Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Eastern Caribbean may have been the toughest job I ever loved, but my favourite job here in the US, hands down, has to be my five years spent as a Peace Corps Regional Recruitment Representative (1994-99) out of first the Detroit office and then, when regions were consolidated and the Detroit office was closed, out of the Chicago Regional Peace Corps office.
At that time, PC Recruiters were responsible for getting the word out about Peace Corps opportunities and interviewing potential applicants. We participated in various community events throughout our regions, but the largest percentage of our time out in the field was spent on college campuses–visiting classes, staffing information tables, attending career fairs and hosting info sessions. I loved traveling to ‘my’ schools and networking with university staff, professors, and students, as well as connecting with fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who helped us with information sessions and events. I was lead recruiter at Peace Corps recruitment power houses like the University of Michigan, University of Kentucky, and Michigan State University; spent time at Western Michigan, Northern Michigan and Eastern Michigan Universities; visited mid-sized schools like Southern Illinois University, the University of Louisville, Michigan Tech University, and the University of Cincinnati; and networked at smaller liberal arts colleges and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) like Denison, Capital, Wittenberg, Kenyon and Kentucky State University.
One of the things being a PCV in the Eastern Caribbean allowed me to do, was recognize just how little I knew about the rest of the world. Granted that was one of the reasons I joined Peace Corps in the first place, but living abroad definitely amplified that awareness. What I didn’t anticipate was the realization of just how little I really knew about my own country or the diversity of its people. I had never been west of the Rocky Mountains or east of Columbus. Prior to Peace Corps, I hadn’t known many people who lived outside of the Midwest or who had uniquely different backstories than myself. While being raised in Michigan–where I divided my time between suburban Detroit and summers at the Cottage in Northern Michigan with vacation trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky and Florida–and attending Northern Michigan University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for my undergraduate degree may have given me a strong base of awareness, there was plenty, plenty that I had yet to learn and experience in my own country.
While my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer really opened up my world, my time as a Peace Corps Recruiter exposed me to a diversity of people and their experiences that, looking back, surprises me with its depth. I recruited with a Spanish speaking Filipino American who served in the Portuguese speaking African country of Guinea-Bissau; an African American who was 10 years older than me (in my mid-20s, I was the typical PC demographic) and worked on Detroit automotive assembly lines prior to serving in Guatemala; a Puerto Rican American with beautiful hair (that I was super envious of) who grew up in Chicago and served in Mali; a Haitian American who was one of the kindest people I’ve know, whose mom was a nurse in Boston, and who also served in Mali; and a former Marine who also did Peace Corps–and was evacuated from Liberia. Other colleagues served in countries such as Yemen, Nevis, Paraguay, Benin, Poland, Lithuania, Togo, Thailand, Senegal, and Tunisia.
I remember where so many of my colleagues served as PCVs, because they shared so much of their experience living in those countries with the rest of us. Want to talk about fascinating lunches??? They were amazing! We were all story tellers, talking about our experiences living and working in uniquely different locations, sharing customs and traditions, and processing our actual lived experiences. We shared our lives with each other, our learned knowledge–and even our families and friends. We each ‘got’ what it was like to live in a community abroad and be the ‘other’.
We also challenged one another to look at the world differently and not just accept the status quo. We wrestled with ideas related to race, gender and sexuality and we learned how to discuss our diversity and contextualize our experiences. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we worked to find middle ground and consensus where we could get along and have fun with one another. We also found our individual voices, with each of us acting as the other’s soundboard, while we developed new ways to express our own individual ‘truths’ and stories. And in the process, our frames of reference changed dramatically. I truly learned so much from the wisdom of these amazing colleagues, insight that pops up more than 2 decades later in the most unique ways.
In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic and living and working on the front lines during this time of heightened awareness of racism in America, my experiences as both a Peace Corps Volunteer and PC Recruiter are resonating strongly with me these days. It is helping to reflect back on what I learned, to help guide me moving forward.
It also doesn’t hurt that both groups are holding Zoom reunions, thanks to COVID-19, that are rocking my world and so much fun! Since the early weeks of lockdown, my ‘Sisters Connected to Peace Corps through 6 Degrees of Separation’ have met at least 3 times. This past Friday night, a group of my Chicago PC Office colleagues met up and it was simply wonderful (and we even had a special guest, the one manager that all of us consider the best boss we have ever had). Last month, a few fellow Eastern Caribbean PCVs got together on a Zoom meeting and had so much fun that we are meeting again this week–but expanding our group.
This reconnection with my Peace Corps roots is reminding me that, in this time of hyper-divisiveness in the US, we can still celebrate our country’s diversity and embrace one another with our differences. During a really ugly time in this country, these Peace Corps relationships–past, present, and future–give me hope.