Two is twice as tuani

By Emily and Andrew Nilsen
Aug. 13, 2015

Like any applicant and wannabe Peace Corps Volunteer, hours were spent scouring the Internet and talking with any RPCV to gather information and get a glimpse into what was to come. We were looking for something a little different though: information about serving as a couple.

There wasn’t much to be found and the little official information we did find wasn’t too cheery. At the time, only 7% of PCVs were married couples and, according to our Peace Corps recruiter, they were the most likely to quit service early. Even the application and initial interview blatantly stated there were specific challenges that we would have to overcome. With all of these considerations in mind, we continued through the application process, drawn by the opportunity to adventure together, add to our treasure trove of shared memories, learn a new language and take advantage of the end of our twenties before children, grad school and a mortgage. 

As we celebrate our four-year wedding anniversary and 10 months of living in Nicaragua, we thought we’d share why serving as a Peace Corps couple is super tuani (the Nicaraguan equivalent of cool/awesome). 

We complement and learn from each other.  Between Andrew’s Spanish knowledge and Emily’s English teaching background, we were a perfect fit for the TEFL teacher trainer program in Nicaragua. Service can be a time of self-discovery, both individually and as a couple. The challenges we face help us reach deeper into ourselves and find who we are. We are learning about and from each other as we go. 

Peace Corps has given us the opportunity to work together, something we didn’t have in our different fields in the United States.  This isn’t a requirement, as Peace Corps offers plenty of flexibility to have our own projects and our own separate work if we wanted it. For us, working together has been a highlight of our service. Our dinner table debriefings of the day have a whole new level of empathy and problem solving than they did in the U.S., as we are both working with English teachers in the Nicaraguan public schools. We’ve also loved collaborating on secondary projects, such as teacher trainings, English summer camps and conversation groups. Our experience has motivated us to continue working in similar fields when we return to the States. 

Being married has helped with some societal norms in country, but given us the opportunity to challenge others.  Host country nationals often think we are older (which we are, a little) and more mature and professional (not necessarily true) than single volunteers. This subtle difference gives us the advantage of moving projects along, making connections and proposals with less push back, and gaining general acceptance in our community. Our favorite, though, is to be able to push back in our own subtle ways on gender roles. Andrew is the cook and Emily does the cleaning. This raises some eyebrows, but often provides a great platform to talk about sharing household work, and that it doesn’t make Emily any less of a woman or Andrew any less of a man. 

We get to live together AND with a host family.  While this varies by post, and we did live separately during Pre-Service Training to help with language acquisition, we are happily living together and sharing a home with a host family. Peace Corps is committed to helping couples serve together and makes an effort to find housing options that fit both the needs of the couple and the host country norms. We couldn’t be happier with our own little room, shared kitchen and lounging space, and the incredible people we get to call our host family. 

The power of two. Peace Corps service can be a bit like running a two-year marathon. Patience, perseverance, and lots rehydration salts are essential, and serving with your partner is like having a built-in workout buddy. First of all, logistics are in the favor of the PCV couple. We always have a travel companion, collaborator for grants and projects, someone to split rent with, access to twice the professional and personal contacts, and consistent moral support. At our best, this means we have someone to help get us going on days when we’re feeling down and overwhelmed. At times, though, it feels so much easier to stay in, speak English to each other, and watch "Game of Thrones." But hey, at least we’re watching the Spanish version! 

Choosing to invest these 27 months is enriching our lives as well as our relationship. And who knows? After those kids and a mortgage, perhaps we’ll be back for 27 more. 

If you are interested in serving with your partner, feel free to reach out to us for more information. We are a la orden. 

Emily and Andrew Nilsen

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