After months of pondering I decided to put together some things that I wish someone told me during my service. So here are my “pearls of wisdom.”
- You are not going to be able to pack for two years. It’s impossible. Don’t even try. Find out from current PCVs what the essential items are and need to be packed in your luggage and what can be sent in advance.
- Peace Corps is primarily a cultural exchange. If you were going to be doing high development impact volunteers would have more money for projects and receive a higher salary.
- If you feel uncomfortable in any given situation, cultural sensitivity is irrelevant. Safety and Security is a PCV’s number one priority. If you feel uncomfortable about anything you have every right to feel that way. I’ve been in situations with persons of authority who did not act professional and could have turned into threats to my security. You always have the right to leave. I was recently in a situation where a high-ranking functionnaire took me out for drinks. He had 5 large beers and I didn’t have any. He became very intoxicated, and started hitting on me and things got weird. He invited me over to his house. Culturally speaking it would have been insensitive to turn down his invitation, as he outranks me. Luckily I was visiting a midwife who used to work in my village. I asked her to accompany me to his house and she agreed. At this point the HRF was so drunk that he was dropping glasses and they broke on the floor. Fortunately another PCV called me and I used that phone call as an out, and said that PC called and told me to go back to my site to give them information on a form left in my house. I got lucky. Things did not get worse.
- Set Boundaries. Lock your door. If you don’t want to drink you don’t have to even if a HRF is buying them for you and you don’t want to be culturally insensitive. Just because your co-workers think something is ok that you think isn’t does not mean that you should be pressured to do it.
- Have “The Talk” with your Significant Other/Parents etc. How do you want to receive bad news? This may be hard to read. I was reading the memoir “Gabby” about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband astronaut Mark Kelly. He talked about how astronauts have to write letters to their loved ones in case of contingency. He also had to decide how much he wanted to be informed about his wife’s brain injury. In past shuttle missions he said that he wanted to be informed after the mission, but because of his wife’s injury this time he wanted to know everything. Before I left I wish I told my parents what I wanted and did not want to know. During PST my uncle was found dead in his house. Instead of calling the Office of Special Services (OSS) my parents called me directly. I did not know what to do. Should I go home to sit shiva? Should I stay and work through PST? I ended up eventually calling the PCMO for support. However, if you do indeed call the PCMO about a death in the family they are required to tell the CD because it’s a health issue that could potentially affect your job performance. So I walked in for my interview with the CD and the first thing she says is to express her condolences for my loss. Awkward way to start an entrance interview. Also, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer in Winter 2012/2013, I was not told until June because my parents did not want to upset me. I then wrote them a letter expressing clearly that I wanted to be kept in the loop and if they are in doubt that they should call OSS.
- Tell people at home how you want to be informed about bad news
- Inform people that they can call OSS
- Peace Corps is here to support you.
- Put your preferences in writing to be absolutely sure.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself: Try your best but don’t expect to save the world. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but unfortunately PCVs are not going to stop FGM, violence against women, eradicate malaria, or stop world hunger during their service. We do our best as volunteers to promote sustainable behavior change. This is a really hard job. Aim high but have realistic expectations.
- Be vocal about your concerns. If you arrive at your site and it’s not a good fit, (not safe, lacking important things) talk to someone about it. You don’t want to be stuck in a place for two years being miserable. You have every right to complain.
- Don’t compare yourself to other PCVs. Every site is different. Every PCV is different. This is a HARD JOB and it’s difficult to feel successful and to get projects going. Everyone has their different set of challenges and successes. Also, most volunteers tend to talk up their successes rather than complain about their failures, so they’re probably having problems too, but they just don’t want to talk about them.
- What you get out of Peace Corps depends on what you put into your service. One of my stage mates, Marlow, put it best in a post on her blog. If you sit around at site and expect things to get done by themselves then you’re bound to be disappointed. I was not able to get certain things done at site, but I got very involved in the Community Health AIDS Taskforce and became their grant coordinator. I am extraordinarily thankful for that experience. It made a huge impact on my service.
- Have fun and enjoy your two years. Savor the small things, admire the stars, cold cokes, movie parties, and age appropriate activities. You can still work and have fun.