The Peace Corps
Story by Georgi Halverson and Soma Lambert
Being young comes with incredible opportunities that are too often taken advantage of. However, there is a moment in everybody's life where we must decide what our next step is.
Will we continue with our education? Will we get a job? Or will we decide to travel while we still have no serious obligations? For those who are unsure of where their life is going, relief programs are an option to consider.
As a volunteer for the Peace Corps, you can choose from six different fields of work: agriculture, health, environment, community economic development, education and youth development. Living expenses are paid for by the organization, as well as travel to and from the country you serve in.
However, there are ups as well as downs that come with joining the Peace Corps. PULSE spoke with three former Peace Corps volunteers to hear the stories of their adventures and unforgettable experiences.
Ed Heine joined the Peace Corps in 1976 at the age of 21. He was fresh out of college and after gaining an interest in international development, he decided to dedicate the next two years of his life to working in the middle of El Salvador, Central America.
Heine says he felt comfortable choosing the Peace Corps because he wanted to see if he could live and work in a third-world country. “There was a lot of structure and security around it,” he says.
However, Heine emphasizes that he joined over 30 years ago and it was a different time. “I really was sent in the middle of nowhere, but that was the '70s," he says. "I don’t think the government would allow that kind of thing these days."
Additionally, being sent to a third-world country without knowing the common tongue made things difficult for Heine. “I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, the food was different—everything was different,” he says.
According to Heine, there was extreme political instability in El Salvador during the 1970s, which resulted in heavy military influence across the country. “I remember one of the very first things I saw when I got there were guys my age with machine guns over their shoulders,” he says. “When the national guard would come around, and they thought you weren’t doing what they thought you should be doing, they could get a little nasty”.
He recalls a gruesome experience with a local farmer he was working with one day. “One of the guards came asking for food and when the farmer didn't make the guard what he wanted, the guard took out his machete and chopped off one of the farmers' ears,” Heine says. “The farmer's wife tried to help and she was slaked across the collarbone. I watched the whole thing from 15 feet away, and I couldn’t do anything."
By the time Heine's work with the Peace Corps was over, he wasn't entirely sure what to do. Eventually, though, his calling came in the form of a company called Surety Bonding. He says he was introduced to the right people within the company because of a community project he took part in while in the Peace Corps.
“I joined without a direction, but I left with one," he says.
Heine recommends the Peace Corps to those who aren't sure which direction to take in life, but for those who aren’t up to the two-year commitment yet, he recommends looking into relief programs that require shorter-term positions.
“Peace Corps taught me the importance of humility and being … there for others. There is very little benefit for not having regards for your fellow man and realizing that you’re not better than them [is important]," he says. "You take a deep breath before you judge others, and that’s what the Peace Corps taught me.”
Sarah Swenson joined the Peace Corps in 2007 at the age of 22 after graduating from Central Washington University. The Peace Corps stationed Swenson in Malawi, Africa where she served her required two years of service. After enjoying her experience so much, though, she extended her stay an extra year so she was able to serve three in all.
“I think I learned to be flexible and adapt and to listen a lot,” Swenson says, adding that different cultures offer diverse lifestyles, which is something she had to get used to.
Swenson left for the Peace Corps as someone with a sense of adventure and her years of service didn’t change that. In the years since, Swenson has gone back to Malawi to visit the place she considered home for three years of her life.
Swenson says the Peace Corps taught her the value of respecting others, how to be resourceful and how to enjoy life without judgement.
However, there are a few things Swenson wishes she had known before serving. “Less is more. Take the things that are going to bring you the sense of home," she says. "But as far as clothes and stuff, you are going to be able to get a lot of what you need where you are staying.”
Two years is a long time to be away from your own culture and it's common for people to develop cravings for things they never thought they would miss.
“It’s funny—I ended up having my parents send packages of peanut M&M’s and Velveeta cheese," she says. "Velveeta cheese is kind of disgusting, but cheese was really expensive and hard to get and Velveeta would travel over a month. Peanut M&M’s had a hard shell and wouldn’t melt in the 112-degree weather."
Two years away from home can certainly change someone. For Swenson, it gave her a new perspective on life.
"I went thinking I had all these great ideas, but going to a developing country and seeing all these problems—I thought I had all these answers," she explains. "Our answers don't always work, though, because the challenges that they face are complex in nature as well."
On top of everything that she learned, Swenson believes the benefits of joining the Peace Corps should outweigh any negative connotations people might have about it. “I think it’s all about the person you are and whether or not you're going to try and make the most out of the experience," she says.
In 1996, Scott Sackett joined Peace Corps fresh out of graduate school and served his two years in Guinea, Africa where he taught middle school and high school English. As Americans, we have become accustomed to getting as much done throughout the day in fear of becoming behind on productivity. As frustrating as it may have been sometimes, Sackett says he learned the value of patience.
"Sometimes you didn’t do much of anything [in Guinea] but go to the bank, and you had to count it as a victory," he says. "I learned when I should put my shoulder to things and make things happen and other times I had to learn to wait. It’s a stereotypical American thing to make a fuss."
The Peace Corps also taught Sackett the value of understanding and learning not to judge others.
“I went there thinking it was going to be a transformative experience, [but] it wasn’t the romanticized ideal of becoming a different person," explains Sackett. "You can put yourself into different situations but at the core, you’re still who you are.”
At the end of his service, Sackett contemplated extending his stay in Guinea, but ultimately decided not to. One of the reasons for this was his life back home—he met his future wife two weeks before he left for Guinea and wanted to begin their life together back in the States.
However, Sackett says his time in the Peace Corps was worth it. “[Putting] on your resume that you were in this different culture for two years and you were basically by yourself working on different community projects … shows your potential to employers that you have the commitment to get things done,” he says.
THE UGLY TRUTHS
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation."
If you have traveled anywhere in the world that is remotely different from your own, you have probably experienced culture shock. Not only did these three former volunteers experience culture shock upon moving to their new country, they also experienced it coming back to the States.
“There was depression and anxiety coming back that I didn’t expect because you're trying to reconcile being home without feeling at home,” explains Sackett.
Before arriving in the country you’re stationed in, the Peace Corps has you go through culture and language training so you can be somewhat prepared for your new home. In addition to this, you have to be trained for what you will be expected to work on within the community.
While some volunteers experience depression and anxiety upon coming back home, like Sackett, others may find themselves judging America's culture of wastefulness and materialism.
“It took me well over a year to not be judgmental of our life here in the U.S. I was a little bit vocal about it when I first came back but then my mom told me to shut up,” jokes Heine.
The Peace Corps is a huge commitment and it’s not for everybody. As Sackett puts it, “There is certainly an isolation aspect when joining," he says. "You feel very alone, [but] you are also surrounded by people in a village.”
Heine describes his arrival to his assigned community as being dropped off and left with no instruction on what to do next until several days later, when he was given a place to stay.
“No one was around, I didn’t know anybody," he says. "And this was my new life."
Being in another culture surrounded by people who don’t know you and trying to learn a language you don’t know yet makes it easy to feel alone. Eventually, though, you begin to adapt. You develop relationships with those around you and find a community in this new place. In addition, you can end up developing a lot of understanding and respect for the culture you are living in and its people.
The Peace Corps promotes peace and human understanding by sending trained individuals into a community in hopes that they can bring with them valuable skills, knowledge, help and work ethic.
If you are interested in volunteering, visit www.peacecorps.gov to connect with a recruiter near you, read and watch stories from previous volunteers from all over the world and search through potential job opportunities in multiple countries.