How to hang on

I browse a lot of other blogs by Peace Corps volunteers and applicants. What has struck me recently is the misdirection of the rhetoric surrounding the questions to consider when applying or as you are applying. I’m writing this over a period of time to ensure that this is not just a long series of complaints, but these are issues that have been on my mind lately. Actually, I’ve put this down for so long that I’m approaching procrastination, so I’m taking another crack at it. I’m just past 6 months in country, and I continue to believe that Mexico is a very different Peace Corps experience. Still, there must be some similarities in the PC experience. A caveat, however, because next week is Early In-Service Training for my group and because I had some long car rides recently with a captive audience, this is me on my soap box.

That being said, I do want to emphasize some of the positives right away here. I have met a lot of people here in Mexico whom I really respect, and I am very happy to have the chance to work with and learn from them. These are amazing people, volunteers, whose opinions about service I would like to hear. I think I could use a perspective change. Since I expect some skimming of this very long post, I want to put my solicitation here at the beginning. I would like other volunteer’s essays on service – any thoughts that you would like to share. I would really like to create a collection of essays from guest authors here on my site. I think that I could benefit from outside perspectives, especially in written form where I don’t have a chance to interrupt, because as a group we talk about PC-related experiences a lot, but I am an interrupter and I could also benefit from not having the chance to interject. My cohorts here in Mexico know how to contact me, or there is the “Contact me” link at the bottom of my homepage.

Back to the rhetoric, the questions normally posed are ones like:

1. Are you independent?
2. Are you open-minded?
3. Are you flexible?
4. Are you self-motivated?
5. Can you give 27 months of service to a developing country?
6. Are you looking for a unique adventure?

In my opinion, these questions are not necessarily wrong, just overly simplistic. I would like to address these questions, and I propose adding additional questions such as:

1. Can you tolerate failure?
2. Can you tolerate boredom?
3. Can you stand up for yourself when it is uncomfortable and awkward?
4. How do you feel about bureaucracy?
5. How are you with the whole self-doubt thing?

My proposed additions are not entirely novel, and have been identified by plenty of people before me. I’m writing this because I’ve been feeling the need to address the nature of this service. I would also like to consider both what I have been learning and how I could have been better prepared for service. I’m hoping that by extending my questions in these directions I can redirect my perspective away from just complaining. So, to organize my thoughts, I’m going to address the standard questions and how they relate to my additions/extensions:

1. Are you independent?

While there is plenty of independence associated with being a volunteer, there are also quarterly reports to file, on-going trainings, and the responsibility of this being a period of service which all put a framework around your independence. I am a big champion of the independence at my work site – or, better put, the independence to work on secondary projects away from my work site. However, this is also why I propose the question about tolerating failure. The independence to find your own projects is tempered by the recognition that everything you attempt may fail. You are one person in a situation where you may not be respected, no matter how good your intentions or experienced your background. I believe that the Peace Corps goals indirectly address this issue, because the three main goals are not actually about actions changing the world, but about being present and communicating your experiences. Two years of being present in a place are much less satisfying than doing something, anything, which is also why you also have to be tolerant of boredom.

However, to extend this to something that I have learned, it is incredibly freeing to be a volunteer, and be able to give one of the most valuable resources – time. By not looking for or expecting repayment for my services, I have come to see that having time to give to all the projects that I can find is a resource that people need. By giving your time, you can do the things that people with jobs don’t have time to do or need help doing. Not expecting accolades or recognition goes along with this, and I also find it very freeing to not be seeking acknowledgement for every activity. Money is also an incredibly important resource, and I’m starting a grant proposal with another friend and volunteer for a water-conservation project opportunity, so I will have more to say about that in the future. I expect this lesson about giving my time to stick with me, and I suppose, if forced to admit it, that Peace Corps service has already been useful for teaching me this aspect of the nature of service.

2. Are you open-minded?

This question is unnecessary, because I don’t think that you would be considering Peace Corps in the first place if you were not open-minded. Culture shock, blah, blah, blah. You will be tolerant of some things, think that some things are great, think that some things are wrong. There is a difference between culture adaptation and maintaining your beliefs. Even rereading this part, I don’t know how to continue, because this question just seems so unnecessary for the applicant pool. I’m sure there are aspects to this question that I am not considering, but it just doesn’t seem to make it on to my “concern radar” like the other questions.

