This is a guest post by Tara in our PCV Spotlight Series:
Prior to introducing myself , I’d like to say thanks to Andrew and Emily (I think mainly Emily’s idea?) for asking me to be a featured guest on their blog! 🙂
So now…who am I? My name is Tara, originally from California and into all things related to traveling and food. I have the pleasure of working for the U.S. Peace Corps, which I joined straight out of college. That was one of the scariest but best decisions I made in my long life of 25 years. I work in the Environmental Education sector, which fits perfectly into what I like to do seeing as I studied Environmental Studies and Poli Sci.
I served my first two years over in Chinandega in a pretty small agricultural town, in the hottest corner of the entire country (it.was.so.hot.) and loved it. Long story short, I decided to stay longer for professional and personal reasons! So I applied for a third year in Nicaragua as a “Peace Corps Volunteer Leader” in a completely different (and cooler) part of the country, up in the mountains, in the same city as the Nilsens. It is definitely very different work from my last two years, as I focus more on providing support to current volunteers and providing a link between them and the office staff in Managua. But aside from that role, I also get to work with a natural reserve up here to help them develop their environmental education program from the ground up, and provide some tech training on improved oven technologies and reforestation. A lot more of my time in Chinandega was spent out in my community, whereas now I look at my computer screen every day, but ya know…you win some you lose some…and I couldn’t be happier I stayed in this beautiful country for more time, doing a job I absolutely love.
Emily, Andrew and I have been dealing with some of the same challenges of meeting people here and making our own community while living in a larger city, and after visiting with them on official Peace Corps business a couple weeks ago, Emily invited me to write a little something on here for you all. I was given several options to choose from on how to focus my post, and after thinking about my time here, and how much I have learned, changed, seen, etc. I decided to go with writing a little bit about what PC means to me. Many people don’t know what Peace Corps is, have preconceptions of what it does, have stereotypes that we are a bunch of idealistic hippies who don’t want a real job, or that Peace Corps is a waste of time, it is just a soft policy political tool of the U.S. State Department….and I leave everyone to their own opinions on what Peace Corps is, but for me it is something much larger than any of those things.
When coming into the Peace Corps, fresh out of college, without any full time work experience, I will not try to hide the truth that I was a bit idealistic with huge goals for myself and what I was going to achieve and how many lives I was going to change. And then I got to country, and reality set in, and I realized how damn hard it was to be in a new place, not know the language, not have teaching experience and be thrown into teaching, and be alone in a small town of 2500 people without any friends or family.
During my two years of service I had many bad days and many good days, I learned a tremendous amount about myself, I helped those who I could, I made lots of new friends and became part of a family and community I would have never known, I saw 75 of my elementary school babies graduate 6th grade, I built 24 stoves and 10 ovens, I painted two murals…I did a lot of things, just as anybody in two years does. But after two years of report writing and and all the quantitative records I had to turn in, it was not until my last weeks that I realized what Peace Corps meant to me…and it has nothing to do with how many projects you complete or how many teachers you train. It has to do with the community I lived in, the people I met…and how those people and I impacted one another, learning from and teaching one another all at the same time.
The memory I have that most vividly stands out to me and sums up what Peace Corps means to me is my last full week I had in my site in Chinandega. It was already planned to a T because of all the people I had to say bye to, but it was an incredibly strange emotional time because I was leaving town, but not leaving the country like all the other volunteers from my group…I would be back to visit them in a couple months, so it wasn’t really good bye. I will not write out details of everything I did that entire week (there’s another blog post for that)…but I started the week only expecting two despedidas (going away parties)…and left my last day in Posoltega having gone to five of them. I don’t think I had ever in my life felt that loved and appreciated. Ever.
My small school of only 60 students bought me a cake, decorated the entire school, did dance performances and made me a huge lunch. EVERY SINGLE student in that school lined up to give me a hug and tell me thank you for being their teacher. The women I built ovens and stoves with and baked with had two lunches for me, not just one. My former host aunt and best friend organized a going away dinner for me and all my teachers and even sneakily bought beers for us to celebrate one of our last nights together.
Looking back on that week makes me smile even now, because I know I have and will ALWAYS have so many families in my old town that will welcome me with open arms to stay with them, visit them, eat dinner with them, call them…anything. Since being in my new part of the country, several of these people have called me to see how I am doing and ask when I will be by to visit. And it is an incredible feeling to know that being far away from my family and friends in the states, I made a place for myself and opened myself up to people in a way I had never done, and in return learned an incredible amount about myself and so many others.
So in summary…what does Peace Corps mean to me? Peace Corps is an incredible life-changing opportunity that pushes us to give up everything we know to the point of breaking in order to open ourselves up to learn about and take in everything about a new place, to exchange our own personal stories with other people, to work side by side with these people, to adopt the culture and customs of these people, to “help” these people….who in the long run actually end up teaching us a lot more than we could ever teach them, who help us a lot more than we could ever help them, and who allow us to learn and see ourselves in a new perspective and value everything in life a little bit more. So thanks Peace Corps.
To read more of Tara’s PC adventures, check out her blog: Tara in Nicaragua