What they really mean is, “Are you glad you did it the first time?”
Yes, and truth be told, I miss it all the time.
It’s not just the adventure and travel; Peace Corps service was two years of my life that I could dedicate primarily to living, loving, and learning.
Here are the five things I miss most about being a Peace Corps Volunteer:
1. Language immersion
As the oft-forgotten romance language, Romanian is a surprisingly fun and beautiful language to have learned. I love that I speak a language that’s not too common but still related to (other) major modern languages, and I have doing Peace Corps in Moldova to thank for that.
As a current English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, I look back at my Romanian-learning process with admiration. The language-teaching methods were stellar (interactive, communicative-focused), as were the circumstances (small classes, native teachers, immersive homestays, etc.).
We have few opportunities in our lives to so thoroughly learn and live in a new language without worry of finances or time restraints.
2. Spending time outdoors
Oddly, I thought I was a city girl, but being back in a city has found me daydreaming of the overgrown greenery overlooking Moldovan dirt roads and never-ending sunflower fields.
I loved being able to walk out the door and instantly find myself among lush greenery, surrounded by grapevines, sunflowers, and the random baby calf finding its way home. I could wander for hours, enjoying the narrow, curving roads, the colorful architecture, and the smell of ripening grapes.
Now, being in a city, I find it odd that one would need to drive somewhere else to get to a hiking spot or bike trail.
3. Time for learning
Not only could I spend time learning a language fluidly and comfortably, but I could explore anything else that interested me.
There wasn’t much to distract me in the village and, as a result, I found more time to read up on semantics, cultural idioms, the geography of Eastern Europe… whatever my heart desired!
“Learning cultural traditions” was often higher on the list of priorities than “making money” or “coming into an office.”
Most importantly, my days in Peace Corps represent a time when being self-centered and overly reflective was totally permissible among the young, newly-graduated Volunteers who were learning very quickly about themselves.
Rereading the thousands of pages of journals and letters I composed during my service, I’m amused at how significantly I focused on investigating who I was, reflecting on how each challenge or social interaction affected me, and scrutinizing every little conversation and decision.
While this may seem exhausting (It was!), it was also liberating to be able to take such time to observe myself growing and to get the chance to decide what characteristics, qualities, and strengths matter most to me.
If you can make yourself proud despite emotional stress, lack of running water, lack of anonymity, and extremely ambiguous goals, you will have a better idea of who you want to be and who you want to surround yourself with in the future.
4. Permanent bonds
From sailing and yacht crews to graduate school and teacher training, I have been fortunate to have been a member of many close cohorts that have endured intense challenges together.
None has compared to the bond grown between fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.
Peace Corps service brought into my life a whole different level of amusement, humility, adventure, discovery, and debauchery that created an unprecedented and well-rounded mutual understanding.
There’s the mutually shared challenge of feeling helpless when you don’t speak the language, learning how to conquer a vague and ever-changing public transportation system, learning cultural norms only by accidentally insulting someone, jerry-rigging buckets and hoses into a usable shower, and enjoying the pleasures of basement-made moonshine that may or may not lead to weeklong stomach pain.
These experiences will bond you for life.
Of course, the possibility for almost limitless inside jokes doesn’t hurt either.
5. Personal growth
Every day offered a new challenge.
Though it was exhausting, it was absolutely empowering. Even going to the post office became a feat worthy of celebration.
Peace Corps also made me extremely grateful for the little things, like hand soap, washboards, well-formed queues, and a relatively reliable pair of waterproof boots. I remember feeling so proud of myself after successfully arriving at a wedding on time despite the vaguest and most unusual directions, no street address to reference, and no smartphone to help me figure it out. (Where exactly do you head when someone tells you to go “in the valley,” but you are standing on a hill?)
Of course, all of these amazing benefits could be accomplished outside of Peace Corps service.
Yet, having been away from that immersive environment, I’ve lost many of these aspects in my life.
So I suppose the greatest thing Peace Corps offers is the ability to focus on these benefits for a given amount of time, rather than having to fight to preserve them despite your living environment or situation.
For those of you who have returned home from Peace Corps or a rejuvenating/life-changing trip, what do you miss? How do you preserve these life-changing benefits?