The Year After Peace Corps

The beginning of September marked the one-year anniversary of my return to the United States after finishing my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. To be honest, it kind of sneaked up on me. On most days, Ecuador feels like a long distant memory or an epic dream that I finally woke up from one random day in August, not a place where I lived and worked and called home for two years.  So I didn’t even realize the one year mark was approaching until a few days beforehand when it dawned on me like a thought that comes in the middle of the night: I’ve been living in the United States for over a year. My most initial reaction was disbelief; how could an entire year have passed so quickly? I’ve only begun to put my life back together.

A year ago, I left Ecuador feeling deeply disappointed and frustrated by Peace Corps, exhausted by Ecuador’s machismo and lackadaisical work culture, terribly homesick, beaten down, and more than ready to go. Yet, when my boyfriend asked me how I felt to be back in the United States while we sipped our celebratory one-year-in-America drinks, the first word that came to mind was “sad.”  In fact, I could barely keep myself from crying.  As with most things related to Peace Corps in my life, this was not how I expected to feel.  I am more than happy to be in the United States.  I frequently find myself comparing where I am now—physically, mentally, and emotionally—to where I was a year ago, and the overall improvements astound me every time. To say that my life has changed greatly in the past twelve months would be an understatement. As I crawled into bed that night, I realized that what I had taken to be sadness—in other words, an overwhelming urge to cry—was actually extreme and profound gratitude. I closed my eyes and counted the many sources of my gratefulness: being close to family; having a job where people take their responsibilities seriously; working alongside ambitious coworkers; being able to drink water out of the tap at any time; being able to wear a dress in public without being harassed by every man on the street; feeling safe(r); having a community of friends—volunteer or not—who are constant in their love and support and understanding. Yet, beneath all of this, some part of me still yearns for long afternoons speaking Spanish with my Ecuadorian friends or host family, the beautiful, colonial streets of Loja, delicious fruit juices and fresh vegetables, and the perfect if not slightly rainy Andean weather.

The truth is that my Peace Corps experience was complicated and still is.

In recent days, Peace Corps has found itself in the mainstream media on a number of occasions. First, by its own accord, when the organization announced major application changes that will grant volunteers more control over the country and program in which they serve and allow them to leave for service sooner. Then, less positively, in July when the New York Times simultaneously released  a myriad of essays on Peace Corps service written by returned volunteers and an article detailing the tragic medical missteps that eventually led to a Peace Corps volunteer’s death.  Both pieces paint a picture of a dysfunctional, sometimes successful, more often flawed organization.  As I read through both the essays and the terrible account of Nick Castle’s death, I found myself back on that roller coaster of emotion better known as the Peace Corps experience; I, too, had deeply felt the vast majority of the discontent, disappointment, and concern contained in these articles, and it was powerful to see that volunteers spanning continents and Peace Corps programs had felt the same. One volunteer wrote:

Volunteers like myself cannot do their jobs without support, and as of now, the Peace Corps does not support its volunteers; it is only worried about looking good to Washington so it won’t lose funding. It didn’t matter that I was getting sick and couldn’t do my job. It only mattered that on their forms, I was still at my site and “doing” my job….I don’t feel that I was effective (not from a lack of effort on my part) because I wasn’t cared for in a caring way. No one was looking out for me but myself.*

That last sentence rolled around in my head for days, digging up  memories that I had long put away. I remembered Peace Corps’s refusal to help me buy a new cell phone after I had been forcefully pickpocketed in a crowded bus. Despite my concern that I wouldn’t have enough money to both eat and get a new phone to comply with security rules, Peace Corps claimed “volunteer negligence” and left me to figure out the issue on my own. I also recalled my sitemate who, upon asking the Peace Corps doctor for time to recover from a severe illness before traveling to Loja, was accused of lying to get better travel accommodations and sent on a ten-hour bus ride. As a result, his arms went numb halfway through the trip and volunteers were scrambled together to escort him to the hospital upon arrival at his destination. I also thought of another sitemate’s many trips to the eye “specialist” who delivered an incorrect diagnosis of early-onset glaucoma (although we didn’t know that at the time) and was later deemed to be an idiot by the very Peace Corps doctors who sent her there in the first place. I remembered talking with volunteers about our general distrust for Peace Corps and the shared feeling that nobody from the organization was concerned about our well-being.

