A Year in Review

Looking over the last year with the Peace Corps is a surreal experience. My time came to an end sooner than I expected, but it is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Leaving

For those of you considering joining to Peace Corps there are several ways you can leave.

The first is at the end of your time when it’s your group’s time for COS (close of service, you have a conference 3 months before you leave and then you wrap everything up). Obviously this is the plan for volunteers, but it’s not always possible.

The next is where Peace Corps sends you home early in good standing. (This is how I and several of my group have left.) You are evacuated either based on safety concerns, medical concerns, when the country is closing to Peace Corps, or when you’d need to switch sites for some reason and are too far in your service to begin anew. These volunteers maintain all their benefits, can be reinstated if the issue resolves, and can still apply to serve in another country.

You can also ET (early terminate) where for whatever personal reason a volunteer chooses to go home early. They don’t retain any of their benefits, cannot be reinstated if they change their mind, but can reapply to another country if they choose. Although it’s more difficult to be accepted/chosen.

The final way someone leaves the country is through admin separation. This is when someone is separated due to breaking either too many rules or too big of one. They have none of the benefits and cannot reapply. It is up to the country director’s discretion whether to offer these volunteers the option to ET or be forced to leave through admin, but the CD can choose to just admin separate them without giving them the choice.

Each country is different, but there is some stigma among volunteers who ET or are admin separated.

My leaving happened somewhat suddenly, once they decide to evacuate someone it apparently usually is a fast process – there is a lot of maybes ahead of time but that doesn’t really give you room to plan. I didn’t really have the opportunity to say goodbye so I sent a message via whatsapp to our group letting them know I wouldn’t be able to return.

Part of me feels unsatisfied in the way it ended, but in my year a lot happened. I think I got to know myself in a new way and it opened my eyes to a different life path than I’d been planning. It helped me to see my priorities more clearly. I made some amazing new friends that I think will be with me for a long time. I was able to leave an updated reference for HFLE teachers, so hopefully more accurate health information will be taught, and hopefully impacted how some nurses (and nursing students) approach mental health, infection control, bedside manner, patient eduction, etc.

The Journey

My Peace Corps experience was vastly different than what I (and most of my pcv friends) expected. In the end, for most people I think Peace Corps is what you make it. There are the expected challenges challenges of living in a developing nation, and cultural challenges you probably don’t expect. A huge part of the volunteers service, especially initially, is dependent on the staff you have in country. Talking to volunteers serving in various countries this is probably actually the largest determinant of your service outside of your control.

The Peace Corps encourages volunteers to be independent with their work, working closely with locals to increase sustainability. I encourage you to take advantage of this leeway and not over share with staff. Report your projects on your vrf accurately- being able to see the potential and sustainability makes it more likely you’ll be allowed to continue your projects.

Listen to your community. Not every community needs what Peace Corps emphasizes during training. You want to not only meet a need, but this gets your community more invested in your projects.

Be prepared for your first 3 months at site to be mostly getting to know your community and establishing trust. You’re going to have a lot of free time initially while you’re figuring it out. While a couple of us were able to start projects in that time, most of those didn’t end up being our primary projects – although they did offer valuable connections to build later projects.

Know that PST is not like service. For better or worse it is a vastly different experience. You don’t have the support system of volunteers at site like you do at PST, you have far less rules, and you’re much more in control of your schedule and projects. The The tools we learned during training weren’t applicable to most of our sites, but the volunteer led trainings and conversations with volunteers from earlier batches was very helpful.

The Friends

Making friends in Peace Corps has a whole different set of variables than making friends stateside. There is an initial bond and respect from being dedicated to the same cause among many of the volunteers. During PST people click based on shared history or interests primarily, much like we would at home. But then we are scattered across the country and proximity becomes a major determinant of friendship, forging bonds with people we may never have been close with otherwise. This may be one of the greatest elements of Peace Corps for volunteers, it expands our viewpoint almost as much as living within another culture. You also are able to see people more upclose, becoming good friends with people who you’d most likely never have gotten to know well enough to know the value they add to your life. But just like any group, you won’t be close with everyone, most likely won’t even like everyone by the time your service has ended.

