11/23/2011 11:42 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Peace Corps Service During the Holidays

The holiday season can conjure up some of our happiest memories. In true commercial fashion most of us can smell the turkey in the oven. Hear the crisp crinkle of wrapping paper. Envision the smiles on our friends' and families' faces and dream about the deep sleep that comes after gorging on delicious food.

Those images tend to be different in the reality of Peace Corps service. I am close to South Africa and can find a turkey, but I don't have an oven that can cook it within a day! The sounds of wrapping paper are replaced by 2 donkeys mating, 3 roosters crowing, 4 dogs a barking and 5 sc-a-ry buuuuggggs. Deep sleeping becomes a little harder with the African summer heat, but the smiles are universal.

During the holidays it's natural for everyone to look back at what they did this year. For Peace Corps volunteers that can come with mixed emotions. I celebrate my successes and am thankful for the ideas/programs that worked. I cherish the new friends, little moments I will remember forever and the effort my local co-workers give to help others. I feel lucky to be able to have all of these experiences.

There are also harder moments at the end of the year. This month I had a little case of volunteer fatigue. I started numbing my emotions to make it easier to deal with the unfortunate events that can happen in developing countries. As a volunteer I have high expectations for the students at the center for people with disabilities where I work, but the treatment they receive isn't always what I hope for and it can be hard to balance that. I worried about days where I felt like I was just going through the motions instead of caring as much as I could. Uncertainty about my purpose as a volunteer overwhelmed me.

The holidays can make you miss people back home more than usual. There seems to be a direct correlation between distance from the people we love and a heightened emotional response. If we were home and received news that an uncle was hospitalized for a routine procedure, then a simple hug might suffice, but being so far away can result in days of crying. Some volunteers wish for the familiarity of the holiday season as they sit in a foreign land. This year others might be happy to miss the epic cable news style political battles that happen over the dinner table.

All of these feelings are just a part of the personal growth that comes with Peace Corps service. Volunteers find new ways to add meaning to their lives. As we learn more about ourselves we can better determine what we truly value and develop new ways to cope.

The holiday season is also a great time for some amazing cross cultural learning. Last year the director of the center where I work asked me why President Obama was blessing a bird with such a long neck and made me explain this oddity to the 120 people I work with. Later that day we had our own Thanksgiving meal with other volunteers and local friends. We all shared what we were thankful for that year. My friends from Botswana shared how much they appreciated this custom and were thrilled to be a part of our holiday.

Volunteers have the chance to go into their villages and bring American traditions into new homes, while sharing hysterical, awkward and soothing rituals. It's also a time to gain appreciation for however people in a different country celebrate Christmas and other holidays. In Botswana it's common to have a large meal for Christmas, but when I asked about Santa Claus I got some truly confused looks. Spending these moments so far from home may not replace the people we miss, but it certainly adds life and comfort to this time of year.

It's common to hear comments from political leaders, public service announcements and other officials stating to remember the troops serving our nation during the holidays. Obviously we should do this, but don't forget the Peace Corps Volunteers! We signed up for 2 years of service and while we're not on the front lines in war, we are on the front lines of diplomacy, representing America the best ways we can.