The Peace Corps was in the news again this week, and it wasn’t good. A volunteer in China died, and everyone’s wondering whether or not his death could have been prevented. It’s tragic, really, it’s like, you join the army knowing that death is a real possibility. But the Peace Corps? When I went away to Ecuador in 2009, yeah, I was worried about giant spiders and parasitic worms, but death wasn’t really on my mind. I mean, no more than it normally is, you know, lying in bed awake in the middle of the night, contemplating the inevitability of my mortality.
And I hope I’m not coming across as insensitive regarding the timing of this volunteer’s death. But I just figure that, while the spotlight is on the Peace Corps, I may as well offer a counterpoint, that, while every organization has its defects, the Peace Corps stands as a symbol of all that’s good about America, as a people, as a country. So if you’re thinking about joining, I urge you not to be scared that your life will be in jeopardy. Sure, it might be, but so could mine, right here, sitting at this computer. I hope it’s not. Here are 7 reasons to join:
1. You’ll get pushed past your comfort zone
You’re going to be sent to live in a developing country. I can’t speak for every volunteer’s experience, but based on my time abroad, and reading other people’s accounts online, a lot of what you take for granted here in the US won’t exist as you know it wherever you wind up. At first it’s kind of cool, but after the pink cloud dissipates and you realize that this is going to be home for the next two years, it gets uncomfortable, it gets real.
And then it gets better. Like anything in life, once you let go and just accept reality, you’ll naturally start to feel better. It won’t be easy, in my case, I went from having an iPhone at my fingertips to living in the mountains without any cell phone service or Internet. But after the phantom buzzing stopped going off in my pockets, I felt my awareness almost liberated by my new surroundings. Of course, I’m back home now and my life is as plugged-in as ever. But I’m so grateful that I got to experience as an adult what it felt like to be connected to something greater than my electronic devices.
2. When you get back, you won’t be scared of bugs anymore
And it’s not just a lack of Internet. We didn’t really have consistent electricity or water. And there were bugs. Lots of bugs. Giant real-life versions of the insects that plague only my worst nightmares here in the States. I remember one time I went to put on a pair of pants that had been drying on the clothesline outside. As soon as my leg went in, a baseball-sized spider jumped out of the other end. I’m not exaggerating, I could see the hair on this thing’s comically oversized midsection.
There were giant roaches. There were prehistoric looking foot-long grasshoppers and praying mantises that would line the outside of my mosquito net, greeting me as I woke up in the morning. And on top of the monster bugs, there were millions of little ones. Mosquitoes couldn’t get enough of my foreign blood. I got scabies, little microscopic bugs that burrowed in the pores of my skin. I eventually dealt with all of it, figuring out that it was either kill or cower, and now when I see a cockroach here in my New York apartment, I can’t help but laugh a little before slamming down my size fourteen shoe.
3. You’ll learn a new language
This one’s not necessarily a given. I mean, not every volunteer’s site is totally cut off from the outside world. In fact, it’s increasingly harder to find the Peace Corps operating in areas without cell phones and Internet. So if you really wanted to, I guess you could rely heavily on American media and conversations in English, I suppose it’s possible to live two years abroad without picking up another language.
But you’re going to be working with people that probably don’t know English. And your neighbors probably won’t speak it either. The more you put into getting out there, attempting communication in whatever language they speak wherever you happen to wind up, you’ll pick it up, slowly at first, but after a while your brain will start doing most of the translating without you having to really put in too much conscious thought.
4. You’ll be immersed in a new culture
And it’s the same for culture. Everything’s going to be so strange at first, even if you go in with an open mind. It’s the little things about day-to-day life that you wouldn’t think would vary from culture to culture that wind up posing the most resistance to your acclimation. For me, it was stuff like waiting in line in Ecuador. Which is to say, you don’t wait in line. Nobody waits in line. There is no line. If you walk into a crowded store, just push right to the front and start waving down somebody to help you out.
Yes, there’s going to be new music and tons of cool food to try, but to me, figuring out a culture was all about learning how to operate as a human being in a place where everything just works differently. At first I thought there was something wrong with everybody else. I’d ask myself stuff like, why won’t everybody just wait in line? Why is everybody late? Why do I have to kiss everybody on the cheek? But after I figured out that I was the one acting strangely, I began to see everyday life from a new perspective.
5. You’ll build real relationships with people coming from vastly different backgrounds
As you pick up the language and figure out the culture, you’ll start making meaningful relationships with people that at first were only coworkers or host families. They’ll ask you about life in the States and, in turn, you’ll learn even more about the nuances and intricacies of your host country.
It’s getting to know and work and live with a whole community of people that, if it weren’t for the Peace Corps, it’s pretty unlikely that you’d ever even have met in the first place. Your world gets a lot bigger. Some of the best times of my service were just hanging out with a group of people, passing time outside, playing volleyball or sharing a snack. I’m still in touch with my host family and coworkers and all of the high school kids that found the Internet and joined Facebook and constantly send me requests to play Candy Crush.
6. You’ll learn more about yourself
With all of the free time that you’re going to have, you’re going to have to learn about something. After your supply of American DVDs runs out, you’re going to be confronted with not much more than yourself and your new environment. For me, it involved a lot of reading, and a renewed interest in writing and exercise. Would I be trying to pursue a career as a writer right now if I didn’t have all of those afternoons and nights worth of free time to sit in front of my laptop? I doubt it.
You’ll learn how to deal with people, how to work together to find commonalities and the solutions to unique problems. In trying to figure out how a whole new country works, you’re really going to figure out how you work.
7. You’ll bring it home with you when you’re done
Yeah, you’re not going to be the same when you get back. But you wouldn’t have been the same if you’d stayed home either. Everybody changes as they get older. The Peace Corps just kind of has this way of hacking into that change, of filling two years of your life with unique service opportunities and experiences in seeing a larger world beyond your wildest imagination. You get home and everything’s different. You’re different. You’ve grown and you’ve incorporated this other life back into your regular life.
It really is crazy, because I think back to my time in Ecuador and it seems like a dream, like there was life before, and there’s life here right now, and still very alive in my mind is everything that happened in between. It’s sad at times, because I find myself often wishing to be living two very different lives at the same time, but I’m ultimately so grateful for the opportunity to have served as a Peace Corps volunteer. I hear it said by so many returned volunteers, but I feel as if I was given infinitely more than I ever could have brought to Ecuador. Yeah, it’s at times difficult, and as current events have unfortunately shown, even the Peace Corps needs to search for opportunities to improve itself at the institutional level. But would I do it again? Do I recommend it to anybody interested in serving abroad? Of course. Yes. You should totally join the Peace Corps.