Please note that the opinions reflected on this blog are solely MY opinion. They do not reflect the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

So, you want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer

I know that there have been about 34719843 articles, blogs, excerpts, books, essays, etc. written about this very topic (I’ve even shared a few of them) but I figured that it couldn’t hurt to have one more personal perspective on the subject. I feel that I had sort of a unique situation coming into this experience compared to most of the other volunteers that I know. The longest I had ever been away from my family was about a solid month I would say. I had some little summer excursions and small trips but the absolute longest I went without seeing (just seeing, I talked to them plenty too) my family was, again, only a month. This brings me to my first tip if you are someone you know is considering joining the Peace Corps:
  • You need to have experienced a sufficient amount of time away from home and everything familiar to you. Most Peace Corps volunteers have studied abroad or went to college in another state or had some sort of extensive experience where they were away from their home. Or, most people moved around enough or maybe weren’t as close to their family as I am that the time apart isn’t really that huge of an issue. Maybe I’m a huge baby or something but I’m here to say, it’s an issue for me. I miss everyone every single day but it’s definitely hurting a little less the more time that I spend here. The first few months were almost unbearably hard. I cried almost every single day. Your first, real experience with homesickness can be physically debilitating. This isn’t to scare anyone off by any means. I am simply giving a fair warning, if you are as close to your family as I am; Don’t let your first extended abroad experience happen where you’ll be living in a developing country probably in a small village away from anyone and everything that is familiar.

In order to get into the Peace Corps, you usually have to have extensive knowledge of a language besides English, typically French or Spanish. French speakers are especially sought after because there are not many Americans who learn French in school.
  • The importance of actually studying and doing your best to learn whatever foreign language you’re claiming to know before you get to your country of service is absolutely crucial. Peace Corps will train you in the local language but often, if they don’t feel like your level of the official language is high enough, you will be reviewing that for most of your training. This is the route that I had to undertake and it set me back immensely. I was unable to properly communicate with my host family and many people in the community. I felt that the French review was helpful in the fact that I use French every day when I am speaking with teachers, government officials or other educated people but in the day-to-day life, I am at a huge disadvantage. I almost never fully understood what my host family was saying to me and while I was close to them, I think that with a better training in the language they spoke, I could’ve been much closer. This is somewhat past tense because with my move I don’t actually live in a host family anymore but with my first one in Palmarin, things were confusing. Communication is getting better now the more I learn (except that now I’m learning a different local language with the new town… crying a little inside) but again, those first few months of not only homesickness but also not being able to properly communicate with anyone were hell.  

The majority of Peace Corps volunteers are recent college graduates. I think that this is the demographic that recruiters most often go after because they are at a vulnerable point in their lives. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life after obtaining my bachelor’s degree and the allure and excitement that Peace Corps presented to me almost sounded too good to be true. Perhaps I am a different case because Peace Corps is something I’ve wanted to do for most of my life but for many college grads, the promise of adventure and serving others reels them right in.
  • I would suggest working for a few years in the states before going abroad into the Peace Corps. Sure, most of us that came virtually right out of college have some work experience but not necessarily the skill set that is needed in a developing country. Most of the time I feel completely under qualified to be here. I know that most volunteers feel this way for at least some part of their service but as my friend Kelly has explained to me, most of us are simply here to do the research, offer our unique western perspective and provide help with basic skills that we have known how to do for years. I think that my experience here and what I have to offer would be infinitely more valuable if I had been in a professional working environment and waited to apply for the Peace Corps for a few years before coming here. Then again, with the economy the way it is now, that’s why most of us are here is because we’re running away in a sense from having to find careers in the states. Along those same lines, if you’re a self-starter, the Peace Corps is the place for you; but, if you’re not, you’re in for a world of frustration considering that once you’re placed in your site it’s pretty much up to you to determine the needs of your town and get things started.

The challenges that we go through here are hard for people to really comprehend sometimes. We are constantly expected to be on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are consistently surrounded by people who we don’t speak the same language as who really don’t understand what we’re doing here and most of us don’t even understand what we’re doing sometimes.
  • I feel frustrated, under-qualified, discouraged, scared, lonely, terrorized, taken advantage of, ridiculed among a million other things every single day. No matter how great your projects might be going or how much your language is improving; you will feel that way too if you’re in the Peace Corps. Often the people in host countries don’t seem to understand that volunteers are here, not getting paid, living away from our families, friends and comforts to be here, to help them. They see me instead as a walking ATM, an idiot who can’t properly communicate, a woman who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, a potential wife, a meal ticket to America, someone to be made fun of and harassed when I don’t understand. But, then there are the good days that make it all worth it, which I’m sure I’ve talked about in previous posts so that’s all I’ll say there. Most days I still don’t know what I’m doing here but I’m so glad that I tried as hard as I did to get to this point in my life. It was never easy. But at least I’ll live the rest of my life knowing I tried.
This brings me to another important point that you need to know before you think of applying to the Peace Corps.
  • They aren’t kidding when they say the application process will take a year. In my case, it took a little over 2 years to get accepted. I have had some people ask me, is it hard to get in? Absolutely it is. Not only qualifications wise but you have to have the patience and perseverance in order to simply keep your application moving along. If you are serious about wanting to apply for the Peace Corps, start early. You also need to have significant leadership and volunteer experience. You must make sure you’re healthy, that you have a clean criminal record, and that you don’t have any commitments holding you to the states such as debt, children, etc. You also need to be a college graduate, the higher your grades, the better chance you have. I’m sure there’s more but if people reading this are really serious about joining the Peace Corps then I’m assuming you’ll have done your research on what you need to be and do.

I would say that about sums up the areas that I’ve had the hardest time with here. Your frustrations and challenges will surprise you. Sure, the heat, bugs, lack of resources, sicknesses, and general feelings of discomfort are tough but are much more manageable than the issues I’ve previously mentioned.

Considering this post seems to be a lot about my feelings I thought I’d continue that train and talk about the fact that I’m coming home to visit in less than two months! While I’m obviously ecstatic, I also have some reservations and apprehensions about coming home. I’m really nervous about seeing my house without my dog being there. She was there, fine and happy, when I left and to come home without her there is going to be really tough. I’m nervous about seeing my friends. I know that I’ve changed and it makes me wonder how much our relationships will have changed. Sometimes I don’t feel like I really fit in anywhere anymore. I’m certainly not integrated to the point where I feel like I completely fit in here in Senegal but I also can’t really relate with what my friends are going through back home. I’m uneasy about being surrounded by obscene amounts of wastefulness compared to what I’m used to seeing and I’m worried that I’m going to lose it on the wrong person who just doesn’t know any differently.

Finally, I’m absolutely terrified that I won’t be able to make myself come back to Senegal. Every part of me wants to finish my two years and successfully complete my service but, as previously mentioned, it’s just so damn hard sometimes. That’s why part of my agreement with people that I’m going to see when I’m home is that they have to be super obnoxious and difficult my last few days there so that I can’t wait to leave (hehe). Contrary to most of the tone of this post though, I’m doing fine. I just moved into my new place in the bigger town and it’s going well so far! Of course it’s taking getting used to as it does when you move to a new city anytime but overall I think that I will be much happier and more successful here.

Until next time then,


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