Making genuine friendships with the community members can be more challenging. Without the common ground of similar core values and other cultural factors becoming close to people takes longer than you’d expect. I made a couple good friends, but it took a lot of work. There is an odd dynamic when you’re doing humanitarian work that you have to be able to overcome to make friendships as well. Cultural norms can also make this more challenging, whether it’s that men and women are never friends, the high emphasis on race, norms for your age group, etc.

Host Families

Living with a host family is what a lot of volunteers were most nervous about prior to coming. The added safety level and help to integrate is invaluable when people are placed with families that actually provide that. A lot of volunteers struggled with having a host family, partly because most of us are used to living on our own, but also because it puts us in an uniquely vulnerable position. Volunteers had things stolen (clothes, food, tupperware, etc) fairly regularly. A lot of us didn’t have have the locked door to our room like we are us supposed to have. Some host families try to parent and enforce rules on volunteers as if they are the room children, while others barely speak to their volunteers. Some volunteers were placed in homes where child abuse or other factors they considered cultural prevented the volunteer from feeling comfortable.

The awesome host families were far more rare, but they were hugely helpful to their volunteers. They offered unique insight to cultural differences, help you you learn the ropes in social etiquette, safety, etc. They offered comfort when their volunteers were homesick and really helped with integration. But out of our group of 38 less than 10 had experiences like that, and most of the ones who did it was a second or third try host family.

Change

I went to try to help the people of Guyana and change things for the better there, which hopefully I did to a certain extent. The change I didn’t expect was how much I personally changed from the experience. It was such an amazing opportunity to force me outside of my comfort zone, that I didn’t realize I was hiding in, expanding my skills.

Being in another culture that values work ethic differently than we do, that values the power of the Gaff, that views time differently than we do, etc. all increased my patience. I was able to learn and grow from seeing issues from other perspectives, like my friend who describes herself as both a feminist and a vegetarian. While I did not become a vegetarian I definitely have more respect and understanding of why some people are. And while my views on some of the issues lumped under feminism have not actually changed, being in Guyana where there are much larger discrepancies in how women are treated compared to men, things that are considered acceptable in the sexual harassment arena, etc Opening my eyes to issues that I had not previously considered or realize how drastic those discrepancies still are in so much of the world.

Being far away from my family really highlighted their priority in my life, and many of my other priorities were emphasized there more than in normal daily life within the States.

The Work

The work was different than I was expecting, did not really fit the description that was listed on the job posting on PC’S website. I think education had a better idea of what they were volunteering to do, most of the health volunteers seemed to think they were coming to do something different than our actual positions. Even still, the projects are almost always what we made them; we ended up being able to find various uses for our training prior to Peace Corps. We just didn’t walk into situations or projects that were already started and just needed a worker, but had to discover what projects needed to be done, figure out how to do them, implement them, and how to make them last. I think a lot of people were underutilized and it’s definitely something to keep in mind for potential volunteers. Often times it felt like a better fit for volunteers with more general degrees (biology, pre-med, etc), than for the volunteers who had specific training (nurse, nutritionist, infectious disease public health, etc). Not thay we weren’t useful too, just more difficult to find a good niche.

Family (and friends at home )

Cards and care packages mean more than I could even begin to describe to your volunteers. Not only does your volunteer make the minimum wage in a developing country, which for us was like $3 a day, so a little help is appreciated in that way. But it also just connects us with home. The cheapest shipping to Guyana ran about $10 a pound, so I asked my family not to send care packages. Even though I lived in an area that had better-than-expected cell reception, that I was able to communicate with family and friends at home on a daily basis, getting something tangible in the mail really was a morale boost every time I got something. It offered a connection to home and made us not feel so far away.

To everyone currently serving, returned from or considering the Peace Corps, I wish you well.

For everyone just reading for fun, I thank you.

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