Some Volunteers get distraught by their inability to tangibly quantify their Peace Corps experience on paper, and consequently see their service as a waste when they are unable to enact development projects of a sufficient scale to warrant their time here as meaningful. While I have been lucky enough to be part of several successful projects, what has made my service profoundly meaningful to me (and I believe, constructively engaging for my local community in general) is not correlated at all to the number of kilograms of vegetables the hospital garden produces, nor the number of dollars I raise for a project grant.
While those are all fine things to have done with one’s service, it is the everyday engagement with my local community, of that veritable exchange of cultural ideas that I believe is the core of a successful and meaningful Peace Corps experience. Keeping in mind also that I may be the only contact many Senegalese have with an American ever, I try to be a role-model to the best of my abilities. I don’t think anyone in Richard Toll will ever call me slothful or disengaged— although you never know: I sometimes have my off-days and have certainly rubbed some people the wrong way.
That being said, numbers do quantify the ‘effectiveness’ of the Peace Corps, and help Congress determine whether they want to continue to throw us a bone, and how big that bone will be. 60 years later, and I think the Peace Corps still provides a very unique “formula for practical idealism” for people who join the program with “youthful enthusiasm and noble purposes” as Sargent Shriver succinctly put it (you can read more about Shriver’s enlightening and still very relevant vision of the Peace Corps in “Practical Idealism: How Sargent Shriver Built the Peace Corps”). If I could offer a constructive piece of advice for the program, it would be to more rigorously interview potential candidates for service. I think personal intent/philosophy and understanding the purpose of the Peace Corps greatly determines the color and impact of one’s service, no matter where you are and which work sector you are put in.
Of personal import, I am thankful for the insight and fortitude a 2-year contract with the Peace Corps has provided. Living like a local for a year in a foreign country is easy enough while the novelty is still fresh. Continuing to stay engaged in your second year takes sustained discipline, especially so after facing repeated failures. Still, I have learned to treasure my failures even more so than my successes, something I never thought I would say, especially coming from a culture where success is often the only option you can afford in your professional life.
In the grander scope of development, you also quickly realize how short 2 years is to enact the kind of change you thought you would be helping to catalyze. Enacting the larger-scale projects I dreamt of before entering the Peace Corps would require me to dedicate at least a decade or more of my concerted time and effort in order to adequately realize them, not-to-mention additional years of training and education. All too often I have seen well-intentioned projects fail due to short-term contracts running out before the project came to fruition, which now in retrospect, appears to go against everything the word development even seems to suggest. Enacting change requires sustained commitment. Sustainable development requires creative and constantly evolving ways of engaging in and with the communities you are trying to help. I don’t really see how that can ever truly be possible without actively becoming a part of that community yourself.
What I really mean to say is, I hope Volunteers out there with pure intentions never lose sight of them, and that they never underestimate the impact they have on their communities, no matter how intangible they think their efforts might be. And honestly, take solace in the simple things in life, because you never realize how much wisdom you can glean from your everyday interactions, until they exist no more. Or how universal certain joys are, such as Easter Egg Hunts!
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.