One of the good things about all the visiting I’m doing right now (I’m on Week Three of my Great East Coast Tour, staying with my Vietnamese family) is that it keeps my mind off of the fact that in scarcely two weeks, I’ll be getting on a plane and not coming back for over two years. Every time my mind strays that connection, I get vaguely woozy (like pausing at the top of a rollercoaster), so I don’t think about it.
What I have been thinking about, though, is why I’m doing this. It’s been a goal for so long that sometimes I lose track. I decided to join the Peace Corps my sophomore year of college, so it’s been on my horizon for years–long enough to begin to seem unattainable. Really, the weirdest thing right now is that it’s actually, finally, happening.
When people ask why I’m doing it, I tell them I’ve always had a heart for international aid. I think at first it was motivated by guilt–the knowledge that, though no merit of my own, I had been born to privilege (as a white girl in America). But as reasons for service go, that one isn’t the greatest. It’s condescending: “Yes, I’m so sorry your life in your primitive little world sucks, so let me step down from my throne for a while and help you.”
But, I’ve been working hard on my guilt complex (which is multifaceted and extends far beyond just this one issue). And I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten past guilt as a motivation.
In college, I devoted myself to the study of other cultures. I learned to start thinking about them as legitimate and beautiful in their own right. (The Religion minor helped enormously; I highly recommend it.) And I traveled–to Rome, to the Southern U.S., to Vietnam–and I began to understand, in a more practical way, how very different life could be than the life I had lived–that my experience was not universal.
Traveling also made me understand how small my world had been. I grew up in a small town in rural Colorado. I studied at a small college in rural Virginia. Everywhere I’d been cloistered and protected. Travel was great, but I wanted to live abroad, to make my home for a while in another country, to learn another language. And if I could help people while I was at it, all the better.
I haven’t been without my doubts. Sometimes, people would raise objections, or ask questions that have led me to examine my motivations. Sometimes, the objections are my own. A few of the most important:
“Why would you volunteer in another country when so many people need help here at home?”
Well, there are the reasons I stated above, about broadening my horizons and wanting to live abroad. Also, going abroad for two years doesn’t mean I’ll never be able to do good here at home. If anything, my Peace Corps experience will make me more useful here at home–providing me with skills and honing my ethic of volunteerism.
On top of that, if you take the section of society that’s actively involved in volunteering, the subsection of those people who are game for international volunteering, especially in the long term, is bound to be considerably smaller. So, if that’s something I’m willing and able to do, I’m going to do it–someone should.
“Why the Peace Corps? Why not a nonprofit, or an English-teaching program?”
Mostly for the benefits. Since the Peace Corps is a government agency, it can afford to support me while I’m in country and after I return–with most nonprofits, I would have to pay them to volunteer. Believe me, I did look into alternatives. The only thing I found that even comes close to the benefits the Peace Corps offers was the Jesuit Corps, and I’d rather work for Uncle Sam than the Pope.
I also think there’s a certain degree of security in being involved with an organization that’s so well-established. Admittedly, the government connection can make for maddening bureaucracy and paperwork, but it also means I’ll be taken care of.
“Isn’t the Peace Corps kind of imperialistic?”
No one has actually asked me this one, but it’s something I’ve asked myself, a lot, especially since I’ll be teaching English. But not once in any of the material that I’ve seen from the Peace Corps have I gotten any uncomfortable whiffs of imperialism. In fact, the emphasis is on respect and cultural sensitivity.
Actually, I think the Peace Corps’ three stated goals speak for themselves:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
What other questions do you guys have about my decision to serve with the Peace Corps? I’d be happy to answer them!