Letter to Soon-to-be-PCVs
This morning I came across the weblog of a girl who is waiting for her Peace Corps invitation. She'll be headed off to ... somewhere ... early next year. Her posts, as they should be, are bubbling over with enthusiasm and a desire to "find simplicity," and "make a difference."
Admirable notions. I hope she holds on to most of that idealism. Still, I've learned that a successful Peace Corps experience requires a healthy dose of reality to go along with the ever-present optimism. Along those lines, I offer the following open letter to soon-to-be PCVs:
Congratulations on your decision to become a PCV! I'm an RPCV who recently completed a fantastic experience in South Africa, so I can tell you with certainty that you've made a great decision. Just in case you're interested, here are a few words (okay, maybe a lot of words) of unsolicited advice:
1.) Have patience.
Obviously, if you're in the application process, you've already discovered this one. The Peace Corps is an incredible bureaucracy (it is the government, after all!), and they love to test us on this elusive virtue. Keep in mind, though, that the patience required to get from application to arrival in country is NOTHING compared to the patience you will be learning once you actually arrive.
2.) Kill your expectations.
We all have expectations about what Peace Corps service will be like, some that we aren't even aware of having. These expectations, and the process of discovering just how far from reality they can be, is the death of many a potentially wonderful volunteer experience.
Ask yourself some very hard questions.
"What if I get there and give my all, and after (three, six, twelve, eighteen) months, I'm still not sure I've managed to really help anyone? Will that be okay with me?"
"What if I "search for simplicity" and it isn't there, or at least not in the way I imagined? What if everyone in my host country has electricity and a cellphone and an intense desire to own cool clothes? Can I deal with that?"
"What if almost everyone can speak English? Will I be happy with an experience where I don't HAVE to learn a foreign language? Will I manage to learn the local language anyway, if it's important to me?"
There are a million expectations that incoming PCVs have, and a million more questions you could ask yourself. The bottom line is that the happiest and most successful volunteers are the ones who have managed to wipe out as many expectations as possible from the beginning.
When they tell you to be ready for anything, that doesn’t only mean dirt or heat or an old lady scraping the hair off of a goat head. It might also mean soap operas on TV, an eight-year-old who is dying for a new pair of hip-hugger jeans, or deeply entrenched racism. I found all of the above. I was ready for the heat and the goat head, but not for the soap operas.
3.) Do it (mostly) for yourself.
Yup. Be selfish. This might sound crazy, but if you do this mostly for other people, you might end up deeply disappointed. Go for the experience, to have a profound encounter with another culture, and to challenge your perspectives and learn about the world and about yourself.
Do NOT go in order to "Save the World," or some little piece of it. This mentality can end up breaking your heart.
That said, you will most certainly make a difference in people's lives, and your admirable desire to give of yourself will be very important. Still, the differences you make will probably not be the type of differences you imagine at the moment, and that's okay (see number 2).
I hope something in all of that was valuable to you. I have a lot of free time on my hands at the moment, as you can see.
Again, congratulations on your upcoming service. There is a big part of me that wishes I were back in your shoes. I had an amazing experience in South Africa, and I wish the same for you.