Year End Review
category: Newspaper Articles

Year End Review

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

As the new year opens, we take pause to celebrate completing our full calendar year of Peace Corps service. We’re now in the home stretch, a mere six months from our official end of service, and this makes me think back on why I came here. I shared the following anecdote with the Logansport Rotary Club in November, and it sums things up pretty well.

While filling out the mountain of paperwork required to get into the Peace Corps, I had to visit my doctor in Logansport to get a form signed. The receptionist looked at the papers, and upon seeing the Peace Corps logo, asked, “Why would you go so far away from home to help those people, when there’s so much you could do here?”

At first I was offended by this question, maybe even a little angry and defensive. Her incredulous tone was accusatory. I didn’t have an answer ready. I thought, “I’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps for years. I like traveling and getting to know other places. I want to help people.” In my head, that just didn’t sound good enough; it almost sounded too hippie. I shrugged off the question, but I never forgot it. Why would I abandon my country, my family, my friends, and all the people I could help in the United States?

Although I’m good at holding grudges, I’m no longer angry about this question. It’s a legitimate concern, with a legitimate answer that still echoes my original feelings. I do like traveling and learning more about the world, and I’ve wanted to join Peace Corps since I stumbled across their website in the Logansport High School library. But there’s something more.

When I arrived twenty months ago at Peace Corps staging in Washington, I naively expected to find a bunch of people pretty similar to myself. To my surprise and relief, this was not the case. There were 31 of us ranging in age from 22 to 46 years, three married couples, and volunteers from New Jersey to California, Indiana to Oklahoma. Four of the trainees were naturalized citizens born abroad—from Bolivia, Columbia, Laos, and one born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Our degrees and professions also ran the gamut: engineering, biochemistry, health sciences, history, political science, gender studies, painting, literature. Our group is a small sampling of the American diversity. We weren’t setting off for 27 months of patrimonial abandonment, but rather a kind of quiet ambassadorial mission.

In our time in Guatemala, we’ve shared our unique perspectives and expertise with one another, as well as our sympathies in confronting the challenges of living and working in a third world country. I’ve learned a great deal from my fellow Americans about the United States. We’ve shared our American heritage, culture, and understanding with the Guatemalan families with whom we live and work. We volunteers have shared the experiences and knowledge gained here in Guatemala with friends and family still in the United States. Our official mission is to aid in developing Guatemala, and that is what we’re working for. However, the immediate consequence of this work is that we’ve developed personally, intellectually, and emotionally beyond the trainees we were in early 2008. Peace Corps is not as much about changing the world as it is about changing each of us.

This new perspective has shaped our opinions regarding what we feel the United States does well, and where the United States could show some improvement. Every day, we see similarities between Guatemala’s poor and the low-income families in the United States. We’ve experienced the difficulties of living in a place without access to clean water or indoor plumbing, without reliable electricity, without well designed highway infrastructure and public transport, without easy access to healthcare and education. It’s not so much that Peace Corps has made me proud to be an American; rather, it has made me feel incredibly fortunate to be an American. It’s given me a sense of responsibility for being so lucky, and has made me determined to work responsibly and conscientiously as an American citizen and as a citizen of the world.

So back to the question, “Why would you go so far away from home to help those people when there’s so much you could do here?” Because the experience has made me a better person, a better citizen: more vigilant and more informed than I would be otherwise. Because my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer will forever inform my career or chosen profession when I return home. Because when I come home in 27 months, I will bring all these things back to share with my countrymen for the rest of my life.

Now, I don’t think the Peace Corps is for everyone. That’s not possible, much less practical. I don’t believe that you have to travel and see the world to be a well-rounded, intelligent person. But I absolutely agree with the receptionist’s statement that “there’s so much you could do here.” There are local charities, food pantries, soup kitchens, and literacy programs or more formal employment opportunities through Americorps and Teach for America all over the country that need your help. I have a friend, a white girl from small town Iowa, who is living in a predominately black neighborhood and working at a daycare for homeless children in Washington D.C. Every time we talk, we marvel at all the similarities in our jobs. You don’t have to leave your country or even your hometown to be involved in aid and development work at local or international levels. Now that we’ve made our Christmas wish for World Peace, I suggest that we make a New Year’s resolution to help people HERE, where ever here is for you, in whatever way you see fit. You might be surprised at how in trying to change the world for better, you change yourself.

Posted by: emily