Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

The mission of Peace Corps is “to promote world peace and friendship…and to help the peoples of …countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” Today, Peace Corps works in over 70 countries around the world.

The United States Peace Corps was instituted by President John F. Kennedy and was made official by an act of Congress in the fall of 1961, which makes it 47 years old. During that time, more than 187,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries—and it is important to note that Peace Corps never enters a country unless asked to do so by the host country’s government.

So, what is the Peace Corps experience? When I was stationed in Nepal in the 1970s, it was challenging and rewarding. We had three months of initial language training and two years in an immersion situation which led to the fluency which in turn enables learning about, being part of, and adapting to the local culture. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t easy. In the early days, and still in some countries, Volunteers had to walk to their posts (one Volunteer in Nepal had to walk 10 days to reach his site), often had no running water and electricity, and their situations meant living in an environment whose frame of reference may have only overlapped 10% with what they were used to. Life is not always easy. Privacy is often impossible, and unwittingly being the village entertainment is a struggle that ultimately improves one’s sense of humor. My baths, taken fully clothed at the local spring, drew at least 50-60 onlookers for the first month or so.

Almost all returned Peace Corps volunteers, including me, will tell you that the experience has changed our lives positively and forever----that the ability to adjust and adapt, be patient and flexible, and take a positive course in the face of adversity are still part of our lives. A reference librarian at Southside Library was posted as a librarian with the Ministry of Agriculture Library in Kingston, Jamaica in the mid 80s. He says that although government bureaucracy was sometimes frustrating, he was surprised how during his second year in Jamaica he adjusted and in many ways felt at home. He enjoyed learning about different cultures and food which in Jamaica included Caribbean and Indian.

Over the years, new programs, in response to countries’ needs, have evolved. Small business development, HIV-Aids prevention, forestry, and other sustainable development programs are growing while many of the original programs, such as education, are still in place. Peace Corps is expanding especially in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Peace Corps has also instituted a push to recruit older Volunteers, hoping eventually to attract those above 50 as at least 15% of the Corps. There are also new programs recruiting minorities and two-year college graduates. A number of graduate schools also take Peace Corps experience as part of graduate studies, and in some cases there is student loan forgiveness.

Volunteers also tout their understanding of international problems and conflicts, but in turn, they almost universally say that they received much more than they ever gave in their country of service. In fact, many of us feel that we are fortunate to have brought back to the US a perspective that we can share with fellow Americans, a perspective that usually includes the importance of other religions and value structures, the highly developed support systems in other cultures, and an ability to either expect the unexpected or have no expectations at all, a state that is remarkably calming. If you’re interested in the Peace Corps click on the link for information. Life is Calling. How Far Will You Go?

Posted by JA at Southside.

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