PCV Spotlight: Jen on Finding Success in Peace Corps

This is a guest post by Jen in our PCV Spotlight Series:

While hungrily checking my email during the brief hour or so I had at a wifi café I received one from a good friend of mine, Emily, who asked me to submit something for her blog. “Of course!” I said. How could you possibly say no to Emily? Have you seen her smile? Emily has a thirst and energy for life that is simply contagious, which are perfect attributes for Peace Corps volunteers. When she asks you to jump, you respond, “how high?”

I was really excited to take on the prompt, “How have you found success in Peace Corps?” Then I realized I had no idea how to even define success, especially in Peace Corps terms. Word suggests synonyms such as “accomplishment,” “victory,” and “realization” among other words, so let’s start there.

An accomplishment…well…I would categorize an accomplishment as a trophy; something you can put up on your wall and say “Yeah! I did that.” I got into the Peace Corps, I can frame that email. I graduated training in November to be a real-deal volunteer. Then I have the pictures to prove I’ve done an English summer course and 2 community classes during the break. In general, this is how I would define an accomplishment, something you’ve done that’s quantifiable and a difficult feat that not everyone can do. I’m reaching for more accomplishments such as a youth group, a teacher-focused pedagogical circle, and maybe even painting a giant world map in one of my schools.

It’s important for me to note here that my definition of accomplishment changes from time to time. For example, some days it’s an accomplishment to use a new Spanish word I know, stay calm in a tough teaching situation, or even get out of bed to face the day.

The word “victory” makes me think there was a possibility of losing something; there was a conquest with two or more powers and one was going to win the prize. Perhaps I can use the constant mind-battle between US cultural norms and Nicaraguan norms as an example. For us Peace Corps volunteers there are always a small and continuous series of victories and losses. I can’t count on my fingers how many times I’ve heard “it’s all about the small wins,” from other volunteers.

For example, US culture demands a quiet, controlled, and attentive classroom. The US classroom also usually has a projector, air conditioning when it’s hot, books, and even desks for every student. The Nicaraguan classroom is a little different; the classrooms are typically noisy, there are no books or technological devices, and teachers are so over-worked they have to check homework during class because they don’t have time outside of class.

That’s not to say the US classroom is better than the Nicaraguan classroom; it’s just different. It’s the acceptance of these differences that defines a victory. Once I accept what is, I can work towards changing the situation. The fact that one of my counterparts started copying one of my classroom management techniques is a victory. I fail when I stay frustrated about things I can’t change. Why be upset about the school being so noisy? They classrooms are open-aired and we can’t do anything about it when other classes have recess. It has been that way, it will be that way during my service, and it will be like that in the future; so I try to accept what is. Otherwise for my entire service I’ll be bashing my head against a brick wall…that wall ain’t movin’ girl!

Realization: coming into consciousness, or understanding what reality is. As a Peace Corps volunteer you realize the world is not all black-and-white. You realize you will not die if you are bitten by a tarantula and you realize that there are people in Nicaragua that don’t have access to clean water and live off of less than a dollar a day. You realize there is more to this life than you and your self-seeking ways.

On the other hand you also learn that you yourself are larger than life and can make a difference by even the smallest gestures. I didn’t realize that by running a few days a week on the highway it would encourage an entire entourage of my students to start doing the same. Lead by example. You, as a Peace Corps volunteer, or a compassionate human-being in general, have the power to make a difference. You have the power to accomplish, be victorious, and realize that the future is determined by our actions now.

I’ve only been a volunteer for 4.5 months and I feel like I’ve had more “successes” and failures than I have in my whole life. I’ve got my trophy accomplishments, my every changing victory and failure scoreboard, and reflective moments when I realize that I’m doing just fine and making a difference. My success? My success is ME!


Jen mostly emails her family instead of blogging, so if you want to get in touch with her, feel free to do so in the comments below.

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