In fact, many of the frustrations I’d discussed with fellow volunteers during my time in Ecuador appeared in print, like Peace Corps’s low standards for volunteer success (“A better definition of volunteers’ success”), their inadequate responses to volunteer complaints and emergencies (“If I ever have a daughter, I would recommend that she apply”), and their tendency to blame the volunteer (“The culture tells the volunteer to make it work”). Perhaps the quote that most accurately speaks to my own experience, though, is this one:

For me, the most frustrating part of Peace Corps was its culture. The onus of success seemed to be placed solely on the volunteer. If the volunteer struggles, it’s because she isn’t trying hard enough to adapt.* It’s a culture that ignores factors like: a host family with rigid expectations, a host brother making sexual remarks (or worse), a community in flux, incompetent administrative employees or poor program management. The culture tells the volunteer to make it work, and the volunteer quickly learns how to navigate within these confines.

Gatherings of volunteers often resulted in an outpouring of frustration, negativity and unhappiness. Volunteers coped by drinking too much, lashing out at locals and acting in ways they wouldn’t dare at home.

I’d like to see Peace Corps create a culture that is more supportive of struggling volunteers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been placed in unhealthy or unproductive situations. Peace Corps needs to examine how it treats volunteers who don’t have that village-idyll experience, and adapt to the reality of the volunteer’s needs.*

Today, few volunteers have the “village-idyll experience” that Peace Corps has touted in countless ads and PSAs over the years. Like it or not, the world is more interconnected now than ever and the landscape of Peace Corps service has changed. Yet, an outdated approach to supporting volunteers remains. From the beginning of training, Peace Corps tells volunteers that sometimes it’s best if the volunteer just goes home. They remind trainees that Peace Corps is not right for everyone. In fact, they say, going home isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength because it takes courage to face the imperfect reality of your service, recognize your own unmet needs, and give up a goal or dream to prioritize your own well-being. To some degree, that is certainly true. However, “knowing when to go home” often becomes a sneaky way to shame a volunteer into leaving and a convenient excuse to never analyze or fix the situation that led to a volunteer’s discontent in the first place. As a result, Peace Corps remains ill equipped to support committed and serious volunteers who have been placed in volatile situations or matched with disinterested counterparts and communities, often due to Peace Corps’s own lack of research and preparedness. Unfortunately, it is also frequently the most committed volunteers that go home; after all, if you’re only in it for the free time and some good travel stories, why should a lack of work prompt you to cut your time short?

When I was struggling through the last months of my own Peace Corps service, other volunteers and even friends told me to go home. “Why not go home?” they’d say. “You would be happier there.  Is it worth feeling like this just to finish the last few months?” I considered it multiple times, but always rejected the idea. How does leaving remedy Peace Corps’s ineffectual leadership or general lack of structure, expectations, and metrics for success? After leaving, I would become nothing but a stack of paperwork and all of Peace Corps’s faults would remain the same. Instead, I stayed. I worked 40 hours a week at my local high school and in a university English program, and I represented and worked to remedy my fellow volunteers’ concerns as part of Peace Corps’s Volunteer Advisory Council. I left with an excellent understanding of Ecuadorian culture and an even better understanding of Peace Corps’s pitfalls. By the time our group finished, half of our original 62 members had left their service early and nobody batted an eye.

Of course, there are volunteers who do marvelous, impactful work, but too often it is due to luck: the right volunteer being put in the right community with just the right amount of resources and interest at just the right time. In the meantime, other volunteers report one or two “cultural events” and Peace Corps congratulates them on their great success without ever truly measuring if volunteers, as a whole, are effective or stimulating change. (Again, see “A better definition of volunteers’ success” for more on what I mean.)

Yet, for all my discontent, it’s still difficult for me to be honest with others about my views on the organization. Pointing out Peace Corps’s many flaws doesn’t exactly make you popular within the volunteer community. Volunteers tend to romanticize their experience, during and after their service, even if they were mostly miserable or unproductive in country. I can understand the temptation to do so. Peace Corps exposes you to a new culture, exotic sights and truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It gives you time to explore who you are and most, if not all, volunteers leave with deep friendships forged with other volunteers over shared vulnerabilities and struggles. My service defines who I am today, and part of me still wants to hold on to that pristine image of Peace Corps I had before going to country. When I share my criticisms of the organization with others, it pains me to see their image of Peace Corps being tainted. But criticizing is not the same as condemning. In fact, I’d say it indicates great caring.

