Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Advice about Peace Corps from an RPCV

The single most often asked question I get about Peace Corps, and the one I remember asking is: I always hear all these great stories and experiences. I want to hear the bad stuff. The things that might make me crazy and regret my decision. So please let me have it.

So here is my answer:

Red Tape
Make no mistake, you are joining a government organization. This means that there are policies that WILL NOT make sense to you. There are restrictions you MUST adhere to. There are forms and more forms and more forms. This is frustrating. One policy is that if you are out of the country during a weekend, this counts as your yearly vacation time. "But why should it count if weekends don't usually count????" That's what most volunteers complain about. What they don't realize is that they are volunteers 24/7. This means that if they're away from their sites and in the country, they're STILL PCVs. They're STILL representing the country. As soon as you leave, you stop representing America to your host country. Still, this red tape is annoying to many volunteers.

Down Time
It amuses me so much to hear future volunteers talk about how much they'll do at their site. They get the idea that they'll land in country and everyone will be so excited to see them and they'll have so many projects and be so busy. The reality is that a LOT of Peace Corps is the down time. In Ukraine the wintertime is harsh. It feels like it gets dark at 4pm, people stay inside, it's freezing cold. And you find yourself at home sitting, doing nothing. "I'll go visit my neighbors!" Well, what if they're suspicious of you and want you to leave them alone? (Yes, this happened to me). I personally watched a lot of tv. Some people read a lot of books. Others called their friends. Regardless, you will find your self with a LOT of time on your hands. Peace Corps is NOT just about doing your job. It's about living in the country.

Not properly utilized/not being NEEDED
Sadly, this has happened to many a volunteer. In some cases the site just doesn't want the person to do ANYTHING but their job, which in Ukraine means teaching English. Even though the volunteer may have grant writing experience, the site may not care. The volunteer may find that the host country nationals, while SAYING they wanted to help or get something done, may not actually have any follow through. Additionally, many volunteers feel like their skills and talents are going to waste. They have a lot of experience working on computers or with adults, and end up teaching children. This leads to a lot of frustration. Additionally, many felt like "Ukraine doesn't really NEED our help!" and they ended up leaving, wishing they'd been selected for a country that REALLY needed help.

Not appreciated
When you leave your home, your friends, and your country for two years, it's not unreasonable to think that you'll be appreciated. Your host country will welcome you, you'll be a celebrity, people will thank you, and you will have made a difference. But what if you end up in a town like my friend, whose neighbors kept telling her things like "You need to stop buying so many raisins" or "Stop running. It's dangerous for your health" or worse: they wouldn't allow her to help the students who were preparing for English tests. Imagine being bullied by people whose language you barely speak, who will reluctantly help you if at all, and who seem to feel you are more of a hassle than you are worth. This is not the experience of all volunteers, but I know more than one volunteer who has fallen victim to this.

Not the experience you expected
This one hit several volunteers hard when they were told they were going to Ukraine. There was a crestfallen look as they read their acceptance letter. Either because they were hoping for a proper third world experience, or they felt like this would be "Peace Corps Lite", or they were sad that so much technology (cell phones and computers and tv, oh my!) would be available. They had this idea of a rural living situation and got a post-soviet country. Or they hoped they would be working with their hands and instead were teaching children English.

Nothing to show
This one is very specific to the ESL job. When you build wells, you have something to show for it. You can look on your work and be very satisfied. When you plant crops, you have something very tangible and empirical that you can look at and say "See, I'm making a difference." With education it's nearly impossible to do. You DON'T see the results right away. You end up NOT feeling like you've really done anything. There is no proof of your efforts.

Being ON all the time
Some Volunteers never fully relax. They have this "I'm representing the United States and all Americans" thing going on all the time. They don't ever yell or show they're upset. They don't feel comfortable saying NO when men in their town ask for their phone numbers. They don't ever really make friends because they are not really people--they're representations of people.

This one is huge. This one got me. I had a million volunteers around me and I felt utterly alone. I was tired of just being able to say "I have a family. I have a mother. I have a father." etc and not really connecting with anyone. Even though at times it felt like "Hey, people are people!" other times I would be shocked at how utterly different we were, and that made me feel very alone. A friend of mine had literally no one in her town who was even close to her age. When the young people would come into town they wanted nothing to do with her. They were small town people not used to changes in their lives and didn't know how to incorporate this new, strange gal.

