A study published in 1990 showed students less engaged in community service than ever in American history. “I found this a devastating and sad fact,” explains Anne-Marie Foley. Her original charge for the Honors College in 1990—to develop innovative programming for honors students—has expanded from “a desk and a phone” and a handful of students to a program that involves 10% of the MU undergraduate population. Drawing upon her own personal commitment to working with the elderly, Foley started gathering groups of students from the Honors College (“bribing” them with free pizza) to share their views.
When they think about the Peace Corps prior to going, many volunteer trainees have basic questions and fears about such things as bathrooms and living conditions, and many expectations get shattered. “I had a really idealized vision of what the country would look like and the language that people would speak,” Julie Feeney recalls. “All these preconceived notions that you come with, I think they are your biggest obstacles.” For example, ahe chuckles when remembering how she had expected it to be “like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful,” only to discover that Paraguay’s industrialized cities do not fit that image. Likewise, Nick Spina had imaged that he “would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he was assigned to an Armenian city of 60,000 people.
Many Peace Corps volunteers discover that they have underestimated the language barrier or the technical assignment. For instance, Feeney expected that she would use Spanish principally, but soon discovered that people in the countryside in Paraguay speak Guarny instead. “It was a struggle,” she says. “I hadn’t expected to feel that kind of dependency on others for communication…. I didn’t expect to be a child again. So there were many different things that I had to reevaluate.”
Having already volunteered, worked with non-profit groups, and traveled abroad, Kate Fjell felt prepared for certain aspects of her assignment in Malawi. Yet, she remembers; “it totally blew me away. It was nothing like my expectations. It was so much harder, so much more rewarding, so much more challenging. It was just more. Everything was ramped up by a power of ten, I’d say, or maybe even a power of 100!”
Moreover, Fjell adds, she hadn’t expected to feel so socially isolated and awkward: “Peace Corps volunteers will always talk about it being like living in a fish bowl. I was the only white person for forty miles, so I definitely stood out…and that was really hard. People were so fascinated. People would follow me to the bathroom, you know, because they wanted to know if I went to the bathroom the same way…. I wasn’t used to being watched all the time, and it took me a long time to get used to it.”
Because of these kinds of experiences, Spina reached an interesting conclusion: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations. You have to be flexible. Those who go in, saying ‘I want to do this, I want to do it there, and I only want to do that’, end up having a really hard time. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.” Beyond flexibility, one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps, according to these Peace Corps, is re-evaluating the meaning of success. “It’s not always tangible,” Feeney cautions, “it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learn to appreciate little victories.” Agreeing, Matt Rysavy adds: “You really think that you can go and make these humongous changes. In reality, they are just small dents,… but it’s still positive change. That’s what you have to remind yourself of when it’s all said and done.”
It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while they tried to determine their career goals. In others, it was already compatible with their ambitions. Regardless, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had irreversibly changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given.
â€¢ Julie Feeney, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, joined Peace Corps right after college to help her narrow her career goals. “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people…but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world. I met someone who was doing Peace Corps, and it just seemed like a perfect fit—a way to travel and a way to get work experience in a safe setting, so I decided to apply.”
â€¢ Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, also thought about joining the Peace Corps after college, during a time when his job search “was floundering.” Having majored in sociology, he wanted to experience another culture. “It’s a nice system because the agency pays for everything while you’re there,” says Rysavy, “and it’s world-renowned as being a good development agency.”
â€¢ Nick Spina, from Michigan, also joined Peace Corps because its connection to his area of study. “I was an economics and political science major, and did a lot of international studies…. I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying. I’d also done a good amount of volunteering…so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, joining the Peace Corps provided a solid way to learn a language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” Spina adds. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently.”
â€¢ Craig Hutton, having grown up outside of Macomb, New York, explains that he is “one of those people who absolutely has to see what (and who) is on the other side of the next hill.” He switched colleges, in fact, to find an internationally focused academic program and campus, and he even studied abroad twice. “When I arrived at my senior year, I hit that familiar “what next?” point. I knew that graduate school was in my future, but I didn’t know where, and I certainly had no idea in what.” At a career fair, Hutton found himself standing in front of the blue-clothed Peace Corps table. “The more I read about the Peace Corps volunteer experience," he remembers, "the more I realized this was the right opportunity at the right time. Looking back on it now, I see my Peace Corps service as the place where it all came together.”
â€¢ Kate Fjell, hailing from Seattle, Washington, already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade, and had previously studied abroad. “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus or in the big cities or just passing by to check it off my list. I want to say that I have lived there and have a feeling about what living in this place is like.” And, Fjell adds, “I wanted to feel like I left something good behind, instead of just money. So I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”