Ask a Volunteer
Q: Why did you choose to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and what are some of the sacrifices you’ve made and benefits you’ve earned in doing so?
I have been in Macedonia for nearly two years now, and the sacrifices I have made being here are far less than what I have gained. I miss my family and my good friends the most, and it can be quite hard to read about holiday happenings or see pictures of my good friends getting married. There are other small sacrifices I have made by being here, but not being with my family and friends has been the hardest, although I have gained new family in Macedonia including the families who live in my small town and other Peace Corps Volunteers. I have gained many new friends, many mothers and grandmothers (there are many women in my town who take good care of me), and a community that I have become integrated in. I have learned how to live in another culture and how to fit in without losing my identity. I have learned Macedonian, know a few phrases in Albanian, and can count to ten in Vlach. I have gained the experience of living in the mountains, which I had always wanted, especially since I come from flat Indiana. I have been able to work with youth all over Macedonia, working with them on English language and also educating them on sexual and reproductive health, something I have always been passionate about. Indiana has always been my home, and now, as I am reaching the end of my service, I can definitely call Macedonia my home as well.
I have learned much about myself during my Peace Corps service and have become a better person from doing it. I am quite content with my experience and later in my life would consider becoming a volunteer again. The benefits I have gained in the last two years make all the sacrifices worth it.
Kathryn Zaleski, TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer, Macedonia
A: I have wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer ever since I was six years old. Back then the only thing I knew about the Peace Corps was that grown-ups got sent to really cool places to help people; now I know that grown-ups get sent places where they are needed to do pretty amazing work. The largest sacrifice that you make is that life still goes on at home; all the people you know have major events in their lives, and your family keeps celebrating things even though you are not there, and sometimes it takes a little while before you hear about them. Also, the more you speak your host county language, the more you lose your English. On the other hand, you have benefits such as learning another language, living as part of a community abroad, and becoming a person who can live two lives—one in America and one in your new country.
Trina Woiak, Community Development Peace Corps Volunteer, Morocco
A: I first heard of the Peace Corps when I was in high school and thought that it sounded like a “pretty cool thing,” (which would have been) my words as a senior in high school. When I became a freshman in college, I learned some more about the program and decided that when I graduated from Indiana University, I’d become a Peace Corps Volunteer. I didn’t quite understand what the Peace Corps was at the time other than an opportunity for me to live and work abroad, which sounded like something I’d want to do once I graduated. Throughout my time at college, people would ask me what I was going to do after I graduated and my response was always, “I’m joining the Peace Corps!”; I even had a Peace Corps poster on my wall to motivate me and get me through the many papers I had to write before I could even think about applying.
As I went through college, my reasons to become a Peace Corps Volunteer became more concrete; I wanted to teach and work with children in another country; I wanted to learn another language; I wanted to live in a culture different than my own; I wanted to learn how to live with less, and mainly, I wanted to support people in any way I could. After talking with many returned Peace Corps Volunteers and reading about the history of the program, I knew I had made the right decision and was ready to begin my service in Macedonia.
A: When I was in the eighth grade, I saw an article in our small town newspaper about a local university woman who went to Latin America to teach people to bathe upstream from their animals. The article pointed out that somewhere (I don’t remember the exact statistic) around 70 percent of infant mortality in developing countries is due to water-borne illnesses. It seemed to me this was a simple way to save lives, by teaching about micro-organisms. I don’t know how her project turned out, but it inspired me to help people in developing countries where microbiology is not common knowledge.
The Peace Corps seemed like the ultimate life goal for me, the ultimate training to make me into a woman. Going into the Peace Corps I would be a young woman or girl, and the Peace Corps would make me well-rounded, worldly, less selfish, more giving, and more appreciative of everything. It would teach me to conserve more, reflect on my life, break me down, build me up, and show me who am I when I’m away from everyone like me. Who am I really? Who do I want to be? These questions and more that I wouldn’t even think to ask myself would be answered from this experience. Maybe I will even end up with more questions than answers, but just as long as I didn’t stay stagnant in the same classroom for 30 years, that was my goal. I wanted the world, another culture, to be my classroom.
I’ve already benefited by reflecting on what I like about being an American; I’ve decided what I won’t let go of in terms of values, and what I will, or already have, let go of and replaced with the South Africa way of doing it. I now have two families—one in the U.S. and one in South Africa. My host mother really is my second mother. She has taught me how to be a woman in this culture where women used to do all the work but still be second-class citizens. I no longer view the women’s work as oppressive. I see the various tasks as empowering. I have learned to hand-wash my clothes, cook certain foods, and kill a chicken. I now enjoy sweeping my floor, which puts me into a Zen-like trance. I feel more womanly here. I notice babies more, on the backs of mothers, doing everything and going everywhere. This mindset is a blessing for when I have my own family. I won’t see women’s work as oppressive, but as expressive of the various talents a woman has—skills, if I can say so. (I’m still not up to par in some of the womanly tasks, but that gives me something to practice.)
I could go on and on about living a simple life. A simple life gives you time to appreciate little things like fulfilling your basic needs. Having food to eat, going the bathroom, not being sick, walking, and sleeping become all you need. Living without a car has not bothered me. It’s nice to carpool with 15 or more strangers—getting close, really close. Having money was nice, but it didn’t buy happiness. Now not having money is worth it because I have more time to watch the sunset, versus working past dark. Not having a boyfriend has been great, too. I feel more powerful, even in my weakest moments of sickness or despair, alone and comforting myself than waiting for someone else to treat me how I want to be treated. I am becoming the person I was awaiting to “save me” when life got tough. I even said to myself one day, “I’d rather be alone in the dirt right now than feel alone in our nice apartment with you right there with me.” It’s an outward and inward adventure. My new attitude laughs at my Type A attitude of before, and I am finally able to “let things go....”
