I am about to travel to a place I have never been, where I don’t speak the language, where my living quarters will consist of a “reed hut, mud hut, or cement building with cement floors,” where I won’t have running water or possibly electricity, where I know nobody, where I will be faced with near-impossible tasks and cultural barriers, where I won’t have the everyday conveniences of the corner pharmacy and the fancy Whole Foods, where I will be thousands of miles from home, without a yoga studio or a gym, without a dive bar full of friends, without air conditioning and washers and dryers, and without a lot of other seemingly important things, for 27 months. Why am I doing this? There are a lot of ways to answer that, so I’m going to be as real and raw as possible here. Forgive me if I offend.
Like most good, southern, Christian kids raised in suburbia with the American Dream stitched into the flag I pledged allegiance to every morning, I knew it was important to help the “less fortunate.” I participated in canned food drives and cookie exchanges; I sang at nursing homes and pet puppies at the animal shelter. In high school, I learned that this was called community service, and it could be used like a kind of currency: ten hours can check you off the list for participation in this prestigious club, fifty hours may get you into your reach college, one hundred hours can earn you an achievement award and probably a place next to Jesus in heaven. I took it upon myself to become a community service master. Luckily for me, it was fairly trendy at the time to care about the poor children in the “less fortunate” parts of the world. I’ll give myself a little more credit here – I enjoyed community service, and I was learning that the world is a whole lot bigger than Alabama. This is about when I decided I would join the Peace Corps and be a hardcore do-gooder. So I started doing the things that do-gooders do. I started a Schools for Schools club to get my high school paired with a partner school in Uganda and organized fundraising events. I spent my summers on staff at a free camp for kids in the poorest county in the state. I went to a small liberal arts college where I studied Sociology with a concentration in Poverty Studies. I tutored ESL kids after school. I joined various social justice clubs on campus. I spent a few months volunteering in El Salvador, and another few months interning at a non-profit where I essentially served as a social-worker. I was making a difference. Or was I?
The problem with all of my community service was that I started it with a top-down attitude. I, a well-off, educated top-dweller, could bestow my gifts upon the needy bottom-dwellers. Whether or not they actually needed my gifts is questionable. This outlook allowed me to otherize poor people in my subconscious. The existence of the “less fortunate” served me well – I could feel good about “helping” them, while maintaining a comfortable distance from the harsh reality of their lives. There was no questioning of why inequality existed, and there was little effort to get to know the poor as valuable and unique individuals. Completing the Poverty Studies concentration helped me to realize this, and I started to pay attention to the one-sided language of the community service industry. Being a Sociology major helped me to see the complicated infrastructure and systemic nature of poverty. I learned to question the utility and purpose of the two-week mission trips I used to applaud. I learned to care about the politics and policies that were often the source of inequality. Most importantly, I learned to stop assuming I knew what people needed, and to listen. And when I learned to listen, I learned to love.
So if you asked me why I wanted to join the Peace Corps back in 2007, my answer would have been something like: “I want to help the starving children in Africa!!!” (Feel free to join me in a collective eye-roll.) If you ask me now, my answer is a heck of a lot longer, and it goes far beyond community service. Here’s an incomplete list of reasons why, in one week, I leave to join the Peace Corps:
- Cultural Exchange – I want to learn about a different way of living and understanding life. I want to experience a new culture in every aspect from daily routines to patterns of social interaction to family relationships. This is hard to do over a short period of time.
- Escape – I want to spend a significant amount of time outside of my own culture, so I can see how my outlook has been shaped by institutions that have surrounded me since birth. I want to take off my blinders and have a good look around. I want exposure to the peripheral, so that I can better focus my center.
- Education – I believe in education. Not even necessarily for the skills it imparts, but rather for the way that it can empower the learner. I could care less if my students only learn how to say “I don’t speak English,” so long as I can help them see their potential and gain confidence.
- Networking – I want to become part of a community of international thinkers and movers. The opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps gives me access to a network of people who care about the same things I do, and who have spent a considerable amount of time trying to make a dent in the level of inequality in this world. Yes, I have read articles that call into question Peace Corps’ effectiveness, morality, etc, and I’ve come to the conclusion that: 1. There is no perfect organization, and 2. This one is full of people I can learn from.
- Exploration – I want to travel! I want to see as much of the world as possible (while still living a relatively sane life). Also, as a young, single, white female, being in the Peace Corps seems like one of the safer ways to travel in less financially stable regions of the world.
- YOLO – A ton of people I’ve spoken with about my Peace Corps service have said something along the lines of, “Oh wow – I thought about doing that after college, and I wish I had, but two years seemed like such a long time.” I don’t want to be one of those people. Sure, for them it probably wasn’t the right choice, but for me, I would live in regret if I didn’t do this. Two years can seem really long. It can also seem really short. I hope it’s both.