As I said, it’s complicated.

A year after Peace Corps, I am still struggling with a multitude of health and reintegration issues. In one year, I’ve been tested for parasites four times and treated twice. I’ve had four cavities filled, two of which should have been spotted and treated while I was in Peace Corps and are now so large that I may need a root canal. (But guess who gets to pay for it now! I guess Peace Corps “dodged a bullet” on that one.) In between parasite treatments and fillings, I’ve also visited the doctor for a myriad of other health issues, averaging about one appointment a month. My immune system is certainly not what it was pre-Peace Corps. On top of that, Peace Corps dropped my post-service healthcare after 7 months, despite promising 18 months of coverage upon returning home. (Thanks for your service!)  Luckily, I was able to find a job relatively quickly and am now insured, but I know many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who were left without care and without a solution after their service had ended. Reverse culture shock and reintegration has also been challenging. I’m still deconstructing some moments of terror from Ecuador, overcoming lingering fears about safety, and slowly recovering my self esteem after working in an environment that told me I was never enough for two years. Sometimes, as I’m piecing together my life in America, I look at the challenges I’m facing now, challenges that are direct results of my service, and I think, “And for what?” Maybe if I had been permitted to work on more meaningful secondary projects with at-risk youth or on HIV prevention, I wouldn’t feel this way. But all this to teach English to some uninterested high school kids?

Yet, in spite of all this, I feel fortunate for my Peace Corps experience. I feel privileged to say that I am one of just 215,000 volunteers that have served in the Peace Corps since its founding over 50 years ago. As the result of my service, I feel confident in the knowledge that I can do the hard things—move to another continent, live in a foreign culture, stand up for myself, set and break limits, and navigate unknown terrain, both literally and figuratively. What I’ve learned about perseverance, perspective, and trusting my gut is immeasurable, and what I’ve gained—fluency in Spanish, Peace Corps friends who are more like family, a better understanding of the world, and a more global point of view and cultural awareness—is priceless. I know that my life as it is now would not have been possible without the experiences I had in the Peace Corps. As one RPCV wrote in her essay:

I can’t speak with 100 percent certainty that any projects that I undertook changed lives. But I am 100 percent certain that my Peace Corps service shaped me into a better global citizen. It equipped me with the important ability to approach a different culture with humility and respect, to listen, and to understand. Furthermore the cultural humility and wide-lens perspective I gained in Uganda will echo through everything I do in my own country. The benefits of Peace Corps service cannot all be measured.

Working on an international team in a high-end corporation. Moving from a town of 9,500 to a city of 3 million. A wonderful cross-cultural relationship. These are things that I never imagined for myself pre-Peace Corps, things that are only possible because of my time in Ecuador.

My service also showed me that I am strong and capable and braver than I ever believed. Peace Corps equipped me with the confidence to tackle the unknown and the ambiguous, to fail and get back up again undefeated, to persevere in the face of systemic or seemingly unchangeable circumstances. I don’t know who or where I would be without the experiences that taught me these valuable lessons. As one RPCV put it:

Returning to America in 2011, I felt empowered. If I could make it in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere as a single female, then I could tackle anything that the U.S. could throw at me. Upon enrolling in graduate school in 2012, I chose to pursue energy policy as my specialty, feeling comfortable in work environments in major petroleum companies and public policy positions where women are traditionally underrepresented. Peace Corps gave me an internal sense of resilience that was hard-won and will stay with me forever.*

Along with that “internal sense of resilience,” a mostly unshakeable confidence in myself, a web of strong friendships, and two years of unforgettable experiences, I left Ecuador with the knowledge that I did good work in spite of imperfect circumstances. After a daily dose of Catholic guilt, I am immune to the shame and blame that others sometimes use to manipulate, and I am content to roll with the punches (on most occasions). Above all, I am daily grateful.

A year ago, as I wrote my final blog post as a Peace Corps volunteer, I closed with the below quote from Vaclav Havel.

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world…. Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.*

A year later, I still feel hopeful. Regardless of whether or not my teachers and students still remember the lessons I taught them, regardless of my struggles in Ecuador, regardless of Peace Corps’s many shortcomings, my service still makes sense. Of this, I am certain.

*Emphasis definitely mine.