Show Me a Peace Corps Volunteer


What a great way to put it! I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve said “eh, clean enough.”

Originally posted on Hannah Goes Fishing:

*This week, I’m honored and proud to collaborate on this post with Matt Young of Fishing in Zambia Blog, one of the best Peace Corps blogs on the world wide web. Check out his blog, and this week let us show you a Peace Corps volunteer.*

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you people of all colors, ages, and creeds. I’ll show you men and women and people who are sitting in between. I’ll show you daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, all of whom have left those families to find new ones across the world.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who knows illness, misery, cold, heat, and crawling infestations of a thousand varieties. I’ll show you someone who has become intimate with infection, friendly with fungus, and can compare the viscosity of fecal matter over a meal. I’ll show…

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Four Reasons Why You Should NOT Hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Yes, you read that right: should not. Peace Corps used to have a saying: “At Peace Corps we are practical idealists.” Those kind of crazy ideas make Returned Peace Corps Volunteers terrible employees. Here are a few reasons why hiring a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer will ruin your business.

1. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) question the status quo. Business as usual is exactly what a PCV is trained to rebel against. We are indoctrinated to look for the status quo and squash it. The status quo is what keeps developing countries from developing. Let’s keep farming the exact same way we’ve done it for hundreds of years, if it has worked that long, it can’t be wrong, right? False. Cashew farmers in Ghana were just given cashew trees when the great drought of the 1980s destroyed all the cocoa. They’ve continued farming the same way, because it works. But we taught them that simple changes can triple their yield. They can keep chugging along with the status quo and it won’t affect them, but adopting our changes would propel them forward. Businesses shouldn’t hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer if they want to maintain a status quo. If you want someone to help you find ways you can improve, you should hire an RPCV.

2. RPCVs over-communicate. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you have to translate almost everything on a daily basis: at the market, getting a taxi, chatting with locals, yelling at the small girls to fetch water, or chasing chickens. During training events, you might even need to translate into multiple languages with a translator. You learn quickly that communication is at the heart of all problems. So you over-communicate. You learn the varying levels of explanation you will need for any project: high level government jargon to send back to Peace Corps, local level negotiations,  basic training language, translator friendly speak, or acronym alphabet. You can say “farmers should keep records” 10 different ways and in multiple languages. So RPCVs over-communicate, we are used to words being our only tools. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want employees to keep quiet. If you want someone who will not fear communication, you should hire an RPCV.

3. RPCVs have a different concept of what is “important.” Try going one day without something you rely on – your cell phone, laptop, electricity, flushing toilets. Suddenly those items become incredibly important. Try spending two years experiencing terrible roads in beat up mini-buses, torrential rains that shut down all plans for three months, or watching the kids dig through your trash for free stuff. Then evaluate what’s important. Arbitrary deadlines = not important. Being five minutes late to work = not important. Coming into work when you are sick = definitely not important. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want employees to adhere to arbitrary rules and work inside the box. If you want someone to do real, meaningful work and do it well, you should hire an RPCV.

4. RPCVs are cheapskates. When you make $150/month and inflation is going up every few days, you learn to pinch every penny. You’ll negotiate for an extra carrot or an extra ladle of soup. You will fight taxi drivers until you are blue in the face for them to reduce their fare by just a few cents. You don’t waste money, because you can’t. When you do decide to splurge, you go out and buy a beer, but you’ll walk an extra 20 minutes to go to the cheaper bar. A recycle bin at work triggers an RPCV to think “my neighbors would’ve begged me for this much paper – think of all the toilet paper that could be!” Saving money and squirreling it away is just in an RPCV’s DNA. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want to continue wasting money. If you want someone who will save your company money by finding ways to cut back efficiently, you should hire an RPCV.

Change is hard, but go ahead, give it a try, hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

RPCVs, are there any reasons I missed? What would you add?

Life After Peace Corps

The first month after I finished my service, I would have told you “there is no life after Peace Corps! It’s all over. Your life no longer has meaning! Stay in country, never come home!” My readjustment is moving along though and while I miss the purpose Peace Corps gave me, I have taken to heart all the lessons I’ve learned. Two years seems like a dream now. Just yesterday, I was telling the story of my sunburn scar. I could vividly remember my host family hunting me down to rub Vicks all over my legs. My scar is in the shape of Antarctica, by the way. But my life moves on. So what exactly have I been doing since I got home? Well…

I’ve visited friends and family.

I had two job interviews. One interview was in person, the other over the phone. Both were for jobs in DC. I got both interviews through the Peace Corps advantage – Non-Competitive Eligibility. I didn’t get either one, but it’s okay, because….drum roll please…

I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment!

