Peace Corps Reflections: Ten Years On

Ten years on, a degree of Peace Corps reflection is in order.

Joining the Peace Corps remains the best and most important decision I’ve ever made. Twenty-seven months in Guatemala didn’t just alter the way I think about international development, it fundamentally reshaped my worldview. I’ve written about some of this stuff before, but it’s been a while.

Compassion matters.

Altruism matters.

Self-interest matters too.

Joining the military has never been for me. How else could I contribute? There has always been something in my head about public service and giving back and trying, incrementally at least, to make the world a slightly better place, while acknowledging that far too often America’s actions abroad, however well-intentioned, do more harm than good.

Speaking frankly, I joined the Peace Corps in search of public service, a big challenge, an adventure and maybe even some chaos. One only lives once!

When I made the commitment in early 2006 I was excited (and nervous).

The Peace Corps still matters; it really does. There’s no substitute for actually being “there” and living in some of the world’s most fascinating places. The Peace Corps is about sacrifice, although it’s also about learning, sharing, humility and getting better. It’s not about having all the answers. It’s about being open and honest that you don’t have all of the answers (and the U.S. government doesn’t either).

One of the most useful things I learned in Guatemala, was how to listen to other people, how to understand not just what someone thinks, but also why that person thinks what they do.

Nevertheless, we still need to be candid about the Peace Corps. It’s full of good intentions, yet there are problems and inefficiencies too. There’s tons of bureaucracy and, for a variety of reasons, many volunteers don’t accomplish all that much. My sense is that the Peace Corps leadership is waking up to this and trying to figure out what can be done. The recent changes to the application process are a very positive development.

Admittedly, I served from 2006-2008 and every volunteer’s experience is unique and different in its own way. Yet I doubt things have changed much since I was a volunteer. It’s almost certain that many Peace Corps volunteers are truly committed, that the Peace Corps bureaucracy is still challenging and that life as a volunteer is a bit of a roller coaster.

During my service, I was on a bus in Guatemala City that was robbed. I had to get a root canal. One time, I got bitten by so many ants in my site that I thought I might need to be hospitalized. And then there were those late nights. All the travel. Street food. Getting to know the newspapers.

Learning about Guatemala’s rich, complex history. Flirting in Spanish. Walking the streets of Antigua. The psychological challenges. Exploring the western highlands. Making friends that I’ll have for life (and maybe a few enemies too). Understanding, really understanding, what matters. Dear reader, it was a true adventure in every sense of the word!

The Peace Corps has a complicated history that spans the globe. Since 1961, almost 220,000 volunteers have served in 140 countries. I’m not that old and I don’t feel young either. I definitely don’t feel very comfortable giving people career advice. That being said, I do always have one small piece of advice for people in their early twenties (should they ever ask me): join the Peace Corps. Join the Peace Corps and never look back.

Don’t worry so much about which country you’ll be going to and what your official job description is. Don’t worry about all the ambiguity associated with the undertaking. Don’t worry about all the unknowns. Don’t listen to people who tell you that following your heart is foolish or an unwise career move. The Peace Corps commitment is twenty-seven months; it’s not like you’re telling people you’re moving to Los Angeles to establish yourself in Hollywood.

Dive headfirst into the journey with alacrity. Stare down those (reasonable) fears and then move on. Before you know it, your Peace Corps service will have come and gone. You’ll be left with the memories and the people with whom you share those memories.

Ten years on, you will still be acutely aware of all the good and the bad associated with the Peace Corps. Yet by then, it’s likely that you’ll focus more on the former rather than the latter.