Peace Corps has three goals:
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.
When most Americans think of Peace Corps, they think of Goal 1. They think we are all out there teaching host country nationals about preventing HIV, helping them to plant gardens and assisting them to write grants and business proposals. Some of that definitely does happen, to some extent. And I can't speak for the experience of volunteers who served during other eras. But, at this point, to say that Peace Corps is successful in some kind of sustainable development would be overstating the truth.
The most important contributions of Peace Corps are really Goals 2 and 3, although they are oftentimes overlooked. Our ability to create friendships with locals that transcend time and distance is beautiful. We represent the United States in a (hopefully) more positive way than they see on television. We hope to show them that we are not all Rihanna and Justin Bieber. We do not all have mansions and we do not see superstars everyday. We are regular people who care about the world. Showing that side of Americans is a joy.
There are a few phrases you will often hear about Peace Corps:
"You get a lot more than you give."
"It's the toughest job you'll ever love."
Those are definitely true and they mean different things to different volunteers. People also say that the other volunteers in your country become similar to your family. There is a certain level of understanding that people at home can never truly grasp because they don't know the hardships and frustrations that are part of the reality of service. And that's not talked about much, or it's spun in a "I learned a lot so it was great" kind of way. People don't want to say: "Well this was just awful. XYZ was terrible." But sometimes that's true. And the people who will always have your back on this is your group of volunteers in country.
I was recently talking about this with my roommate in DC. We were commenting on how much Peace Corps service has changed us as human beings, all in positive ways. And one of the things we noticed is how no volunteers judge each other for leaving Peace Corps service. We all understand that it's not an endurance contest. But, to some people in the states, leaving may seem like a failure. Perhaps that person wasn't "tough enough" to "pull through" the two years. And this attitude permeates throughout our culture, I think. We are competitive people. We wish for good things for our friends, but sometimes feel that it reflects badly on us if they surpass us in income or career stature. My roommate and I both remarked that we felt those senses of jealousy and competitiveness fading from our consciousnesses.
For example, some people in my group just hosted a GLOW Camp, which stands for Girls Leading Our World. It is a great program and I am so proud of them for putting it together. Instead of wondering why I wasn't organized enough to do one first, all I felt was admiration for them. And instead of trying to pump myself up and reassuring myself that I am doing worthwhile things, I recognized that I now have a group of peers that can assist me with their expertise. If I decide to host a GLOW camp, mine will be better because of their knowledge. And if I decide not to because of other obligations, then I am not a worse volunteer. My service is just different. And that's totally okay.
This is not life knowledge that stops after PC service. It continues into future jobs, future relationships, future endeavors. I am excited to see how I will grow even more in the coming year.