I’ve dreamed of being a Foreign Service Officer since I was 16. My mom got me the book Inside an Embassy when I was young. I remember reading the vignettes late at night dreaming about becoming a diplomat.

I took the Oral Assessment in January and passed with a score of 5.7 out of 7. A score of 6 is pretty much the current ceiling, so I was very happy to get a 5.7. I studied for four months leading up to the test. I practiced interview questions, did timed case management exercises, and did six group exercise sessions over Hangouts. I was 100% dedicated to passing this assessment. Why? Because this is what I want to do with my life. This isn’t a job. I’ve always wanted a career. I used to look at Office Depot catalogs as a kid and day-dream about having a corner office after working for 30 years at the same place. That was me. Some things never change. So what’s next?

I need to pass a medical clearance (thankfully it isn’t as rigorous as the Peace Corps one) and obtain a security clearance. The latter is going to take some time, since I’ve lived overseas. In the meantime, I’m going back to work for my previous employer. I couldn’t be more excited to return. I don’t have to hide my intentions, everyone knows exactly what’s going on. I get to work with my friends. And I get to live with another friend. I’ll be back in the city I adore. I really couldn’t be more grateful to the agency for bringing me back for a bit.

So for every bad moment I had in Peace Corps, I can now feel it dissolving. Everything balances out in the end. I’m sure I’ll have a different set of problems to deal with working as a Foreign Service Officer, but Peace Corps gave me the tools for tackling anything that comes my way. So yes, there is life after Peace Corps. Just give it time to work itself out.

Lessons Learned

Two years, one month, and fourteen days. Two cashew seasons, two sites. Fifty-one days homeless, seventeen days evacuated, thirty-three days in limbo. One bout of typhoid, one broken foot, three strains of salmonella. Seven hundred and seventy-five days of adventure, happiness, and exploration. One life forever changed.

How do I put into words the way Peace Corps has changed me? Can I sum it up in one word, one sentence, or one story? Can I describe it with one picture? You can see it by the way I walk, the way I use my hands, the way I dance. You can hear it in my voice, the way I speak. You can sense it when my eyes glaze over as I stare outside.
Peace Corps changed the way I dress, my appearance, and ability to withstand heat. It changed the way I eat. It opened my eyes and allowed me to serve. It taught me things about myself, development, happiness, and culture. It taught me how to embrace my body, accept my faults, and grow. And it taught me how to sleep just about anywhere on anything. Can I sum how I’ve changed? No, but I can share with you the valuable lessons I’ve learned.

1. There is a silver lining in every cloud. Hell, there’s a silver lining around the sun too. Everything we do is an opportunity to grow and learn. Yeah, being evacuated from site three times sucks. I could have let all the security threats get to me, but I made the choice to be strong (granted I had weak moments like everyone else). I made the choice to evaluate the situation and determine how could I learn from it? What would I do differently in the future? How could I prevent it from happening again? I solicited feedback regularly from my colleagues on how I could be a better team member, how I could be a better leader. I don’t believe in failure, I believe in learning from your mistakes. I believe all mistakes are opportunities.

2. Patience is more than a virtue it’s an ability. Like all abilities and skills, you can practice it.

3. Life is full of mundane tasks, errands, and necessary evils. Your definition of mundane might seem like a luxury to someone else. Your first world problems, like having to wait 5 minutes at the gas station to fill your $20,000 car with actual fuel, is a dream to some people. Remember that time you complained that the grocery store was out of yoghurt or soy milk? First of all, you’re in a grocery store, how awesome is that? You can do all of your food shopping in one place, indoors, with heat or a/c, and you have options. What a fantastic luxury. Next time you complain about having to go to the grocery store, try walking there in the summer. You can only buy what you can carry. Every thing you have is a gift, a luxury, enjoy it!

4. “Deal with it” is always the answer. Life sucks? Deal with it. Middle seat on the airplane? Deal with it. Clothes are dirty and you don’t have anything to wear? Deal with it. Life is so much easier when you learn to accept this attitude. Plan for what you can, deal with what you can’t.

5. Enjoy the moment. Stop and really appreciate your life as it happens. Don’t view life through your cell phone or a camera, use your eyes to really take in those fantastic moments that surround us everyday.

6. Active listening should be taught in middle school or high school. Along those lines,  communication is the root of all problems. Learn to communicate effectively and you’ll be a better friend, worker, leader, and person.

7. Trust your gut, it tells you everything you need to know. For example, that table you’re standing on that doesn’t feel sturdy. Your gut tells you it probably isn’t the best idea to stand on it. Guess what? When that sucker breaks in half and sends you flying, you’re going to be cursing yourself more than the table. Your gut also tells you when you should run to the bathroom. Trust it. Don’t think you can outwit your gut with mind tricks. It backfires every time.