3. Are you flexible?

This relates to the questions of independence and bureaucracy. First, this issue usually extends to overall living conditions. Living in Mexico, this aspect is probably much more separate for me than for volunteers in small, rural communities both here in Mexico and in other countries. I can’t really speak to that, except to say that I am really enjoying blogging, so I am glad to have fairly decent internet at home. As I wrestle with my dissatisfaction at my primary post, I try to believe that taking photos, improving my craft, and sharing my experiences in connection with goal 3 are as important as the actual work, but I’m also not sure that I really believe that.

I am taking advantage of the flexibility of being a volunteer to pursue projects and opportunities that I find fulfilling, but I also struggle with a feeling of obligation to the scientific center where I am assigned. They are paying for me – for my background and experience I guess, but there is a disconnect between our ideas of how I can be valuable. So, I have put myself into some awkward situations at work, and I foresee more, because maybe I have a bit too much of the independence thing. I started teaching an English class without the expressed support of the higher-ups, and I think that I am still glad that I did it. That, along with trying to get involved with several secondary projects away from the office every week, have left me feeling that I am going to have to make a compromise and play along with the major project idea in which they would like my involvement. Overall, not a lot of fun to be feeling caught, and maybe I can contribute for a while and then continue to transition my primary project toward activities that are more interesting to me. I’ve heard from other volunteers that they have done this, without taking the drastic step of changing sites (or centers for us in Tech Transfer). Still, there is not necessarily a huge feeling of support in these matters. I have expressed my frustration at being placed at the one type of job that I specifically said I was trying to get away from during my final placement interview, but I have yet to feel heard and instead feel like a bit of a pariah.

When considering support, personal responsibility is very important in Peace Corps, because the traditional model is that you are prepared during training to be dropped off at a potentially isolated site and have to figure out how to make your way. PC is responsible for identifying your site, establishing contacts, and providing a certain amount of information resources to try to provide you with a successful experience. However, when the reality in-site is different, it can be difficult to find a balance between personal responsibility and finding support from the PC staff. Other volunteers are a support system, but of a different nature. People do move sites for non-security reasons, and I would be very interested to hear about someone’s experiences changing primary assignments.

Additionally with flexibility, I wish that I had been aware of the complexity of this issue before beginning service. Peace Corps asks you to be flexible in many aspects of your service. However, I think they are hiding a bit behind the word flexibility. In Peace Corps, you will be assigned to a program, receive three months of pre-service training centered around that program, and be expected to work within that program. I believe that this issue is exacerbated here in Mexico because the Tech Transfer program is so limited in scope, so maybe this is not even really an issue in for other PC programs in other countries. I know that it is partly my fault for not investigating the program fully before accepting. However, I didn’t know what questions I should have asked. For instance, I was unaware of the extent to which my CV was going to be used to place me, because I would have presented a different image of myself had I known. Then, when I received the invitation, I was too excited to ask any further questions about “What is Tech Transfer in the Peace Corps?” and the more specific nature of the assignments. Now that I think back to my PC Mexico interview, there were warning signs, because I was pressing for examples of what volunteers had done in the past, but it was very hard to get answers. One take-away from this is that I would say it is important to carefully consider your assignment.

4. Are you self-motivated?

This just seems repetitive. If you are independent and got off your guff to start/continue/finish the application process, then you are plenty self-motivated. Besides, maybe you won’t have to be self-motivated. Maybe you will be dropped into a well-established project where you can best serve by continuing someone else’s work. Also, maybe there is a little too much self-motivation in the Peace Corps. It seems that we re-invent the wheel many times because we are just lacking methods for sharing best practices. The most successful and rewarding experiences that I am having are working on projects with other volunteers. We are our own best resource, especially here in Mexico with all these damn experts. I am motivated to find a place for myself in the projects that I find interesting. So, I’m trying to use my PC service to learn how to shove myself into projects when I wasn’t necessarily invited. So, that is another aspect of what I mean when I ask about putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.

