagues, I have more autonomy. I work with my Ugandan counterparts to decide what support is needed where. I make the calls and I know Peace Corps will back my decisions. The downside to my relative freedom is that the impact is all on me. I don’t have a whole team at my school to pick up the slack if I drop the ball.
This has been wonderful for my personal development. Being the sole representative for a given group is a whole new kind of responsibility.
Here I’ve learned to trust myself in ways that I had never expected. Situations that would have frozen me in terror six months ago I now approach with a relaxed confidence. Peace Corps has provided the right combination of meaning in my work, support from impressive role models in the organization and the autonomy to follow my own path to show me both how high the stakes are and what I am capable of. For the first time in my life I feel like I can do anything.
Through my service I learned there is no one magic quality you need and no specific job you have to have to help make the world a better place. Making a difference doesn’t necessarily mean saving thousands of lives or single-handedly changing the course of history. It’s not about sacrificing your life for a cause or donating every cent you have. It’s about an honest, well thought out, continued attempt to make this a better world.
One of the hard things about setting off to change the world is that the fight never ends. There’s never a point at which you dust off your hands, kick up your feet and say “the worlds a better place now… done.” It doesn’t happen. There’s always another fight, always another cause and the differences you do make sometimes don’t show themselves until years and years later.
That can often, at the time, feel like failure, but I think it is expressed well in "Man of La Mancha" when Don Quixote sings "The Impossible Dream." After describing that his quest is to accomplish so many unachievable goals, he sings, “And the world will be better for this — that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage — to reach the unreachable star.” The world is a better place for his striving, for his trying. Catching the star isn’t the point. It’s the attempt that matters.
This post first appeared on the City Year blog.