8. Do something fulfilling. Don’t settle for a job that pays well. Decide to take a job that is important to you. Money doesn’t buy happiness. You only have so much time on this earth. Do something with it. Don’t wait until you are 70 to reflect on the things you should have done. You spend most of your life working, do you want to regret most of your life?

9. Be a strong, independent woman. It pisses people off, especially those who can’t handle it. Don’t change just to please the people who can’t accept you for who you are. Be yourself, but learn when to reign yourself in. Part of knowing who you are is, knowing how to carry yourself in a variety of situations.

10. Dirt don’t hurt. Get out there, get dirty, and always be challenging yourself. You never know what you are capable of if you don’t try.

I realize much of this sounds like a barrage of clichés, but these are the lessons I’ve learned. These are the things I took home with me. Well that and a ridiculous amount of local clothes.

Peace Corps changed my life. What will change yours?

Readjustment Phase Two–Where is Home?

In July I posted about discovering what home means to me – the place where you become yourself. As I feel the second phase of my readjustment kicking in, I no longer know where my home is.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends as part of my COS experience. However, everyone remembers me as the girl who left in 2011. I’m radically different from that girl. I don’t feel like I can be myself anymore because everyone is expecting me to be the old me. I’m caught in between this limbo of being my new self and faking my old self. As my best friend said “Peace Corps sent back a very zen person.” I was not that way when I left. I don’t know how to interact with old friends anymore. I don’t know how to connect. I feel like there is something missing in the middle, and that’s time. I’ve been gone for two years. I haven’t seen some people for ever longer. How do I be the same friend when I’m a different person? I struggle with every conversation to not monopolize the discussion and blabber on about Peace Corps. I’m genuinely curious about what everyone else has been up to, but most people don’t have two years worth of incredibly crazy stories to tell. How do I be myself?

Home. I’m back in America. But I’m not home. I don’t know where I consider home anymore, I can’t be myself and I don’t feel connected to any specific place. My mom’s house was cozy and nice, but it didn’t feel like home. The area and way of life seemed so alien that I could hardly connect to it. San Diego was fantastic, but it’s my best friend’s home. I was just visiting. I could be myself with her, I felt the most at ease during that week. I was so excited to return to Oklahoma. I grew up here. I have such fond memories of life in this house, but it isn’t my home anymore. It is scary how un-homelike it feels.

There were a few things that finally severed ties for me with this house. After just one hour, I knew this place was no longer my home. First, my dog didn’t recognize me. And he still doesn’t. That’s been one of the hardest aspects of coming back so far. I couldn’t wait to be reunited and dogs are supposed to have such great memories of their owners. He doesn’t even come when I call him. It’s almost as if he is scared of me. He loves everyone else though. It breaks my heart everyday to watch it.
Then, as I entered my room I felt disorientated. There was no carpet, just the concrete slab. My bed was there, but my mattress was gone. During my service I slept on a terrible mattress. It was made of “high density” foam with no springs. It was very soft and had completely molded to my body, which really means I made a giant butt imprint in it. It was so bad that I couldn’t roll over at night, I would just roll back into the butt pit. Turning it regularly didn’t help. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get back to Oklahoma and sleep on my mattress again. The mattress I had literally been dreaming about for two years. That mattress was one of the first things I bought post college. It’s a material thing, but when you’ve been deprived of good sleep for two years, you really want a nice place to sleep. While I was tossing and turning every night, my dad decided to claim my mattress and it’s now on his bed. I probably would have said it was okay, if he ever asked me, but he didn’t. He said he’d buy me a new one, but that doesn’t solve the problem I have right now – I want to feel comfortable in my house.
This house doesn’t feel the same. My dad’s made a lot of changes, so it doesn’t look the same or feel like the house I grew up in. It isn’t friendly anymore. It isn’t inviting. I don’t feel like I’m wanted here. I don’t even feel like a guest. As I walked through the house, I found one picture of me. And there is a frame that says family and it has everyone in it, but me. No one talks to me or asks me questions. In fact, we barely say anything at all. It’s like I don’t even exist. This is now just a place I’m crashing while I search for a job. And it breaks my heart every night and every morning. I go to bed feeling lost and disconnected. I wake up wishing I was waking up to the sound of hand brooms and goats. I’d take my crappy mattress back and early morning wake up calls. Ghana was home, this is not. But I can’t go back to Ghana. So I sit here struggling with feeling like I no longer belong anywhere.

The only way I know to cope is to continue pursuing my dreams.
This too shall pass.

