Thursday, June 24, 2010

Letter to a Peace Corps Nominee

This is an excerpt from a letter I sent to a friend, who got her Peace Corps nomination a month ago!

That's fantastic you got your nomination - congratulations and thanks for getting in touch. I think the best thing I did before joining Peace Corps was to talk to as many different volunteers and read as much about other experiences as I could, so keep it up. You should check out, it is a great way to get a sense for PC life. You can also read at, there's lots of info over there, especially on which programs leave when and such.

My perspective, for what it's worth: I have been in my site for almost three months, and Guate for six months with training. I am enjoying Guate a lot, but make no mistake, it has been a difficult experience for as an PCV, and not necessarily in the way you'd expect. Work here has been very slow, and people weren't even really sure what they expected of me. It was hard just to figure out what was going on the first month or two, and I was doing nothing other than showing up in the office each day and trying to get direction from someone; people also constantly spoke and still speak the local language in front of me, so that was isolating – although it is an amazing opportunity to learn a third language, for which I've been grateful.

Slowly I've been making friends, figuring what projects to start pursuing, and learning the local language, so that's been great. I live with a host family in a nice house, with electricity, indoor toilet, gas stove, etc. They're great, they have a 3-year old and for me that's been really fun (and tiring- kids here are pretty interested in what's going on all the time!) Everyone makes a big deal about the physical challenges of Peace Corps, but for many volunteers here there are fewer physical challenges; more it's the social and emotional challenges. I think this took me by surprise because I had envisioned in my head a remote site that was more physically challenging. I kind of wanted that, too, to prove I was tough. Overcoming emotional challenges doesn’t get as many badass points, right?

That said, the odds were against me to have a really rustic site. Most volunteers here have electricity, local access to a variety of foods, running water, an indoor toilet, and maybe even a refridgerator and hot shower. Most host families probably have at least one TV (mine has two, and a semi-functional computer). For security reasons every volunteer has a cell phone - there is good coverage in all but the most remote areas - and many volunteers can get cheap wireless internet through a national cellular-phone company.

The biggest thing is, try to be aware of your expectations, and know that you can't be prepared. You have to just roll with the punches. For example, you may be living in a big or medium town with a huge trash management problem instead of a small, tight-knit community in a remote location. Placements really run the gamut. Communicating with local people may be a lot more difficult than you thought; people may be skeptical of why you're there or just disinterested. You may have to deal with the legacy of other Peace Corps Volunteers who were either really great or deal with repairing the damage of ones who were not well-received. Your counterpart may ignore you and have no idea what you should be doing. At the same time, you can't just jump into your own projects or work without getting to know people, or else the majority of them won't work at all, or at least won't last. So you may sit around your first six months in site without feeling like you're doing anything aside from saying hi to people. It's hard to recognize it, but this isn't a waste of time. Even though you may not feel very productive, your biggest job as a PCV is to make friends, get to know the community, and get to feeling comfortable and happy in site. Without that, project success is less likely and certainly less sustainable.

To get through Peace Corps, you have to be able to go with the flow with what happens, both in what PC tells you and in what happens in your community - things will happen all the time without people telling you, or people will be late, or won't come at all to things you help organize - it's just the cultural style is less organized than in the US. At any meeting you’ll have the folks who are on time, and those who show up an hour after it’s supposed to start. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different – for example, people are generally quicker to forgive tardiness and disorder, as well, so I tend to feel less pressured and judged when organizing public gatherings or charlas. Generally speaking, pueblo life here is much more relaxed than my former life in the US, and I like that aspect of things.

You have to learn to enjoy and appreciate the experience for what it is, living in the moments, the simple meals you cook, the people you meet, the conversations with host family, the challenges you overcome, the stomach flus you beat, the ridiculous situations and cultural experiences you just can't believe; you have to live in these things rather than the idea of ¨doing something¨ or ¨helping¨ in your community, because doing that is a slow and sometimes futile process. It is certainly possible to do great things, but you're much more likely to only significantly touch just a few lives, so it's best to try to be ok with that now. Expectations are what undo most volunteers who end up quitting.

That said, Peace Corps is an incredibly rich life experience, and apart from the lows, it has fabulous highs, too. What an amazing privelege and chance to live in another culture - all expenses paid, with fabulous health care - to learn another language (or two!), to learn how ´development´ really does and doesn't work ... It's a great opportunity, even if you will work hard socially and emotionally - and against the occasional stomach virus or parasite, too! - to earn the satisfaction of it.

OK! Really excited for you!! If you have any other questions about Guate or PC generally or medical clearance or whatever, please don't hesitate to let me know.


  1. This letter is awesome! I'm glad that I came across this post!

  2. really well written and honest. this should be the welcome note on the pc wiki.

  3. I'm heading to Guate this time next week, and am so glad I found this letter to read in advance! Fantastic blogging. Thanks for sharing all your insights.