what am i doing

Have you ever had a moment of doubt about the Peace Corps?

While watching Maria Full of Grace, which takes place in rural Colombia, I had one of these what the hell am I doing moments.

The movie begins by showing the protagonist, 17-year-old Maria, working as a thorn remover in a rose plantation.  She goes home to her cramped, multi-generational household.  The little money she makes goes to her family.  After quitting her job, she has few options because she is uneducated. And she’s pregnant besides.  Yadda, yadda, yadda, she gets involved in drug trafficking.

My point is this: while watching the movie, I tried to picture a PCV living in this community.  What could a (relatively speaking) rich, young, American, have to offer?  What makes us qualified to go into countries as foreigners and “fix” things?

I know it’s more complicated than this.  We go into a community.  We get to know people. We make change based on what the community wants.  But regardless of how well we integrate, we’re still outsiders.  We still have a steady (albeit small) paycheck.  We still have savings.  We still have a comfortable home back in the states.  We still have a way out.

How can I, a 22-year-old outsider, get someone like Maria out of her crappy situation?

I still want to be a PCV, but I have to question how much change I can actually make in a community.  I have to question if my community will accept me as one of them or reject me as an outsider.  I have to keep questioning why I’m doing this.

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2 Responses to what am i doing

  1. Steph says:

    Hey! I’m a current PCV in Guatemala, and I think it is really good you are asking yourself these questions. I went through the same thoughts as well. I think it is a natural mentality growing up in the US to feel that just by being in a foreign country we’re going to change people’s lives for the better or something. But why in the world would someone from outside know how they can live their lives better than they know?? Would you be thrilled if some foreigner showed up in your community and started telling you what had to be changed? Almost every action or mentality has a logic behind it, and one which has worked for people for some reason or another, or else it wouldn’t exist. As a PCV you can’t assume that you know anything, you can just offer what you have to offer, be a resource, and see if people choose to accept it. If you don’t take that attitude, you’ll end up engendering an attitude of disempowerment, or flat out getting rejected by folks. You have to recognize that genuine change will come, or not come, entirely from local folks, those who will maintain the community long after you’re gone.

    So in that sense, Peace Corps is far much more about the personal growth, and meanwhile, you try to go about your experience in the most ethical way possible, trying to help reinforce local strengths and empowering folks to take part in their own development as much as possible. You just try to plant as many seeds as you can and see what grows.

    It seems that with your nomination for C.S. America January 2011, and your health background, you stand a really good chance of being nominated to Guatemala’s Healthy Schools program. My program trains at the same time as theirs, and it seems to me to be one of the strongest programs in Guate; the program is very structured (relative to other programs, where the volunteer is dumped in site and just kind of figures out what to do from there) and the APCD is working to incorporate the program goals into a national law. That’s not to say that work would not be frustrating at times, or that it is definitely sustainable, but the program is realistically planned out (in phases, rather than APCDs just deciding where to place folks on a whim and without longer-term vision) and integrated on both the grassroots and top-down levels, so your small impact may ultimately be part of a broader impact. Take a look at some blogs of healthy school volunteers and see what you think!

    Good luck with everything, maybe I’ll see you down here in Guate in a year!



    • Lauren says:

      Hi Steph,

      Thanks so much for your reply. I’m partially glad that the application process is so long, because it forces applicants to reflect on why they want to join the Peace Corps and if it’s the right path for them to follow. I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge of becoming part of another community.

      If possible, I would love to get in touch with some of the Healthy School volunteers and talk to them about the program. My e-mail is lauren.spigel@gmail.com.

      Thanks again, and good luck with the rest of your service!



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