On Peace Corps, After A Year

May 9th, 2007

The United States Peace Corps is, by its own description, the "toughest job you'll ever love". And while, by my standards, the Peace Corps life is not a real job (in both good and bad ways), I'll certainly agree that it's tough. But I have to qualify that by saying that, while Peace Corps is tough, it's not tough in the ways someone with a regular "job" would understand - maybe not even those working abroad.

Working and living as a Peace Corps Volunteer confronts one with a number of challenges. For me, these challenges haven't been professional ones relating to technical know-how. I'm an Information Technology for Education (IT Ed) Volunteer with a strong technical background. The challenges haven't even been personal ones relating to the physical reality of life in a developing country. I use a latrine. My house does not have indoor plumbing. Extended power outages are a daily occurrence. Resources of every kind are severely lacking. The list goes on and on, but the point is that I don't encounter these realities as challenges, at least not ones that I can't overcome with a little mental fortitude. Rather, the challenges we (and I specifically) face are cultural and structural ones relating to a life lived outside of our horizon of experience and understanding.

This lack of perspective on our parts can be partially overcome with time, a little bit in a year, maybe a little more in two. But the fact that the lives we live here are not completely ours (they're strange lives indeed, not American ones anymore, but not Dominican either) can't be changed no matter how convincing our Spanish skills or how thick our machete calluses or how well our gastrointestinal system deals with consuming 6 boiled plantains in one sitting. We can't think like Americans if we want to survive but we'll never think like Dominicans.

But I don't want to delve too much into cultural differences here; that's for another article. I'm talking about how these challenges permeate the Peace Corps experience and mission, effectively recasting Peace Corps not as a job, but rather as something like a two year stint living another life, project goals and responsibilities notwithstanding.

As an American, perhaps a stereotypical one in many respects, I initially approached Peace Corps as an alternative to a job, a way to avoid the inevitable for at least two more years. What I wasn't expecting or maybe what I failed to realize was that, as this stereotypical American, I can't approach this project and responsibility (maybe not any project or responsibility) outside of the realm of work, of a job. In general, this tendency to "workify" or "jobify" almost everything works well for Americans in the United States. Arguably, after Kindergarten, even school is a job with it's responsibilities, deadlines, bosses (teachers?), etc. I started working when I was 16 and that had to be a job right? Certainly, the university experience is in many ways on the job training, requiring more responsibility with less external motivation. Coming straight from the university, I carried all of this training right with me on to the plane to Santo Domingo.

But, while this work mentality might work well for Americans in the States, its force and innate ability to "get things done" quickly erodes in the face of a culture possessing a completely different outlook and approach. And therein lies the challenge.

A large gap exists between my cultured approach to problems and a Dominican's cultured approach to problems. It's precisely in this gap that a Peace Corps Volunteer lives and works. And more often than not, we're unable to touch one side or the other. My "American" approach to solving a particular problem will not succeed where the causes of the problem cannot be approached in an American way. Nor do I possess the cultural perspective to approach the problem in a Dominican way. I negotiate between the two sides and can't be disappointed when solutions and initiatives fail.

I will not say I've been disappointed with the Peace Corps experience thus far. It has already delivered on half of what it has promised, namely, a tough job. I assume that, looking back on the whole crazy adventure, I'll even end up loving it too. I tend not to be too critical of the Peace Corps mission and model because the reality for volunteers, in whatever country they may be in, is far beyond the control of the Peace Corps organization. That they can't deliver the job or work-like environment so familiar (and maybe comfortable) to American volunteers can't be blamed on them. Rather, it should be the responsibility of current and returned volunteers to make quite clear to prospective volunteers that, while it will certainly be tough, Peace Corps is NOT a job.

And for those prospective volunteers that might be reading this, let me be clear: You will fail, you will be uncomfortable, you will be bored, you will feel hopeless, you will be frustrated, you will not change your community, you will be misunderstood, you will misunderstand, and you will feel the urge to kill... rising.

But! At the same time...

You will succeed, you will accustom yourself, you will be overwhelmed, you will see possibilities, you will laugh, you will teach, you'll catch on, yes, you will catch on, and you'll find that doing it differently has its benefits.

And maybe all of this on the same day.

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