Was Serving in the Peace Corps Worth It?

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The following entry was originally written about 20 months into my 27 months Peace Corps service in Northern Albania.  I edited it some 6 months after the end of my service or about one year after originally writing it.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit what my expectations of Peace Corps were. The thought that I would go to Albania and heroically save the day and help them plan urban development now seems so silly. Expectations typically require a healthy readjustment during service. I found this to be very true in my case: On paper, I was set up by the Peace Corps to work in an office of urban development to do city planning. In practice, I was to be the office mate (read: de facto secretary) of the guy who issues building permits in town.

A typical day in the office:

The citizens knock and enter my office. They then ask the whereabouts of my office mate, i.e. the important person. Regardless of the truth I tell them I haven’t seen him and I don’t have his phone number. They ask me if I can help them and I tell them I can’t because I’m not an important person. (After all, were I important they wouldn’t have been able to find me so readily if at all as is the case with my officemate.) The citizens then interrogate me with the usually questions (Why am I here? Why am I not married?) because by this point they realize I am not Albanian.

Involuntary secretary wasn’t the role I was expecting when I joined Peace Corps. I decided I would start locking the office door when I was in but then I realized “bored guy sitting alone in a locked room” isn’t the role I expected either. I stopped going to the office.

It seemed the few roles for me in my town were that of English teacher, the role of leader of after school groups for students, and agriculture specialist. These were all unexpected roles but I did end up playing these roles with some success. You can read about the experiences here: teaching English and My work with a youth environmental youth group. The project I’m proudest of was planning and writing a huge grant for agricultural development with local business owners, farmers, and a woman’s agriculture nonprofit. Read about it here.

So with the previous paragraphs of ranting written, let me explain how the Peace Corps enabled me to achieve life goals.

Learning a non-romance language had been a goal of mine since learning to speak Spanish. Part of my job in Peace Corps was to learn Albanian. Peace Corps even gave me money to hire a local tutor of my choice after the awesome mandatory language training. The sky was the limit and I took advantage of this awesome opportunity.

Another goal of mine had been to live in a formerly communist country. The different paths communist and capitalist countries took during the 20th century fascinated me because it served as a kind of natural experiment in which human nature itself would be tested. With my free time in the Peace Corps I was not only able to read piles of history books and explore the ruins of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, but by having learned Albanian I was able to get an idea of what life was like under communism first hand from people who had lived it.

So, by the age of 28 the Peace Corps had facilitated the completion of these two huge life goals that would otherwise be rather difficult to do on my own. Besides checking these two goals off my to-do list, learning to live and work in foreign culture was hugely rewarding. I learned what life is like in the developing world and it didn’t just make me more thankful to have been born in the USA but it showed me specifically what I have to be thankful for.

Despite the difficulties, the Peace Corps was an irreplaceable, incredibly fulfilling experience.

Would I choose to “do Peace Corps” knowing then what I know now? Definitely. Pa Diskutim

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