When a lot of people think about the most difficult parts of the 27 months of Peace Corps service they tend to focus on the time spent in the foreign country, but for numerous volunteers the hardest adjustment is coming back to America. There can be a bit of culture shock.
In my first 2 weeks out of Botswana I experienced what I like to call Post Peace Corps Experience Disorder. I desperately missed my friends, co-workers and village. Everything felt out of place. I looked the wrong way down the street. Went to the wrong side of the car. All of my dreams were filled with moments from my service. I still have flashbacks of water not coming out of the faucet, constantly needing to clean to stop ants or other things that became habit. Most of my sentences start with, "In Botswana..." The change is hard.
Luckily, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is there to help make the transition a little easier. The membership organization was founded in 1979 and is separate from U.S. Peace Corps, the federal agency. The organization's vision is a more peaceful world shaped by greater cross-cultural understanding and lifelong engagement at home and abroad. The mission is to connect and champion Peace Corps community members in "bringing the world home." They do this both by advocating for the Peace Corps and its values, and connecting volunteers who have returned or Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).
I asked Erica Burman, Director of Communications, at NPCA and an RPCV from The Gambia (1987-89) about the 5 biggest challenges RPCVs face. Each person's adjustment is unique. Some come home, are happy to be back and don't have a hard time. Others have issues. Here are some of them.
1. You have changed, but other things stayed the same. In talking about volunteers' adjustment Erica said, "Most people just can't understand that the past 27 months have been a transformative life experience. You've seen and done and survived things most Americans can't imagine. Things that you couldn't have imagined before Peace Corps. You've witnessed exquisite beauty and the most squalid ugliness. Had your values and assumptions fundamentally tested, and your priorities shifted. So you may no longer be your sister's best shopping buddy, or your dad's sports guy. But many friends and loved ones expect you to be, more or less, the same person you were before and you're just not. That can really be painful for everyone."
2. It's great that you volunteered, but have you heard about the Kardashians? Erica stated, "Sadly, most people aren't that interested in what you've done for the past 27 months. Their tolerance for stories about your Peace Corps experience is generally pretty low. They might ask, 'So how was Africa?' Not your country, but the entire continent. 'Was it hot? Did you see animals?' After a few minutes the conversation changes to pop culture or some other topic. Meanwhile you have days, weeks, months worth of stories and anecdotes and impressions and comparisons bursting to get out and be shared."
3. Daily life in the U.S. can be boring. Volunteers spend a lot of days talking about how boring life can be during service, but life in the U.S. can seem mundane. Erica shared, "You miss the daily challenges of figuring things out and overcoming obstacles. It can be tough and painful during service, but it's also immensely satisfying when you do persevere and succeed. Life in America is more routine, more predictable. There aren't those thrilling frissons of bewilderment and strangeness."
4. You are no longer a pseudo-celebrity. As I have started to adjust back to life out of Peace Corps it is a bit weird to not have every child yell to me and most people excited to see me walk by them. The novelty of volunteering disappears quickly. Erica says this is pretty common, "As much as volunteers complain about living their lives under a microscope, we can miss the fact that we're no longer special, that people don't really care about our every move. Truth be told, it can be kind of fun and ego boosting to be somewhat famous."
5. Going back to the material world. A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers leave developing countries with water, electricity and basic need shortages and enter America's first world problems like not getting all of the apps on the I-pad to work. Erica talked about this as well, "The superficiality, rush and materialness of much of American life can be hard to come to terms with. Overseas many of us learn to greet everyone, to take in and value each person we meet. We may sit for hours under a tree cracking peanuts with our host mother, just being. Often we become enmeshed in close-knit communities for the very first time. That's different than the hurried, "yeah, let's get together," that never happens. Also striking is the waste. We waste so much stuff. Water, heat, electricity, paper, plastic containers. You name it. Stuff that would be prized overseas is casually tossed here. It can be really disturbing."
RPCVs cope with all of these unique difficulties in different ways. Obviously not all of the adjustment is bad. We reconnect with family/friends, devour sorely missed foods, and bask in the land of washing machines and technology. We come home having missed weddings, births, funerals, divorces and a host of other life changes. We worry about what is next. It takes time to catch up with the people we are closest to. Some parts of the brain just click back on from the pause they had experienced and other parts take a little more time.
NPCA offers a lot of resources to help RPCVs and currently serving volunteers. The most important one is becoming a free member of NPCA to stay connected. Members can get the e-newsletter, WorldView magazine and be informed about all types of Peace Corps news including the Annual Gathering.
There are local groups all over the country where people can connect with other former volunteers in their area who know what they are going through. Current and returned volunteers can see a listing of local member groups and country of service groups here.
NPCA offers its own social network site.
A mentoring program.
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