The Peace Corps has long held the reputation of being one of the best volunteer programes for those wanting to see the world and make a difference. Emily Schauer, is currently based in Senegal where she shares her experience with Worldette on what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
People join the Peace Corps for a myriad of reasons: to save the world; to delay graduate school or a career; to build a nice resume; to run away from something back home.
Most volunteers I know can’t say that they joined solely for one reason or another, but rather for a blend of reasons. Picture the decision to join Peace Corps as a pie chart. A certain percentage is dedicated to personal fulfillment, another to procrastination, another to curiosity.
Why I became a Peace Corps volunteer
For myself, I joined because I’ve had the unsettling itch to experience the world doing good since I was a kid. I couldn’t stand watching others suffer, and when I did, I would feel physical discomfort knowing I couldn’t do anything to help.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I found the hidden treasure of Peace Corps, a fairly prestigious long-term volunteer experience that provides for all a volunteer’s basic needs as they fulfill their duty as a citizen of the world.
My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer
In my service, and every experience is different, fulfilling my duty has taken the form of agribusiness. I live in an area known as the peanut basin, resplendent with, yes, peanuts. The local economy is heavily based in agriculture, and entire families are often needed to help with the farm work. B
Being such a pervasive facet of society and daily life, I decided that agriculture should be the basis of my work as a Community Enterprise Development Agent. It means that I am charged with teaching business techniques and creating employment within my community. The work however, is a very broad, vague charge, so the route I took with it is not the same route as another business volunteer in another town would take.
Peace Corps projects
I partnered with an Urban Agriculture volunteer to create a program for school gardening at local elementary schools. We trained teachers from each school the basics of gardening and unleashed them on the schoolyards to start their work. To follow up, we visit each school semi-regularly to teach lessons that demonstrate how to use a garden as a teaching tool. The aim is to prepare students, who may soon have to leave school to help with the farming workload, the basic necessities for healthy plants.
I have also recently started a project to create a network of business owners in my town. The problem here is not that these entrepreneurs don’t know how to manage a business; no, they’ve had plenty of NGOs over the years come and teach them important lessons. The problem is that small businesses, like in America, lack the economical power to grow, because they are stomped out by larger operations. If each sector of the economy could come together to form a group, their collective power can bring improvements to each individual.
Getting along with the other Peace Corps volunteers
Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, political and sexual orientation; personalities clash, drama and rumor abound. I figured we would all have the same ambitions, similar histories and reasons for joining; I thought everyone in Peace Corps would get along famously.
I was wrong.
I’ve seen some wild arguments, demonstrations of freedom of expression I could never have imagined, and a collective alcohol tolerance that is mind-boggling. Yet, no matter what our differences, we all find a way to coexist through this common experience.
We are the only other people around who know what we do and don’t; what we love and hate, and we are the only ones to whom we can turn to get through the tough times.
Take away from this experience
Naturally, Peace Corps hasn’t been all flowers and sunshine (well, serving in Africa, it’s been mostly sunshine). Those warm fuzzy feelings are certainly hard-earned, but from the vantage of the near end of my service, I can see and feel the difference in myself and in those around me.
I notice the small changes in my local friends and work partners as they begin to see problems from different angles; I notice how the children I teach ask more probing questions and make connections between the theories on the chalkboard and the physical world around them.
I see that many people no longer view me as a rich white tourist, but as a friend and community member. And I can feel that, through the passage of time served in Peace Corps, I have become a much more confident, capable and patient person, among other improvements.
I’ve let go of my obsession with a mirror, and renewed my obsession with making the world a better place; however, I see now that every individual does this in his or her own way, and you don’t have to save an entire community from certain doom to make your mark on the world.
Have you ever considered becoming a Peace Corps volunteer? Or perhaps you already have experience as a volunteer? Share your stories in the comments below!
Emily Schauer is a Community Economic Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Kaffrine, Senegal. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she loves the outdoors, doing good and writing about it. During her service she has worked on several projects, including inventory and financial management with two local cyber cafe owners, She has also helped implement school gardens at local elementary schools, and works with two women’s groups who have established urban gardens as income-generators. Post- Peace Corps ambitions include continued travel, and writing.