The most profound things are simple. I had to give up the fluff of life to get down to what is most important. We created “civilization,” which interrupts our natural biorhythms and instincts and corrupts our mind with too many questions about our purpose so that we forget that simple things make us happy—like togetherness of family, belonging in a community, physical labor and a natural lifestyle, and having just enough. Having too much can be just as much of a curse as having too little. I had to cut out all that stuff that was weighing me down really to be free.
Jessica Wright, Secondary Education Peace Corps Volunteer, South Africa
A: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer because I want to share my life skills and experiences with other people. Growing up in the United States gave me many opportunities to become who I am today. I want to share what I’ve learned. Visiting places and people in other countries is a true plus.
In the Peace Corps, I live and share ideas with people in other countries and cultures. Together, we discover solutions to issues and create more satisfying life possibilities. Equally important, my Peace Corps experience and what I learn is shared with people from home, in the United States. This is certainly a “win-win” circumstance. I am always happy to be among the winners.
Sacrifice is not something I consider as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peace Corps does support the volunteers. It is true that I am not earning an income, that I am away from my family and friends, that I do not have “hands-on” access to all the conveniences of living in Virginia. But I am doing what I want and choose to do. It is fantastic to be able to do what one chooses and not only what one is told to do.
Benefits include living in another part of the world for a period of time, learning to live in another culture, developing life-long friends, and embracing a life-changing experience that affects the rest of one’s life.
The Peace Corps “promotes worldwide peace and friendship.” This is something I am honored to do.
Ed Williams, Special Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Micronesia
A: For me, serving in the Peace Corps was a no-brainer. I have been extremely, extremely blessed in my life, and as soon as I learned about the state of affairs in other nations, I made up my mind to give back to the world, specifically the country, that has blessed my family with a myriad of opportunities to flourish. As the son of two Persian immigrants, both of whom have worked extremely hard to give me the life that I had in the States, I knew I had to do something to repay the blessings that I have received. Peace Corps was the answer. Ever since I had heard about the Peace Corps, I thought to myself, “If all Americans served in the Peace Corps at one point or another in their lives, the world would be a better place. The proverbial bucket would overflow with drops of positivity, and the world would be enriched by the good works and efforts of the Peace Corps.”
The biggest sacrifice I have made is leaving the comforts and security of a life that I was extremely accustomed to, for a completely opposite life. In return, though, what I have received makes up for my sacrifice tenfold. To date, the greatest benefits have been acquiring a language skill set and, more importantly, a change in perspective. Before, the unknown used to create a great deal of stress for me; now I know that all things will work themselves out, and I know this without over-worrying. Thankfully, I have learned this in the six months I have been in the Dominican Republic. I cannot imagine what other amazing things I will be learning during the remainder of my time here.
Arya Zarrinkelk, Business Management Peace Corps Volunteer, Dominican Republic
A: Before serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, I was dancing professionally in New York City. I loved my life there and plan to return to dancing after my service, but I chose Peace Corps as an opportunity to completely transform my surroundings. I wanted to take in new textures and to notice who I would become in a completely different environment.
I also felt a strong desire to contribute to a sense of a global citizenry, exercising an alternative perspective on my talents and capacity for change. Peace Corps service felt like the most supportive, all-inclusive mode for throwing myself onto a whole other path for awhile.
So I'm on that “other” path now, and I’m continually amazed by what has changed and what has remained the same. I have been fully engaged by this new environment, but, admittedly, I’ve been dreaming of dancing. Sure, I could start a dance class in my community - and I might - but there’s no comparison to the community of which I was a part. I miss the physical rigor and the close relationships that I shared with my fellow artists. We pushed beyond social convention in a culture whose boundaries are endless.
But now I’m experiencing a rigor of a whole new kind and developing relationships in ways I never thought I could. I am surrounded by a language that I know relatively little of and social norms that are different than my own. I’m not cartwheeling as freely as before, but I’m washing my clothes by hand, riding my bike to buy vegetables, hiking to visit nomads... It’s a new physical and psychological practice, and one that requires patience and observation. But what comes of it is an awareness broader than what I was capable of before. Honestly, I question this decision some days. It’s natural to do that. But I trust that the benefits gained are worth the sacrifice. That’s good for dancing. That’s good for everything.
Sarah Young, NGO Development Peace Corps Volunteer, Morocco
A: In my original essay in applying to Peace Corps I stated, “Being involved in a community is extremely important to me. Meeting people and making connections may be the most enjoyable and necessary part of becoming a member of any community. Everywhere I’ve lived since I graduated high school I’ve taken steps, and at times uncomfortable ones, to get out there in the community. I feel ready for the challenge of being in a new environment with a new community that I can become a part of and contribute to.”
Since then many sacrifices have been made and countless benefits have been earned. The most obvious sacrifice has been my privacy. In becoming a member of a small, rural Senegalese community I had to learn to let down my guard, let people invade my personal space, sit too close, touch my hair, pinch my skin and ask, what I felt were, overly personal questions. By doing this I have successfully become a resident of my village. I have a local name and people use it. People don't only come to me for advice relating to my specific Peace Corps job, they come to me asking if their outfits are pretty, would I attend a baptism, or even just hang out for an afternoon tea session.
Other sacrifices include a loss of choice. I no longer can choose when to eat, or even what to eat. I cannot always choose who will be willing to work with me on projects. From this I have learned how to be flexible and work with whatever gets thrown in my direction. At times, this turns out to be a better solution than I could have ever thought up. I've also learned to take a step back, reflect on the situation and be really grateful for my life back home.
The sacrifices and benefits are endless. Some I will never realize until long after my service is completed.
Jessica Wyatt, Agriculture Extension Peace Corps Volunteer, Senegal