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Ross Szabo

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My Girlfriend 'Made' Me Apply To The Peace Corps

Posted: 03/ 8/11 02:11 PM ET

My journey to join the Peace Corps started with love. Everyone makes some pretty interesting changes in their lives when they meet that special someone. I've seen the stereotypical alpha-male become a huge fan of Project Runway, lamenting that So-and-So suffered the worst injustice in the world when they were kicked off. I've watched men who don't like animals start talking in a baby voice to dogs or cats. You probably have a friend right now who is in a relationship and rationalizing something he thought he would have never liked. Maybe it's a fantasy football buddy refusing the hot wings at happy hour because he never really liked meat, and besides, Name-of-Partner thinks we would all be better as vegans.

I've talked to a lot of people who thought about joining the Peace Corps but made other life plans. So what makes some of us pull the trigger? Knowing what love can do helps me understand why I decided to sign up. It all started in January of 2003. I met a beautiful woman who made every day of my life better. We would talk for hours. Her understanding eased my uncertainty. Her witty humor lifted my spirit. Her compassion filled my heart. In our euphoria I talked to my friends about my new love for art exhibits and she rationalized watching sports to hers. After dating long distance for a year I moved from D.C. to L.A. to live with her, where we spent the next five years.

From those first magical days we met, she told me she had dreamed about joining the Peace Corps since she was 13. When I was 13, I dreamed about playing in the NBA, but I didn't see her offering to spend 2 years getting my rebounds so I could get my non-existent jump shot back. My initial response was that becoming a Peace Corps volunteer would be great for her. I stressed it would be good for her alone. Three years into the relationship, I did the supportive investigative work of looking into what it is like for boyfriends to visit Peace Corps volunteers. I maintained that I would never apply, because I would miss too many people and couldn't handle the change. As time went on and her passion to join became even more apparent, I started to research what it would be like for me to apply.

Obviously, when deciding to apply to the Peace Corps there are a lot of factors to consider. Superficially I wanted to know about the common myths. Would I be part of the CIA? Would I be digging wells for two years? Absolutely no to the first one and maybe to the second.

The reality was that there are a lot of traits inherent in me that are a natural fit for the Peace Corps. With a background in psychology I was genuinely interested in the behaviors and history of a different culture. I had already logged seven years working at a non-profit organization focused on mental health awareness and spent most of my time speaking to large audiences to empower them to take action in their lives. I had learned the hard lesson that major change in society takes a long time, but you can have an impact on large groups of people every day. If I was going to apply I wasn't doing it because I thought I could swoop in to a developing country with a cape and solve all of its problems. I had a realistic view that the best you could hope for would be to work with people in a meaningful way and learn from each other.

Outside of caring about people, one of the most important factors for me was that I loved my girlfriend. After spending 250 days a year on the road traveling to speak to people in our 6 years together, I hadn't had enough quality time with her. No job was more important to me than my relationship. What better way to get some Q.T., than to move to a foreign country, live in a house that may not have running water/electricity and have the amazing experience of learning a new language and doing what we can for 2 years. Quick side note: you can't serve in the Peace Corps with a boyfriend or girlfriend, so if you want to be placed together you have to be married. Peace Corps service is the perfect honeymoon!

I didn't decide to apply solely because I was in love with someone, but the personal growth I had in my relationship helped me feel secure enough to make this decision. When I told my girlfriend in 2005 that I could never join the Peace Corps, I was honest. When we applied in 2008 I was still being honest, because I had learned a lot about myself in those 3 years. Personal growth seems to be a unifying factor in volunteers' choices to apply. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, but people of all ages apply to help others, further their education in a master's program when they come back, gain international experience, live abroad for 2 years while being part of a community, serve their country or challenge themselves in a unique way. Any volunteer opportunity has the potential to teach someone as much about him or herself as the people that person is trying to reach.

Whether it's a relationship, an important life decision or a major change, we can all find ways to rationalize our choices. In all of these examples there is that one intangible that helps us make sense of the situation we're in. For me it was the growth I gained in my relationship. Moving to a developing country is a little bit more of a commitment than watching reality TV, but the intoxicating feeling of something larger than you is a pretty powerful motivating source and my girlfriend helped me realize that. So I decided to apply to the Peace Corps and eagerly anticipated everything that came with the decision, unless something went wrong ... then that would be my wife's fault. I could always go back to basketball.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. To honor this occasion I will be writing blogs about my experiences as a currently serving volunteer. It would be impossible to capture the unique differences of all 200,000 plus volunteers that have served since the Peace Corps started in 1961. However, I am hoping to provide more insight into what a volunteer goes through from the time they decide to apply until they get to the country they are serving and all the funny, somber, and moving stories until the day they leave.