Two years go quickly, I think I have to jump and all the opportunities in which I see potential. Hopefully, I am exaggerating a bit when I say that I am shoving myself into other people’s projects, but it is immensely rewarding when I find that I can contribute. Also, you have to move quickly in Peace Corps because two years goes quickly and other volunteer’s two years can go even more quickly when you don’t even meet them until they are 6 months from their Close of Service. I have been finding that I want to suck all the knowledge that I can from the other volunteers that I meet before they leave. Or, I learn that I never had the chance to meet someone who had some wonderful projects. That is frustrating. Still, I am having overall positive experiences in this category, and I think that I am gaining self-confidence in my wide-ranging abilities and hopefully learning new ones, which is something that I hoped to get out of service.

5. Can you give 27 months of service to a developing country?

You can leave at any point. I consider leaving every day. For me, this seems to have just become a fact of life. However, there is a reason that this is also called service. I’m sure there is an amazing sense of satisfaction to make it through the two years, and I hope to make it to that point. Also, there is the recognition that while the country directors like to have a high volunteer retention rate, no one will get on their knees to beg you to stay. PC tries very hard to prepare you for loneliness and missing your loved ones. I have no critiques about this preparation, and I can only say that, of course, the feelings are very real, but tolerable. I am missing my guy a lot, but that by itself is not what has me thinking about leaving. One important aspect of this question for me is that I still don’t know what I would be going back to do. I joined PC in a large part to transition the direction of my career, and I still have no clear idea of what I would like to be doing. So, I end up circling back to the question of flexibility and using this time to explore many opportunities.

6. Are you looking for a unique adventure?

There are many types of adventures, and many ways to give back. Peace Corps is one way to do these things, which has advantages and disadvantages. It has been pointed out to me that I may, perhaps, be a bit cynical about PC, but I’m here trying to make a go of it. Updates as service continues. Next week is Early In-Service Training, which I’m mainly hoping isn’t a week of bitching and then giving feedback about how the bitching, and new strategies for eliciting bitching, went. At this point, I’m not sure that I am one of the 98% that would recommend Peace Corps to my friends and family, but I also wouldn’t say don’t do it. That service is complex is my point with this essay, and I would feel the need to have a conversation (and I am having these conversations frequently) with interested people.

Since I have to post pictures with all posts, I found the picture at the start of the post and the following one to bookend my thoughts here. I think of them as: (1) How to hang on, and (2) What am I reaching for?


2 Responses

  1. Great of you to open up and inspect the can of worms. It’s great food-for-thought for applicants and wanna-be applicants, and existing volunteers, as well. Really happy to read that you are developing confidence in areas, as I feel you should have very large doses of it in very many areas. I admire you for far more things than you listed.

  2. You are very good writer, and I like to take a some of credit based on the homework and school paper editing help I provided over those years. It’s also one example of how the rewards from ‘service’ can be much delayed, although they are still just as sweet when they do arrive. Perhaps ‘Are you capable of being patient?’ should be one of the PC questions?

    Learning how to be patient, and it’s flip side – knowing when and what to fight and what to wait out – is truly a life lesson. It’s something that has taken me many years to recognize and somewhat achieve. And I got very bruised along the way (which probably was part of the process). Ouch!

    There are very few absolute right and wrongs in my view, and applying the correct label is only possible in hindsight a lot of the time. Tends to make those labels almost worthless, actually. But bureaucracy, rules, irrationality, silliness, waste, (pick your word) are going to be present no matter what or where we are; I think they are a fundamental part of any social structure. They have to be accepted, bypassed (worked-around) or ignored (broken) based on….(guess what!) patience and it’s flip side.

    Never said it’s easy, by the way. Ask your grandmother about what stage of life was ‘easy’. She’s still waiting for it. I find exercising really helps.

    If you were less talented, less multi-dimensional, less (super) intelligent, less attractive, and less caring you also would have less angst. But that trade-off isn’t you. 2 Yoda quotes seem to apply: ‘Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny, consume you it will.’ and ‘Always in motion is the future.’

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