Holidays Post Peace Corps

Christmas means something different now. It means grand adventures and ridiculous stories. Whereas Christmas used to mean tradition and family, now it represents an opportunity to make new memories with both family and friends.

Before Peace Corps I never dreamed of breaking from tradition. While I still love Thanksgiving traditions and the wonderful feeling of being able to share and give thanks, I’ve learned that making new memories is just as rewarding. Now that I’m older and my family has morphed into something different, I feel able to explore new traditions.

This Christmas I spent a week with my best friend and her baby. If you are going to COS, I highly recommend spending time with friends separate from family. Not only did we have a great time exploring San Diego’s fabulous food and beaches, but we had time together. Time to talk about life, love, and how different I am now. I couldn’t have asked for a better readjustment coach. My friend was mindful of my readjustment issues and hardly ever complained and even joked about first world problems. She let me zone out and be my Ghanaian self. And last night on Christmas, when lights when out for two hours, I got to share with her exactly how I lived for two years. Readjustment is hard, but having someone who is very supportive makes it much easier. Embrace the change, don’t dwell on the difference. And for God sakes, let us enjoy the beloved silence we have come to covet.

In the future I want to spend my holidays this way again. I want to enjoy the company of my friends and make new traditions. I love telling my stories of holidays in Ghana. “Well, the first year at Thanksgiving we killed our own turkey. And Christmas my second year was spent hiking through the bush to pay respects to the ancestors at an ancient hole in the ground.” The holidays don’t have to be normal and traditional, it’s an opportunity to do something you never thought about doing with people you want to spend time with. Although quite a few people agree, so it might get expensive. Christmas in February?

Peace Corps taught me that you don’t need an excuse to go out and have a grand adventure. Just go do it.

Readjustment Phase One

I knew it would be hard, there’s no doubt about that. I was prepared for it to take a while, but I wasn’t prepared for this.

After two years living in Ghana, I came back to America a very different person. My habits, attitude, and demeanor are simply not the same as the girl who left Oklahoma in October 2011. And it turns out the new and improved version is scaring my mom. Why? Because I have a tendency to zone out suddenly. I’ll become still and silent staring into space for long periods of time. Apparently this is unnerving for Americans. Ghana taught me to cherish silence since it was the ultimate luxury, but Americans don’t feel the same way. I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just not talking.

Then there is the talking. This was the thing I feared the most about returning. How on earth can I relate to anyone anymore? When someone talks about life here in America, whether it is local gossip, the price of gas, or what to do that day, I can’t help but feel indifferent. Everything seems so mundane. Why even bother discussing it? Why does it matter? What matters is improving cashew farmers access to trainings and resources. Or improving the health of villagers who are most at risk for acquiring deadly tropical diseases. Or improving the quality of teachers, so that when kids go to school they actually learn. That’s what I want to talk about, not who is going to win Dancing with the Stars.
I can’t help but I feel judgmental when I have these thoughts. I’m not right, it’s just what I’m used to. Talking about TV and the locals isn’t wrong, it’s just different. I just don’t have patience for it, not right now.

Waiting hours for a tro to fill just so you can go 100km is painful, but it teaches you patience, humility, and how to determine whether or not you really need to pee. Sitting at the bank for hours just to withdraw your money teaches you patience, anger  management, and just how awesome ATMs are. All that patience training did not prepare me for dealing with Americans again. They have no patience, none whatsoever. If a line has two people in it, it’s the end of the world. If you have to wait at a light twice, it’s the end of the world. If you have to drive out of the way to get somewhere, it’s the end of the world. It’s driving me insane. I’ve become impatient with people who are impatient. I want to scream at everyone who can’t wait an extra few seconds or minutes. How will it change anything being upset that you have to wait? Channel that anger elsewhere, send it to the taxi drivers in Ghana.

Then there is the complaining, which I realize I’m doing right now. I just can’t handle it. Nothing is ever right or good enough for Americans. Something has to have a flaw, otherwise what’s there to talk about? I realize that I’m coming from a completely different perspective than the vast majority of people I encounter. Everything is a luxury and a privilege for me now. You mean I’m allowed to drive a car? I don’t have to wait for a taxi? I can use all the internet I want and take showers all day? But why can’t Americans be happy with what they have? I guess most people don’t realize what they have is wonderful.

How do I relate to normal Americans again? How do I not come off as a smug Returned Peace Corps Volunteer? I’m working on it, but it isn’t easy.

And that’s just part of my readjustment. Add in the stress of looking for a job, trying to figure out where to live, and battling being smallsmall sick and you have one hell of a welcome home. Can I go back now?