I am glad you are thinking about the Peace Corps and Volunteering in general. This is an open letter to you and others like you. There is not a lot of technical information nor is it very inspiritional, but I think you will find it real, truthful, and to the point. Please enjoy because I wrote this with you in mind.
So you want to be a volunteer? You want to make a difference? Travel? Learn a new language? Help others? Get away from it all? Whatever your motivation I urge you to make sure it is enough to fully commit yourself to the cause.
Sankofia... I have been thinking ahead a lot lately about my life after the Peace Corps. This has in turn caused me to take a look back at the beginning of this journey and what has made me committed to this cause. The decision to apply, the application process, and even the first day in this great country, feels to be in a strange paradox of time. The experience stands in both my long and short term memory. At this moment, I feel a sense of accomplishment for some unexpected goals as well as a sense of frustration with goals that I had wanted to achieve. I have committed to learning Spanish. I have committed to writing more, reading more, eating better, and doing things for myself. I am currently committed to the 27 months of Peace Corps Service. As we get older, time seems to speed up and our commitments seem to pile up as well. So why do we add on commitments that we don’t really need to undertake, like volunteering; especially volunteering for the Peace Corps in a place that is not our home or culture, abstained from normal support systems or the comfort of the familiar.
We added them because they are motivators. They are a challenge. They are the oil on our gears. Often these extra commitments are intended to enhance our lives and volunteering is no different. It is the selfless acts in which the giver often receives more personal rewards than the recipients. I know many volunteers (both novice and veterans) that will snarl at this comment but let me explain. The act of volunteering can be compared to any addictive behavior. When you try it for the first time, whether you like or not, it leaves you with a sense of curiosity and you can’t stop talking about it. Often it is enough curiosity that you have to keep coming back for more. When volunteering you are giving your time, knowledge, advice etc. to people that are so grateful that you are just there. You receive good energy, a pleasure endorsed feeling that makes you want to do it again and again. We humans enjoy helping one another, maybe not helping everyone but helping someone. And I have found that the volunteer is always going to get more out the relationship. No doubt that volunteer work can be hard, frustrating and even exhausting work but much like exercising there are both immediate and long term benefits to the time we put in. Since I have been here I felt more the immediate and long terms benefits of my service. The smiles of my students, the lunch with my teachers, the traveling as well as becoming a better husband, a more insightful person, and a more informed citizen.
The Decision to Join
Volunteers sign-up for the Peace Corps every day for several reasons, however many of these reasons change or get lost when they arrive in-country. I saw President Kennedy’s call to service long after I decided to join the Peace Corps. While I believe it is a powerful speech and an awe inspiring mission I have to say that it would not have called me to service today. Instead, it was two simple words spoken in my Intro to Sociology class, “WHY NOT?”
- Why not help others in way that they want to be helped?
- Why not travel?
- Why not let the government pay for it?
- Why not serve my country in a non-violent manner?
- Why not use my education to be an active leader in the world?
- Why not Peace Corps?
It is my understanding that the application process has changed a lot in the last year and half. It is now easier to see what volunteer countries, positions, and requirement are in needed of people. I am sure all new potential volunteers are happy. However, I am not sure how relevant my application experience is to future volunteers. But I would like to talk about the hardest part for me just in case it resonates with someone. Throughout the application process, there are several long periods of just waiting and wondering; where you would be, what you would be doing, or if you will even get in. After talking with past volunteers this is a list of things you should do while you waiting both for preparation to leave and your sanity.
- Do NOT quit your day job
- Volunteer and increase your knowledge in the program which you are applying
- Continue to keep Peace Corps informed on new things that you are qualified for
- Spend A LOT of time with friends and family you care about
- Try new and strange food
- Get as healthy and physically fit as you can, you will be overly thankful for this later
- If possible, save money for trips
- Start a blog and tell everyone about it
- Read other blogs and PeaceCorps Wiki page
- Make a set of self-improvement goals that needs for tools or other people.
- Try not to stress too much
- If you do not already know how to be comfortable with just your own presence then practice!
- Buy a tablet and cheap MP3 player. Get books/ audiobooks, wait to read/listen to them
- Practice another language (any language) it more important to learn how you learn language (duolingo is great and free)
- Breathe everyday
While serving, I believe it is important to remember three things:
- Why are you here? That will keep you personally invested in your work and help you make realistic goals.
- Who are you? This will be you moral compass and help keep you ground to the values that you have grown to love. It also lets you judge when things are not appropriate and acceptable for you.
- Who you want to become? This allows you to accept cultural difference and is often the first step to integrating and immersion into the community which you serve.
For me I wanted to serve because I wanted to be a world citizen and serve a community that I felt I had an investment in. I am strong family man; husband, son, grandson, nephew, brother, and friend. I am Christian. I am a black feminist. I am an ally. I am Student Affairs Professional. I am dreamer, artist, and hustler. I am fully here in this moment. I want to become a better man. I want to have inner peace and spiritual knowledge. I want to be a life-long learner. I want to be a great father. I want to be physical fit. More than anything I want to leave a legacy.
Eric O. Aiken