Let me set the stage. A warm Friday night and Chicago is still buzzing with magical summertime energy. I’ve had an early morning Reclast infusion to help my body deal with its osteoporosis, as well as attended the Celebration of Life service and luncheon for my dear ROW teammate, Brigid, with over 25 of our fellow teammates. Already an emotionally intense day full of laughter, tears, hugs and stories, I take a nap and then meet up for dinner with a small group of former co-workers like no other. You know those friends who you may not see for years, but when you finally do meet up, the reconnection is effortless and simply marvelous? This was one of those times.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Eastern Caribbean may have been the toughest job I ever loved, but my favourite job, hands down, has to have been 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 recruitment 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 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, Kalamazoo, and Kentucky State.
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. Prior to Peace Corps I had never been west of the Mississippi River and had only made one trip east of Columbus, Ohio, to NYC–for a school trip–my junior year of high school. 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–living in suburban Detroit, summers spent at the Cottage in Northern Michigan, vacation trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky and Florida, and attending Northern Michigan University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula–may have given me a solid enough 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, worked on Detroit automotive assembly lines prior to serving in Guatemala, and had such a meaningful PC experience that he changed his last name; a beautiful Puerto Rican American who grew up in Chicago and served in Mali, in a village where the residents built her a home in return for her service; a feisty Chicagoan who served in Paraguay, and who has been one of my best friends for over 20 years and is a member of my family, as well as I am hers; 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; a fellow suburban Detroit Girl who served in Tunisia–and Papua New Guinea (and wrote a great story about her Tunisian experience in The Measure of a Dream–A Peace Corps Story); a Georgia Peach who served in the Eastern Caribbean just after me on the island of Nevis, who has been another best friend for over 20 years; and a former Marine who also did Peace Corps–and was evacuated during his service from Liberia. Other colleagues served in countries such as Yemen, Guatemala, Benin, Poland, Lithuania, Togo, Thailand, and Senegal and came from all over the US, from places such as Texas, D.C., Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
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 storytellers, talking about our experiences living and working in uniquely different locations, sharing customs and traditions (and yummy food!), and processing our actual lived experiences. We shared our lives with each other, our learned knowledge, our individual world lenses–and our families and friends–even family and friends from our own PC Volunteer days. 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.
These past few years, in the midst of the tumult caused by COVID, my experiences as both a Peace Corps Volunteer and Recruiter have resonated strongly with me.
It also hasn’t hurt that members from both my Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean group and Peace Corps Chicago office have held such fantabulous Zoom reunions these past couple of years! Since the early weeks of lockdown, my ‘Sisters Connected to Peace Corps through 6 Degrees of Separation’ have met numerous times for hours long gatherings complete with beverages of choice, food, exchanging of stories, and laughter. There have been wonderful reunions with those I served with in the Eastern Caribbean, that took us all back to the islands we so love and the invaluable friendships we built as we navigated our individual island experiences, catching us up with each other through these Zoom snapshots of our current lives. There have also been these incredibly unique and professionally motivating reunions with former Chicago PC Office colleagues, special colleagues who years ago helped me create my ‘new normal’ following my actual Peace Corps Volunteer service, as I built a new life in the US. Many of these Chicago PC Zooms have also had a very special attendee: the manager who deserves The Best Boss Award and who has had a tremendous impact on all of us so fortunate to work under her amazing leadership, who returned to work for Peace Corps as a Country Director shortly before COVID required PCVs to suddenly, mid-service, return home to the US.
This unique reconnection with my Peace Corps roots these past couple of years has meant the world to me. It has been a reminder that the understandings I gained more than 20 years ago have been incredibly instrumental as I have navigated my role as a world citizen living in the midst of a pandemic, working on the front lines as an educator and living in a community hit hard by COVID and violence, while continuing to be an active member in my breast cancer communities. These reunions have frequently reminded me that, during times of hyper-divisiveness in the US, we can still celebrate our country’s diversity and embrace one another with each of our own sets of differences. There has been a lot of ugliness in this country during this time and these Peace Corps relationships–past, present, and future–give me hope.
These Zoom reunions have also ensured that in-person reunions are sparkling, energizing, magical affairs–like the dinner last month with 4 of my former PC Chicago Regional Recruitment Office colleagues. And, yes, we shared stories, memories, good food, tears, and laughter, creating new memories to continue binding us together, reminding us to continue living our lives fully and with purpose.