Who Is the Peace Corps For: Americans or Communities Abroad? Who Is the Peace Corps For: Americans or Communities Abroad?

Who Is the Peace Corps For: Americans or Communities Abroad?

by Gracy Obuchowicz

September 23, 2011

Just before graduating college, I was invited to dinner by a friend’s sister, Kristen, who had recently finished her Peace Corps service in Guyana. We sat around the table eating hummus and flatbread with her handsome Guyanese husband, and she told me stories about speaking pidgin English and the little boat she used to travel to and from her site. She came back brighter and worldlier somehow.

It’s easy to see where Peace Corps can grow as an organization. Most of its volunteers are fresh out of college and lack the job skills needed to create infrastructural change. Combine that with cultural and language difference, plus little to no outside funding, and long-lasting development can be challenging to say the least. It’s difficult to track progress in a meaningful way. I’ve always heard that much of the effect of having a Peace Corps volunteer in a site can’t be seen until the next generation steps up to leadership. When I went back to visit my town last year, I found all the teenage girls I had worked with were graduating from high school, thinking of post-graduate options, and most important to me, not pregnant. I have no idea if this is a result of me being there or not, but I celebrate it as if it’s my own victory.

With 50 years to reflect on, it seems that our willingness to go far into the unknown is the most important part of being a Peace Corps volunteer. In an NPR interview, one of the first volunteers, Bob Klein, said that when he was starting out in Ghana, "the head of faculty said to us, ‘Don't let anyone come out from Washington and let anyone tell you what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Because you're all they have and you'll decide what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer.’"

When I told Kristen that night at dinner that I was thinking about joining the Peace Corps, she replied, ”Do it. You don’t want to be one of those people who says “I wish I had done the Peace Corps.” She was right. Now when anyone asks me about going, I tell them to just go and worry about the details as they come up. I tell them that they will be richly rewarded in ways they will not be able to predict. I tell them it will be a little like that vision they have in their head, but so much more.

I tell them all of this because it’s true, but I also tell them for selfish reasons. I believe that a long-term cultural immersion will make them a kinder, more sensitive human being—the kind of American I want to surround myself with.

Photo courtesy of Gracy Obuchowicz.

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Who Is the Peace Corps For: Americans or Communities Abroad?