What Is Peace Corps… A Glimpse from the Beginning of Service

One question I have been grappling to answer over the past few weeks has been “What is your passion?” In part, I believe there is a fundamental essence in human nature that drives us to have that deep burning motivation to give each of us passion in life. As I read Social Entrepreneurship for Dummies the introduction reminded me of my Peace Corps service. The premise was that there are many who have the motivation, some who have the opportunity, but few who are able to find the intersection between the two in order to make that marketable difference. I joined Peace Corps as an attempt to find that intersection of motivation and opportunity. Throughout my training, I had a vision of my service; what I could do and what I hoped to accomplish. But getting to site is vastly different and takes me back to the root of what Peace Corps is and what it is not.

I have had the opportunity to talk to many people about my time and service in the Philippines. Then there is everybody here, those reading my blog following my experiences. So what is Peace Corps? I think over the course of my build-up to service, pre-service training, my now full service—and even through media—Peace Corps conjures up romanticized images of what service is. I wanted to write to the myths, perceptions, and realities of Peace Corps.

First, and most importantly, Peace Corps is an incredibly individual experience. No two volunteers will ever have the same experience, and that is part of the beauty. Your service is what you make of it. Every volunteer brings their own skill set and passions which gives them the drive and the desire to wake up and embrace each day. Understanding the drive and passion then becomes a critical part of Peace Corps service. Almost every day during our Initial Orientation, we were asked our “Why” – why did you join Peace Corps, why are you here? This question is the guiding light throughout service. This is because of the reality. You don’t arrive at site and begin to make a difference on Day 1. It is an exercise of patience and resilience. One thing I have learned both personally and from other volunteers is that you will fail, things will not happen, promises will not be fulfilled. But it is remembering the “Why” and maintaining that determination that allows you to succeed. So much more of Peace Corps isn’t what you do, but the relationships you build. I will only be in the Philippines for two years, will my projects become sustainable? I hope but cannot make a guarantee. I am at an organization that has had a Peace Corps volunteer before. They have mentioned some projects she initiated that are still running and some that have stalled, and asked that I could pick up. There is one thing that is unmistakable, that is the relationships and personal impact she made on her site. I hear almost daily about how much they enjoyed having her, how much they learned from her, and the impact she made on the girls of the organization by being a positive influence.

That in itself is Peace Corps. It is about building positive relationships and connections that can sustain the test of time. OK, as a student of international development I will bluntly admit, as a textbook model of development Peace Corps is not the most sustainable or the best model. Projects typically yield minimal impacts and are on many occasions not sustained. We try, our goal is sustainability; our passion is to impact as many as possible. But it’s often not the reality. That though is why Peace Corps is so much more than simply a development model. Two of the three goals of Peace Corps are not development related in a project sense, they are to integrate in the community and understand the community, culture, and language and to share American culture and promote goodwill and understanding among volunteers and the host country. I have learned over the past 5 months, if I accomplish nothing else in my service, this alone will be a solid measure of my success. It is what Peace Corps is most remembered for within our host communities. Of course, we do great projects and work hard, but those relationships are the best and greatest foundation. They are also the most sustainable as well.

 

Peace Corps conjures up such a romanticized vision of service… a vision I was guilty of having too. I had the vision of a Peace Corps that was a mud hut in the middle of an African savannah or a rainforest of Latin America without running water or electricity, the expectation of being challenged with the very basic existences of life. Let me be clear, there are volunteers who live the very basic lifestyle without these amenities, but I have come to learn that that neither makes nor breaks a Peace Corps experience. Every volunteer struggles, many are the same while many are individual. In the Philippines—at least at my site—there are many amenities which include regular electricity, water, and access to internet. The challenges though are quite different; it is contending with crowds, noise, smog and pollution, and the adaptation to a new culture that can overwhelm both the senses and the mind. Some may call the Philippines the “Posh Corps” but I want to stop there and say that there is no “easy” life in the Peace Corps. You will be challenged in more ways than you can imagine and the presence or lack of amenities doesn’t negate those challenges.

The work you do as a volunteer remains the same. It is the quest and struggle to understand the culture, learn the language, build those lasting relationships, and work to identify projects and your place in the community. Every volunteer, from Africa and Asia to the Americas faces this task, but the return is always the reward. It is the impact you will make on your community through those relationships and projects. It may only affect one or a handful of lives, but that is why Peace Corps is built on a grassroots level. It is to inspire a few individuals who can then inspire their communities to rise up and build on the foundations left by Peace Corps. Our job isn’t to be the direct catalyst of change, we are the seed that plants the idea of change into the community which allows them to grow and prosper.

The work we do is not measured by our two years, but the impact of those two years on the community. That one life we touch can touch hundreds of lives, through the course of Peace Corps it has inspired presidents and civic leaders—an impact that grows and changes long after the volunteer has left. So for us, it is not about numbers but quality.

It changes the Volunteer as well. Those challenges and struggles help identify the truly important things in life, builds resilience, develops an appreciation for culture and cultural exchange, and makes us a more worldly and compassionate global citizen. Peace Corps is not one population, it is young and old; rich and poor; but united by a desire to make an impact on the greater and more collective good. We sign up, not because it will be easy, but because it will challenge each of us and make us grow. But at the same time, it allows the world to grow with us. We believe we are the seeds of change, and that is Peace Corps. As the Peace Corps slogan goes, “Life is calling, how far will you go?” the answer is not in a destination but in the journey. So this is what I have learned Peace Corps is, and I offer you the challenge…how far will you go?

(Disclaimer: This reflects my personal opinions and does not represent Peace Corps, the US government or any other organization).

 

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