When I was applying to be a Volunteer back in 2010, Peace Corps had a recruiting slogan: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
A lot of my recent blog posts have been about that “job,” about the work aspects of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My title is technically “Teacher Trainer”; my project, “Teaching English for Livelihoods.” In real life, that means that I work with Colombian teachers to make them better at teaching English; I co-plan and co-teach; I facilitate training workshops; I work on building up material and human resources; the whole nine yards.
There are parts of my job that are just like the kind of work that an educator in the United States might do. For one thing, professionalism is kind of a big deal. I think a lot of folks imagine Peace Corps Volunteers as grungy young people working out in the fields with farmers. That’s not my job. I have a schedule (though be it on Colombian time). I have co-workers and supervisors and the lamentable bureaucracy. I have to dress like a teacher when I show up for school. I have more meetings (in Spanish) than I could ever want. I have reports, projects, and indicators of success. These things are all integral to my Peace Corps project; if I didn’t have some semblance of professionalism, then really, no one would take me seriously.
The other way in which my Peace Corps job is work-like is that we’re actually trying to get something done. Another misconception that people in the United States might have is that Peace Corps Volunteers have no hope of accomplishing anything, that we’re just under-qualified do-gooders spreading peace and friendship on the government’s dime. I have nothing against peace and friendship. They’re a big part of why I’m here. But I’m also trying to address real needs, as expressed by real people in my community. There is a point.
So yes, it’s work. It’s hard work.
But being a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t just work; it’s also service. And to me, what differentiates service from work is the fact that service is about other people. Service is about the served, not the servant.
Now hold that thought.
I do think that in a certain way, our lives come down to the stories we tell—about ourselves, to ourselves, to other people; we are the protagonists in our own, real-time autobiographies. (I mean, just look at this blog. What am I doing but broadcasting my life story, as it unfolds, from my own perspective?) And when we leave a place, we exist as the stories that other people continue to tell about us in our absence.
It is flattering to believe that people (Colombians) will be telling stories about me after I leave Colombia. But I don’t know if that’s true. Why not? Because people don’t tell stories about servants.
Peace Corps service forces me to imagine myself—and to make meaning out of my time and effort here—as a supporting character in someone else’s story. The test of my impact isn’t, “How compelling will my biography be?” but rather, “In how many of other people’s memoirs will I be important enough to make an appearance at all?” And do I have to appear in person? Can I appear in a teaching strategy, or in curricular resources, or in an appreciation of vegetables? In a student going to university? In a counterpart getting a promotion?
Work and service don’t always mesh as easily as you’d like. It’s hard to be selfless when you’re still trying to establish a sense of self. I want to get things done, but even more I want to empower other people to accomplish what they want to get done. I’m trying to construct my own life story in a way that gives me meaning on a day-to-day basis, and yet I’m learning to see myself as a supporting character in the lives of people whose culture and language and history I don’t even share.
But they’re both there, service and work; they’re both part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. And maybe that’s why it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.