Interviews with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
From Cuba to Ghana, Cambodia to Ukraine, our nation’s Peace Corps volunteers have worked all over the world to improve the lives of others and participate in cross-cultural exchange. They have worked across disciplines, in health clinics and school houses, and their experiences are unlike any other. Say Your Peace is a blog segment that focuses on highlighting the experiences of returned volunteers, in hopes of both cultivating a deep respect for them and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Today, we’ll be talking with Bethany Leech, a current graduate student mastering in Comparative International Development and Education here at the U!
Where did you serve in the Peace Corps, and which sector did you work in?
I served in Swaziland, located in Southern Africa, and I was a Community Development Health volunteer.
Why did you decide to work with Peace Corps?
Peace Corps service appealed to me because I wanted to live and work abroad for an extensive period of time. Fresh out of University, serving with Peace Corps provided a way for me to financially and professionally move halfway across the world for two years. I also knew that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would be supported in things like cultural integration and language, so the transition into living and working in a completely different environment abroad would be easier.
Did you have a mission upon entering the Peace Corps?
My original mission was simply “to do good” and gain experience living and working abroad. I wanted to learn exactly what it took to be able to relocate and work in an environment that was completely new and different from what I was use to; and along the way I wanted to “help” those whom I had an impression were unable to help themselves in a way that I was privileged to do.
Do you feel that you completed this mission?
In a sense, yes I completed this mission. I learned incredibly valuable skills in working in a multicultural environment and living abroad. However, my attitude and impression of what it meant “to help” drastically changed. My original impression of what I would do and complete while serving in the Peace Corps changed immediately upon arrival and integration into my new community, and I loved learning that lesson. I learned that “to help” meant so much more than capacity building and teaching. My mission shifted to be much more about relationship building, and that was heavily fulfilled by completing Peace Corps’ second and third goals, which focus on an exchange of culture and knowledge.
How did the experience compare to your expectations?
I honestly didn’t go into Peace Corps with a lot of expectations. I had a general idea of what I imagined service would look like, but I went in with a very open and flexible mind. That being said, my service far exceeded any expectation I had. I thought I would gain some skills, meet new people, and learn a new language. I thought it would be similar to studying abroad. I didn’t realize the full extent of what it meant to integrate into a new culture and I also didn’t realize how far I would have to, and how far I was willing to, push myself to integrate. I didn’t imagine how hard some of the days would be, and I definitely didn’t imagine how much I would love those hard days. I expected an experience, a job, and a new environment. What I got was life, life in a new place; with its good days and bad days; with unexpected kindness and sometimes uncontrollable tears; with daily grand challenges and daily reasons to smile; with successes and with failures; and with friends and family, near and far, who supported me when I needed it. I expected something usual and what I got was extraordinary.
What was the most valuable part of your experience? What did this teach you?
The most valuable part of my experience was living with a host family. This was essential for integrating into my community and it was so helpful having people who could guide me around, answer questions, and assist me in the early days of my service. I became very close with my host family, and once I got more comfortable in Swaziland, it was wonderful having them as a support system. I returned from service three years ago and still talk with my host family every week, and have been back to visit them twice! This experience showed me just how kind, generous, and loving perfect strangers can be.
Would you recommend working with Peace Corps? Who do you think is well suited for the Peace Corps?
YES! Peace Corps is wonderful!
I think anyone who can read the Peace Corps mission and goals and identify with them is well suited to serve. Everyone gets a little something different out of Peace Corps, it is truly a unique experience for everyone, but I think those suited for service usually share the following traits: open-minded, flexible, adaptable, curious, hard-working, self-aware, and empathetic.
Do you have any advice for prospective Peace Corps volunteers?
Don’t necessarily look at service just as a resume/CV booster. It looks good, but as cheesy as one of Peace Corp’s mottos sounds, it is “the hardest job you will ever love.” Service is so much more than a job. Like I said before it is a life; it’s a change of lifestyle, change of pace, change of attitude. It’s a 24 hours a day, 7 day a week experience, but if you are open, it’s an experience that will change your life forever.
Interested in serving with Peace Corps? Get connected with campus’s student group!
Upcoming Peace Corps Info-Sessions:
Sept. 23, 4:00-6:00PM Applebee’s
Oct. 20, 4:00-6:00PM The Nomad (West Bank)
Nov. 18, 4:00-6:00PM Burrito Loco
Dec. 8, 4:00-6:00PM Buffalo Wild Wings