Before I begin: As an RPCV who loved her service, I’d like to wish you all a happy Peace Corps week.
But now, *ahem* for the real reason you came here: that catchy title that I used to lure you in here.
You won’t save the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer
So, you want to join the Peace Corps? I’m sure you’ve got tons of questions. I’m sure you also have these grand, romanticized ideas of what it means to be in the Peace Corps. You’re probably conjuring up images of you surrounded by cute little African/Asian/Latin American children that you’re helping teach English/Math/How to brush their teeth (yes, that’s a real Peace Corps task). However, most volunteers don’t have that idyllic experience. Some do. Some luck out, and the rest of us are listening to their Peace Corps stories and thinking “F you and your f-ing flush toilet. Do you know what I have to go through to pee every morning?” For me, I had to dodge flying homemade soccer balls and walk through 200 screaming middle school students to get to my pit latrine — sometimes embarrassingly carrying my toilet paper, sometimes stuffing it down my bra to be more discreet. Worst of all though, I had to put on pants. Uhg.
Even now, after returning to the U.S. the disillusion continues. My friends and family still coo “it seems like you had such a great time in Peace Corps!” Well, I did have some great times in Peace Corps. I also had the most embarrassing moment of my life (which I swear, I will only divulge to other RPCVs and whoever I end up married to — since, apparently, you have to reveal all dirty secrets to someone before they can rightfully commit the rest of their life to you, uhhhg). I felt boredom on a whole different level (think, sweeping your house five times in one day). I watched A LOT of TV — I am now more caught up on pop culture than I ever will be again in my life. I also developed a deep and serious skepticism about any interaction with men. Those things weren’t so fun (well, the TV part was…)
They also don’t fit into this incorrect image of “saving the developing world” that many people associate with Peace Corps. Well, you’re not going to save the world, but here are a few things you will do:
First, you’ll ask a lot of dumb questions
No amount of reading and talking to RPCVs will truly prepare you for what’s in store with the Peace Corps. You’ll ask a lot of dumb questions on your group’s Facebook page (please guys, save face and Google questions about luggage allowances.) You’ll ask even more dumb questions during your training and for several months afterwards. That’s OK. We all do it. We all forget about it. You live, you learn, and eventually you become that PCV looking at a new group about to arrive in country and think — as my friend Jackie puts it — “ohh buddy…”
Then, you’ll either develop realistic expectations, give up, or be miserable
As a Peace Corps volunteer I think it’s incredibly important to have real expectations about your service. You’re there for two years, and it seems like a long time, but in the grand scheme of development, it isn’t. Those volunteers who fail to understand this — preferably before departure — end up being the most disillusioned and (though there are no case studies to prove this) more likely to give up, or ET, as we say. Ambition is great, and I know of some motivated and ambitious volunteers who accomplished a lot during their service but for most of us, our impact will be much smaller. Honestly, if you enter Peace Corps expecting to make smaller changes and have a good experience, you’ll do better emotionally, mentally, and professionally. Lower your expectations about what you will accomplish, now.
You’ll break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend from back home
I don’t know why we didn’t figure this out in study abroad, but long distance in general, and Peace Corps especially is a great way to kill a relationship. I have more optimism for couples who do Peace Corps at the same time but in different countries (you can relate better to each other and grow in more similar ways) but otherwise, that relationship is eventually going to shrivel up and die at some point of your two years of service. Well, 90% of the time (just in case you were about to race to the comments section to contradict me…)
You’ll become a PR campaign for America
Sometimes, I wondered if my presence in my community was nothing more than a great PR move on behalf of the U.S. government. In Madagascar there was no doubt that Peace Corps volunteers had created this awesome and respected view of Americans (versus the less respected and slightly scorned image they had of the French). This will be part of your impact. You will change the way people think about Americans, and not always for the better. I heard a lot of shit talking about Americans in Ethiopia, sometimes directly pointed at Peace Corps volunteers. It’s a shame, but the point remains the same: our individual actions as Peace Corps volunteers influence the overall impression of Americans in the developing world.
And your body will betray you.
You’ll drunkenly (or not drunkenly) vomit in an embassy worker’s garden. You’ll poop your pants. You’ll have problems managing your weight. Diarrhea will be a normal occurrence. You’ll get really good at telling when you or someone else has giardia/worms/malaria and be able to name exactly what medicine they need. Or if you’re really unfortunate, you’ll get some medieval illness you haven’t thought about since 8th grade history class (bubonic plague, scarlet fever, etc.). But I don’t want to scare you; most likely you’ll just poop your pants and that’ll be the worst of it. Of course, after you recover, you’ll talk about it with all your Peace Corps friends, have a good laugh, and carry on. Shit happens. Literally.
Anyways, if it seems like I’m being overly snarky and portraying Peace Corps as a terrible experience — that’s not my intention. I loved Peace Corps and I will almost always encourage anyone who is interested in joining to start their application and do it. But I have found that in these conversations I’ve been having recently, there are a lot of constants in my reality as a PCV that non PCVs/RPCVs are surprised to hear about (the TV watching, for example). So, just trying to tell it like it is. The end.
See a related post I wrote on Go Overseas: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Joining Peace Corps.