Once you’ve received an invitation from Peace Corps, passed medical and legal clearance, sorted out your job and family affairs, you will still find yourself with oodles and oodles of time to think and wonder. Will I like it? Will I make it? How much of it will I love? hate?
My biggest fear pre-departure was that I wasn’t going to make it through Pre-Service Training. I was afraid that I was being hopelessly naive about moving to Mongolia. I had visions of returning home, lying in bed and crying myself to sleep because I hadn’t been able to hack it three months in Mongolia. And yeah, making it through PST was a proud moment.
Making it through my 27 months of service though will be an even prouder one.
Before I finish up here, I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on what made my service feel successful.** Of course not everyday was easy (e.g. today, wow), but I wasn’t contemplating Early Termination (ET) every other week. I didn’t hate my life or my service or my community at any point. Some of my work really validated me as a professional and other times, it made me want to crawl in bed and wish away the world.
The bar is not that high. And luckily, the five nuggets of advice I have for you are not completely unachievable either (or at least I hope). So if you’re getting ready to leave for Peace Corps, I recommend you stretch yourself to your limits with these.
** Necessary disclaimer: note that I didn’t say that my service ~was~ successful. The following tips are based on my own observations and experiences and do not reflect every post, every volunteer’s situation, every work/living situation to have ever existed. **
The Other 2/3
When I was in D.C. for Blog It Home, we were reminded over and over again that 2/3 of our work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is just to share culture: share America with your host country (Goal 2) and share your host country with America (Goal 3).
When you get to site and people don’t know why you’re there or – let’s be real here – you’re not exactly clear on why you’re there, just remember that the work-work is really only 1/3 of your purpose. You’d still be a successful volunteer if all you did was introduce your host family to pumpkin pie or the Kardashians. Or memes.
Make Yourself Go Out
This is coming from an introvert who doesn’t like drinking, dancing or staying up late: yes, you should accept the invitation and go out, at least the first time around. Next year, if you really don’t want to go on the overnight 24 hour van ride through the countryside with bottles and bottles of Пиво, at least your counterparts will know it’s not because you don’t like them.
Until these kinds of understandings and relationships have formed, it’s important not to give the impression that you don’t want to be around your counterparts, host family or your community. It can be really hard that first year to get out when every normal day is so mentally exhausting. But these moments build trust and camaraderie with the people who are going to be looking out for you the next two years. And for those of you like me, just accept it’s going to be difficult. My advice is to pick the most important events, find tricks to avoid the drinking, and do the following:
Smile Often, Laugh Even More
I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a learned skill. When you’re stressed, this is the last thing you feel in yourself. I finally started smiling and laughing more when I realized the stress of brooding and staying resentful made my day so much worse.
While I still don’t laugh or smile as often as I’d like, the things I used to take super seriously (like being in a pickle because of someone’s lack of forethought), I’ve learned to shrug it off and sometimes, smile about it. I’m not perfect at it but I recognize its value. You’d be surprised how much more strangers will like you because you smiled or laughed in an unexpected or awkward moment.
Don’t Burn Those Bridges
You may come in thinking that your counterparts and host country agency should be grateful for this huge sacrifice you’re making and the coveted skills you’re bringing, but your counterparts can very easily decide you’re not worth their time. Maybe they’re not comfortable with the ensuing power dynamic or have a hard time collaborating on your terms.
Even if it’s a frustrating first few months, don’t throw your hands up and say “Well, if you don’t want to work with me, I don’t want to work with you either!” Go back to advice #1. Just because you’re not doing all that much “at work,” you still have the other two goals. Or lower your expectations and meet your people where they are. Honestly, the worst thing you can do for yourself is give up in exasperation too soon. You’ll see this soon enough at Pre-Service Training, but we like to use a bridge metaphor for this idea of not meeting someone halfway but 90% of the way.
Get That Hustle On
Last summer while I was a trainer at Pre-Service Training, my counterpart asked me if I worked at home after the day was over. It seemed like every morning when we sat down to go over the day’s lesson, I’d always come with a prepared list of questions and conundrums for the day. I laughed and told her about my weird habit of going through the next day in my head as I fell asleep. The “rehearsal” is my way of avoiding unnecessary stress and consequently, brings up issues that I can address before it’s too late.
My counterpart mentioned that she thinks it’s a very “American” or at least Western to be planners, problem solvers, movers and shakers; it is a quality that she has found in common with many of the volunteers – young or old – with whom she’s worked with over the years.
When you are proactive about turning ideas into reality and when you hustle for success, people will usually appreciate what you’re trying to do and help in whatever way they can. Of course, there are going to be people who make the work more difficult than it should be, but we are known and valued for our work ethic and ability to plan, organize and think ahead. So use it! And most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail.
You are here to push your limits so let yourself be stressed, confused, uncomfortable, and unhappy. Just don’t stop or give up there. Give yourself time to adjust and change all those sore adjectives to ones of growth and maturity. For the sake of the medical clearance alone, you owe yourself that.
Good luck and cheers to your forthcoming 27 months!