Continued from previous post(s)
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
In my last post on cultural challenges, I started to mention that we as volunteers have to remember that our work is only one third of the Peace Corps’ goals. We have to turn in reports full of numbers to prove ourselves to the higher-ups and the tax payers, and there is pressure to have some tangible project to justify our presence here to people back home. I’m not saying that our work has no value in itself. But it is easy to forget that we should also find success in intangible, interpersonal ways. In fact, more likely than not, our greatest and most lasting impact as Peace Corps Volunteers will not come from our work.
Simply by building relationships, learning from, and teaching Jamaicans about ourselves, we make a lasting impact in peoples’ lives. In this way, the way we behave and portray ourselves becomes so much more critical. We are full-time ambassadors of our country. We really have to be attentive to how we come across to others as the words we speak, the expressions on our faces, the clothes we choose to wear, the things we buy at the store, everything communicates a message to the Jamaicans around us. Some may have never encountered Americans before except through their TV screen.
Most volunteers stand out (by physical appearance) in their communities, and all are watched or even scrutinized as we go about our business. This 24/7 aspect of the job is another reason why it can get so wearing. But it’s also a way to change lives apart from our work assignments. You never know when someone might consider you their role model or be inspired by your demonstrated commitment to certain values, like service, simplicity, or integrity. Being visible in the community also helps break down assumptions about Americans as well as stereotypes about gender and race. One of Jedd’s favorite compliments recently was someone who said, “he’s a different china man,” recognizing that Jedd was unlike the typical asian business owner this person had encountered in Jamaica. It was a small victory when so often we are automatically type-cast here by the way we look.
So our goals as volunteers really should extend beyond our work projects. Feeling integrated in our communities is a huge victory and just as valuable, if not more, than our tangible achievements. It may not be easy to prove on a report or a resume, but it will last much longer in the lives and memories of those we share our lives with for these two years.