“You’re gonna go off and make the world a better place,” said my dad as he drove me in the dark to catch my 7 am flight from Memphis to Philadelphia. We were talking about my Peace Corps service. I leave in June, and in the midst of all the traveling, working, and packing I’ve been doing, I’ve had little time to think seriously about what’s about to happen to me.
My life is going to change. I’m not sure how, but I know it will. Language, culture, and climate are just a few changes I’ll experience. There will also be more subtle adjustments, such as the pace of life and the way of doing things that may take longer to understand and accomplish. I’m nervous about the inner resistance I might experience from crossing over into another culture. I’ve been telling myself, “You’ve done this before. You know what it’s like to feel a fish out of water. You know what it’s like to be the minority.” But every experience is so vastly different, like comparing apples and oranges. I have no idea what’s in store for me in Madagascar, so how can I prepare? How does one prepare for Peace Corps service? If any fellow volunteers are out there, I would love to hear from you. What is one thing you would tell someone about to embark on service?
“Spend time with your family and friends, and enjoy all things American. Eat all the ice cream.” These are pieces of advice I’ve received from a few current and returned volunteers. “Don’t spend too much time obsessing over packing,” is another. In short, don’t worry; just savor every moment.
But there is something that’s been weighing on me, and that’s this archaic notion of actually making the world a better place. By myself. Alone. In a foreign country, where you can’t speak the language.
In reality, I’m not joining the Peace Corps to make the world a better place. Maybe I will play a very small part in a greater movement, but I am committed to shaking off any concepts I have of bringing something valuable with me. If travelling has taught me anything, it’s that I know absolutely nothing. But when I’m open, I learn, and then I can laugh at myself as I stumble over cultural norms and relax into the discomfort of unfamiliarity. Still, one of Peace Corps’ three goals is “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”
How can I know nothing and be a trained volunteer simultaneously?
I think it’s actually quite simple. Some days, I know absolutely nothing. Some days, the things I think I know are challenged and unravelled, and some days I succeed in a small way towards a tiny goal. Triumphs, as well as failures, are essential for growth. And when I remember that I’ve had successes before, and I ask myself, “What did I do that made this class/meeting/activity/journey successful?”the answer is nearly always this: I asked for help.
So I wrote this manifesto for myself, to be clear with myself on where I’m going and why I’m going there. I will write this on my wall and say it to myself, every day of service if I have to, to remind me of some important truths:
I am not a dignitary, a missionary or a zealot.
I am not an expert.
I am a student.
I am a learner.
I am growing.
I want to keep growing.
To keep on growing, I need to ask for help.
I will always ask for help.
Is there anything you would add to this list? Leave it in the comments below.