Life as a modern-day Peace Corps Volunteer
How do you get across the bizarreness of Peace Corps, a job that is a lifestyle, dictated by dichotomies and defined by your own initiative?
Often you end up sensationalizing it for a few laughs, glossing over how difficult it really is, or accidentally painting yourself as a save-the-world hippie.
The truth is, Peace Corps service is what you make of it. And that is just as open-ended as it sounds.
The basic concept hasn’t changed since its founding in 1961: Volunteers serve for two years in a developing nation, working at the grassroots level toward sustainable change. I am one of approximately 200 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) serving in Senegal.
Though the mission and three goals remain the same, many other aspects of Peace Corps service have evolved over the years. In Africa, for example, technology has flooded in and significantly changed development work.
With cell phones reaching even the farthest villages, PCVs no longer have to worry about getting chucked into a remote village and never hearing from the outside world. It’s also much easier now to stay in touch with friends and family, keep blogs, and document our service. We collaborate more, share resources and best practices, and can apply for small grants.
So who are we, these people who ship off to live in the most remote corners of developing countries for two years?
I’d say most of can agree on a few things: We all wanted a change and a challenge. We wanted to experience a new culture. We wanted to make a difference and give back.
Peace Corps was an idea floating in my mind all through college, but it was only after working in communications for several non-governmental organizations that I decided to apply. It was time to fully immerse myself in the cultures I’d been writing about.
I’ve met other Volunteers with degrees ranging from linguistics to biology. Many had never worked in development and wanted to dip a toe into that river.
“I joined Peace Corps to gain perspective by seeing what it is truly like to live in a way completely different than what I am familiar with,” says Tina Bryant, a Health PCV in Senegal. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”
Other PCVs have cited everything from admiring the Peace Corps approach to development to wanting to “toughen themselves up,” serve their country or simply satisfy their curiosity. But nobody who sticks out the Peace Corps for two years thinks we’re here to change the world. That kind of naiveté doesn’t last long here.
To become a PCV, you above all must have a healthy dose of patience. The application process is much shorter than it used to be – the first step takes just one hour – but it can still take time to complete everything, from filling out your medical history to getting your assignment to stepping on the plane. The second step is pre-service training, a period of two or three months in country before Volunteers disperse to their permanent sites. The training is rigorous: we study the culture, learn a local language or two and acquire technical skills based on our sector. At the end, quaking in our sandals, we’re evaluated and tested on everything we’ve learned.
Once we’re sworn in, we settle into our permanent sites and secretly wonder if we’re crazy for doing this. Some PCVs are assigned to work with existing projects, but most of us are given a framework and let loose. Our service is an open book to make of it what we choose.
For me, that opportunity has proved exhilarating. As a Health Volunteer based in a small city in southern Senegal, my work is eclectic, ranging from child and maternal health to women’s empowerment and everything in between.
“We have so much freedom here,” said returned Peace Corps Volunteer Jordan Levinson when I first arrived. “If we think of an idea, it can happen. That’s what they say about Americans here — even if we don’t know how to do something, we just go teach ourselves how to do it, and do it.”
This method is intimidating, but thrilling when you succeed.
Despite this freedom, it’s a challenging life adjusting to the culture, giving up conveniences, swapping between languages and being pointed out daily as someone foreign and different. Whenever children see me, they screech “toubab!” (foreigner), and this happens at least 20 times a day. We never quite blend in, even when draped in local fabrics and dancing to mbalax (a type of Senegalese music).
Over a year into my service, this life remains challenging, but I’ve learned to focus my eyes on the positives rather than the negatives. I see the big smiles of the teenagers we taught at our youth empowerment camps; I see more women improving the nutritional content of the meals they cook. As PCVs, we find our little niches and fill them. It’s the toughest but most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.
This story first appeared as "Peace Corps Today: Huts, wells and smartphones"