I have developed these ten bits of advice, after hours of journaling, many long conversations with friends and family, after runs through fields of sunflowers, after crying alone and laughing with others, after having really bad days and really good ones, after listening to and evaluating the insights I have been given and after lots of, hopefully honest, self-reflection.
1. Forget about control.
Forget about making your own schedule for sleeping, showering, laundry, anything. Forget about making your own food or picking your own menu. Forget about the dietary restrictions you had when you left the states.
At least for the first two months you will be living your life on Peace Corps’ schedule and trust me they keep you busy. Between language classes, technical training, info sessions, homework and trying to find a moment to stay in touch with people back home – you will always feel like you’re scrambling.
2. Forgot about privacy.
Forget about real alone time; not only will the culture you are about to enter not have the same ideas about the need for privacy, but you will be living with a family.
If you miss anything for any reason, everyone will know. If your stomach is upset, everyone will know and ask you openly about it. If you have a rough day and cry in class or are short with the teacher, everyone will know. If you start something romantic with someone or even flirt with someone, everyone will know.
3. Forget about picking your friends.
If you are lucky there will be a few people who you would have been friends with back home, but the majority of your new colleagues. They may not get your humor, may not have voted for the same person in the last election or check the same age bracket as you on the census form. They may not know what the term “make it rain” means or think constantly about how much they miss guacamole.
Your new colleagues will become your friends because they speak English, because they are going through the same existential crises you are, because even though they will get on your last nerve, these people, are more interesting, passionate and wise than you could have hoped for. Their experiences are more diverse than any group you have been with before and before you realize it, you are proud to call them your friends.
4. Site placement day will be emotional.
When you start your service you have no idea what you are walking into. You may have never been to the country you have been assigned, maybe never even to the continent its on and you may never have even heard of it before your letter – so you really had no idea what your new world will look like.
You arrive in the country, get dropped off at your host family’s house and you start adapting – to the new surroundings, food, language, culture, and lifestyle. And you start to love it or at least begin to get comfortable.
Then four short, busy and wonderful weeks later, site placement creeps up on you. You stand with your new friends, not sure what to expect. Whatever your situation is before the Country Director calls your name and the Program Director hands you your file, you are about to see what your life will look like for the next two years.
You open the file and the whole thing is written in the native language and surprise! you cannot read any of it because you have only been there for four weeks. You ask someone what it says and they begin to tell you – now you know what your life will look like for the next two years.
5. Just say yes.
There are about to be a million moments you cannot begin to understand. The term lost in translation will lose all meaning as you attempt to traverse a constant language and cultural barrier.
When you’re told to organize a flash mob in a cornfield to promote environmental awareness – say yes. When your host sister asks you to dance with her at a masa in front of the whole family – when no one else is dancing – say yes. These are the moments where you are a part of your new family, work and world. These weird, awkward moments will end up being your favorite memories.
6. Things are going to be better than you could have imagined.
There are going to be moments here when you are sad, frustrated, lost – when you hate it all and are unsure if you can participate in another group activity without having a public meltdown. There are going to be moments you miss your mom and your bed and being able to get an iced coffee anytime you want it. There are going to be times when you are unsure why you would choose this life.
For every moment that’s terrible there are so many more that are incredible. You are going to have those moments when you turn a corner and discover an amazing garden. You are going to find a new view, a new field of sunflowers, a new favorite ice cream bar. You are going to meet amazing people who inspire you and who help you find a way to laugh more than you imagined. You are going to have the most amazing experiences – ones that will make you think, evaluate and grow.
7. You will find prayer.
You will have many moments that take your breath away. Anytime you see the fields of sunflowers, you will be amazed. There is peace in the beauty, in those moments. There is peace in the hum of language around you not quite understood, there is peace in working towards a cause, there is a peace in all of it.
You will be awash in the knowledge of god’s presence. You will ask him to keep you safe as you bump along, sardined into a Rutiera. You will thank him for these moments, for this experience, for your health, your laughter and for the amazing people he has and continues to bring into your life.
8. You will learn to laugh at everything.
There are going to be many bizarre, unexpected moments when you find yourself laughing without frustration. You will be in language class and realize you answered the wrong prompt. You will realize, after 30 minutes on a crowded, hot bus that you are on the wrong one.
You are going to find yourself at ease with it all. You are going to learn quickly to just relax and take it in. You are going to enjoy laughing at it, even as it’s happening. You will realize that enjoying every moment is the best part of any journey.
9. You will know you can do anything.
You will consider going home. You will have emotions you can explain and ones you cannot. You will have an ongoing dialogue with yourself about what you’re doing here. You will begin to figure out what separates a good day from a bad day, an okay day from a great day and you will begin to change. You will begin to decide you want to be happier.
You will wonder what kept you from doing all of this at home and you will see that somehow here, alone, thousands of miles from the noise and distractions of your life, that it’s crystal clear. You will realize that your attitude is your greatest asset and embrace this truth and love the moments where you are the best version of yourself. You will learn to love yourself and to become your own best friend.
10. It will be your experience, so make your own wisdom.
In the months leading up to college graduation, everyone asks you, “So, what’s next?” In the Peace Corps, the question, “So, what advice do you have?” is the same refrain. New volunteers or those contemplating applying will ask it almost on reflex. Some PCVs or RPCVs have pragmatic advice – avoid mushrooms or negative people. Some more abstract – learn to laugh at it all or say yes to it all. Some have travel advice – Bulgaria is cheap and the castles in Romania are amazing.
But the best advice I’ve heard so far is from someone who is about to end his service. He said, “It’s your experience, so find your own wisdom.”
We all joined the Peace Corps for different reasons. We have different histories, different lenses through which we see the world and this experience. My advice – you’re welcome to it, but I’m just some 24-year-old from suburbia, who had never been outside Virginia for longer than three weeks before June. My advice – it can’t beat your wisdom.
Disclaimer: Please bear in mind I have just started my service, in one country, so this list is certainly not a complete representation of anyone’s (even my own) Peace Corps Service. This is not everything I have learned or been surprised by over the past three months and it is by no means entirely serious.
Notes: This piece was almost titled, Ten Things I’ve learned in the Peace Corps, and I spent more time than reasonable, away from my studies debating this. And quite frankly I only remember these lessons on my best days.
Also, special thanks to Jessie Beck, who inspired this piece and suggested that I do this again at mid-service and COS (Close of Service). Check back in a year for the updated version of this list!