The 5 things I wish I had known before joining Peace Corps

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The following piece originally appeared in full at GoOverseas. It has been edited by the author for Passport.

It’s hard to know what to expect as a Peace Corps Volunteer. So when I was nearing the end of my two years of service in Madagascar as an Education Volunteer, I reminisced about the things I wish I had known before my departure.

1. What’s the RPCV perspective.

Once I was settled in to my site and, quite honestly, spending most of my time trying to figure out new ways to handle all this free time I suddenly had, I stumbled on a few Peace Corps memoirs in our English Center’s libraries.

The one that struck me the most was Moritz Thomsen’s “Living Poor,” which documented his service as a PCV in the 1960’s in Ecuador. Though his accounts were a continent and several decades apart from my own, I appreciated knowing that I wasn’t alone in some of the frustrations I was feeling and in my struggle to create work for myself.

I also wondered: Why didn’t I read one of these during the 13 months I spent applying? It would have been helpful to seek out an RPCV to chat with before leaving.

2. You are more likely to impact your community in small ways than large.

“I wish I had known I wasn’t going to change the world,” I’ve heard others say. Two years may seem long, but in the overall scheme of development it’s not enough to completely turn around a community’s economic situation or eradicate a health issue.

In my own service, I was assigned to teach at a local middle school. None of my students were fluent in English by the time I left, and though I brought in a large donation of books to our school, I doubt the interest in reading in English has gone up significantly either.

Even so, I feel like I had an impact, and I can’t overlook the smaller accomplishments that I had during my service: teaching the teachers at my school how to make apple pie (which they loved), making my students understand that calling Americans fat isn’t a compliment, and giving a shipping container left over from our Books for Africa project to a school in Antananarivo, which they then turned into a home for their school guard and his family. I’m sure there are other, even smaller ways that I have made an impact on my community that I’m not even aware of.

3. Your fellow PCVs will become your family.

One of the most unexpected things I experienced in Peace Corps was how close I became with other Volunteers. Even those whom I may not have otherwise sought out back home became some of my closest friends and people I genuinely looked forward to seeing. They were the ones who kept me going and kept me (mostly) sane during service.

We spent our holidays together, we vented to each other (usually via text) and bonded with each other over experiences that were unique to us. Even now that I’m out of Peace Corps and back in the U.S., I still keep in touch with the good friends I made during my service, and I love that I have this network of amazing individuals dispersed throughout America.

4. Every Peace Corps experience and country is different.

About a month before I learned my country of service, I remember feeling mind blown when a family friend said, “You know, not every country runs their Peace Corps program the same.” Much of it has to do with the Country Director, how long the program has been in place, how developed and refined it is and a whole host of other factors. Peace Corps websites do a good job of documenting these differences, but the real weight of how different each program is came later, when I closed my service and began speaking with other PCVs and RPCVs and compared how our countries ran Peace Corps programs.

Beyond that, every individual has a different experience in Peace Corps. For example, I’ll sometimes reminisce about Peace Corps Madagascar with a male, Chinese-American friend who was placed in the northern part of the island — a far warmer, more tropical area. We entered and left the country at the same time, but almost always one of us will say to the other, “Wow, my Peace Corps experience was nothing like that.”

The thing is, we were totally different people, we were treated differently because of our race and gender, and we were immersed in different sub-cultures of Madagascar. Even as Volunteers in the same country, and having undergone basically the same training, we had significantly different experiences. Really, it is what you make it, and what works for you may not work for others.

5. Two years is both a long time and a short time

Committing for two years is scary, but in all honestly, the time flew by. All of us undoubtedly missed some important events back home – which made us aware of just how long we had been out of the U.S. – but at the same time, most of us left service feeling as though we hadn’t accomplished all that we wanted to.

Especially since Peace Corps gives Volunteers flexibility and independence in the projects we do – what other job can you get straight out of college and be able to do this? – most of us spend our first year just trying to figure it all out, our second year getting stuff done and maybe extending for a third year or passing our projects along to the next Volunteer.

In essence, I’d say it feels short compared to the projects we do, and the life we build, but long because of how much we grow and develop as individuals throughout the process. Now that I’m back in America, I’m trying to reconcile this pre-Peace Corps self with my new, shiny post-Peace Corps self, and all those pre-Peace Corps memories are beginning to feel more distant than they did during service. I’m finally feeling how long two years really is.

Deciding to join the Peace Corps is no light decision, but it was one of the best ones I have made. It can be a tough, challenging experience that drives you crazy some days but at the same time allows you to grow in ways you didn’t think possible, and make some of the best friends of your life. Although there are things we all wish we had known before applying for or departing for our service in the Peace Corps, figuring out these little things along the way was all part of the adventure and challenge of being a PCV. After all, they don’t call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love” for nothing!

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Jessie Beck is the Content and Teach Abroad Director for GoOverseas and served as an education volunteer in Madagascar from 2011 to 2013.

16 thoughts on “The 5 things I wish I had known before joining Peace Corps

  1. As an older woman considering this opportunity do you have any say in your country and the type of assignment. I have 25 years of sale and marketing, substitute teaching and HR background with B.S Degree but I am feeling led to do serve in this way in another country.

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