For me, the absolute hardest part of Peace Corps was the other volunteers. Before I offend everyone I have made friends with, let me clarify. I was in a country where volunteers had to be warned about alcohol abuse, as it was a very serious issue. Most volunteers were either fresh out of college or were seniors, and I fell in that awkward age of 30s. I absolutely hated the drinking parties and college frat feel that seemed to arise whenever volunteers got together. I absolutely made wonderful friends there, but I couldn't stand the party mentality. For me, it had no place in Peace Corps. I did have a reputation of being overly serious and caring too much about my job. In fact, every time I talked to volunteers I would talk about projects or ESL or teaching. I was there to do a job and was very very annoyed when volunteers would "cut loose." At one point I found myself at a party where the volunteers were SO LOUD that the Ukrainian police came, took everyone's passports, then agreed to accept a bribe to make this "go away." Which should be fine, except that a few volunteers were SO ANGRY about this CORRUPT SYSTEM and being loud and belligerent and being total JERKS. I have little patience for this. I wouldn't be surprised to know that many volunteers there didn't care for me, but honestly I don't care. I spent nearly all my time with my Ukrainian friends and hanging out with them.

These are what I feel were the worst things about Peace Corps where *I* was assigned. Your miles may vary, especially depending on the country you are assigned. For me, it was a really great experience, one I wouldn't change for the world. I was very lucky for a few reasons: I met some very outstanding Ukrainians who were absolutely ready to work, I met many Ukrainian women my age who spoke English, I felt comfortable being myself--I realized that I wasn't doing the US any favors by not being myself, I had a background in Education, so for me, having no "results" was absolutely no issue, I was properly utilized and appreciated at my site, and I personally loved all the down time.

I'm sure that these would be very different for people who are in Africa, but many will remain the same regardless. Just remember--the less developed the country, the more time you will have to spend on JUST LIVING. Getting water, getting and preparing food, etc.

Peace Corps is a very rewarding site, and truly the inflexible will not make it far. People drop out all the time. They realize it's just not for them for a multitude of reasons. But many times it's because they're absolutely inflexible. One girl quit after she was told where she'd be living. She went to visit and said "I'm done" because they couldn't accommodate her religion. Others would cry when they were told they'd be living in the East, or had to learn Russian or had to learn Ukrainian. It was as though they'd used up their whole notion of "flexibility" right before they landed in the country, then were absolutely rigid when they got there. Frankly, a lot of that made me absolutely sick to my stomach and made me fairly angry.

So my advice: put down on the application countries you DON'T want to go with. If you'd feel disappointed working in a 2nd world country, tell Peace Corps you don't want to go there. If you heard you'd be in Ukraine and that would bring tears to your eyes, tell PC you don't want to go there. You get my point of view. Your viewpoint will be colored when you get there, you'll be looking for reasons to hate it and back up your point of view, and you'll probably leave during training.

Good luck to you. I adored my time in Peace Corps, and hopefully this will help you in your journey. I am by no means an expert, I just try to be a bit observant and listen to what the volunteers I KNEW were complaining about. Just remember: BE FLEXIBLE! It will serve you well.


Lew said...

As one of the applicants waiting to become part of the 15% who are 55+, I want to thank you very much for your thorough blog. I only wish there were more such postings to balance the boundless enthusiasm and cope with the RAS as I wait between nomination and invitation.
- Lew

Eleonora said...

I second Lew's sentiments. I appreciate your candor and insight. I am a Ukraine invitee and couldn't have been more excited when I got my placement. I will continue building my flexibility skills in the interim. Sounds like I'm going to need it.


juliajohansen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
juliajohansen said...

I'm glad that you found this helpful. There does seem to be a lack of very balanced materials out there. Either they're praising it as though there were no faults, or complaining about it as though there were nothing good.

Eleanora, I hope you enjoy your time there! I certainly did!

I have decided that I'll keep writing in this blog, especially about how to transition easily and prepare to go there.

Jesse said...

Everything you said is key. And the downtime is just killer! I don't have a lot of it luckily, but I swear some days I feel useless, others super useful. I can tell you this was not what I expected!

I think you're article will be very helpful to people in the app process and those just starting as PCV's. I'm about 8 months in to mine.

Alexander Hnidec said...

Thank you for your candor, plus specific examples of the good and bad. Seems to me that the best way to prepare for PC is to read about personal experiences beforehand, always keeping in my mind that everyone and every location will vary. Great post, and greatly appreciated!