Peace Corps is easy when you can anticipate challenges. I knew so many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) when I was living in DC. I even knew a good amount of RPCVs that have served in Morocco. As you can imagine, I had all my questions answered and still spent downtime reading the blogs of current volunteers in Morocco. But no matter how many volunteers you talk with, and no matter how many blogs you read, the challenges unique to your service are going to remain challenging. There is no trick or silver bullet towards having an exemplary Peace Corps service, because there is no single exemplary Peace Corps service.
I will have too much free time and be bored. People still ask me, “what do you do everyday,” and I always give some sassy reply, like “don’t you know that I hate that question?!” (shout-out Uncle Billy). But really, I tire from this question because I don’t have a routine. Even though I have been in this community for over two months now, I’m still learning what goes on here. Every day, I learn, converse, and develop new ideas for what I could do in the future. Yesterday, I talked with the high school’s English teacher about starting an after-school club with beginner students. I’m learning more about associations and their ongoing activities and challenges. I’m getting to know, and reviewing English with, the girls at the dormitory next to the school. I’m learning aerobics to start exercise classes for women. I’m visiting old and new friends I’ve made in the community. My days feel full and I’m never bored. But because I don’t have any sort of routine or formal working hours, it’s still hard to answer the question, “what do you do everyday?”
Since I’m not a person that loves routine, I’ll adapt easily to an unstructured role. I thought that this whole ‘no-routine’ thing would be easy for me since I considered myself flexible and able to roll with whatever activity came my way for the day. But whether you consider yourself a “routine person” or not, not having a structured role, title, or assignments is unsettling. In fact, I would even say that being a Peace Corps volunteer is the hardest job I’ve ever had for this very reason. If you google “busy” and “American millennials,” the plethora of articles that surface speak to how “there is a bit of ego in being uber-busy and being somewhere and having something to do.” But this community has been thriving for a long time with no Peace Corps Volunteer. No one is handing me a to-do list, assignments, or even an end goal. As such, I need to take initiative, build relationships and little by little carve a role for myself. But losing that self-importance, while maintaining the self-confidence and self-worth to take that necessary initiative, is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.
Relationship building is not a stressful goal. I’m at a new site, so by far my biggest priority right now is building relationships in my community. These relationships are a prerequisite for gaining trust, finding work opportunities, and understanding how I can help. Especially in the non-profit world, everyone always talks about how important it is to build relationships. Honestly, building rapport with colleagues, partners, and participants always seemed natural to me. But it turns out that when relationship building is your explicit goal, it’s hard. I’m constantly worrying about various people’s perceptions of me. I am all too aware that first impressions are important, and that my words and actions right now will critically determine the tone of my next two years in this small community.
Every Peace Corps experience is different, but that point is so obvious that I don’t need to keep hearing it. We hear all the time to “not compare your service to others.” Every site is different, every volunteer is different, and comparing services is a red herring that leads to madness. But it is human nature to compare your experience with those who started this journey with you. One of my closest friends in Peace Corps is constantly busy planning and implementing activities for the active youth center (Dar Chabab) in her site. While we are a support system for each other, I still have to remind myself that her productivity is not a reflection of my inactivity. Instead, the comparison is a reflection of my own insecurities. But insecurity is powerful—so resisting the urge to compare requires vigilance.
I will feel lonely, isolated, and will have to take care of myself. As I said before, the feeling of warmth and hospitality is pretty amazing here. Despite my own self-doubt, friends and neighbors take extra steps to make me feel like part of their family. For example, although I am living alone (and enjoying it), I have never gone an hour without my next-door neighbor coming over to chat, bringing me food, inviting me over, or checking up on me. This feeling of community is not only important for avoiding loneliness—it’s also a crucial part of Peace Corps’ “integrated approach” to Volunteer safety and security training.
Peace Corps just got me here and that’s it; the rest of my service is up to me. To succeed as Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s important to know that your experience is up to you—the facilitating organization (Peace Corps) cannot wave any magic wand to make your circumstances perfect or solve your problems. That’s why, before I left for Morocco, I’d tell people, “my experience is all in my hands—Peace Corps is just a means for getting me there."
What I failed to recognize was the crucial importance of the Peace Corps community as a support system. Other volunteers have paved the way for providing advice, resources, and encouragement for work in many different areas, such as literacy, health education, disability inclusion, gender and development, sports and fitness, and business development. For any initiative I’m thinking about getting involved in, or for any problem I’m facing, there is a staff member, current volunteer, committee, or resource for me to consult. Not only is this practically important, it also makes me feel less alone as the only volunteer in my community. I couldn’t go through this experience without the training Peace Corps developed and the support system Peace Corps has facilitated.
If I’m not happy all the time, I’ll regret this. If you talk to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, they might tell you that throughout the exchange experience, “the highs are really high and the lows are really low.” For me, that’s pretty true. There have been full weeks where I feel completely discouraged. But instead of regret, I think, “I’m so glad I actually went through with it; that I’m here.”
I think that’s because the highs feel so high not despite the lows, but because of them. In absence of a defined “purpose,” I grab onto these highs to remind myself why I came. I wouldn’t be so appreciative of Moroccan hospitality if I hadn’t been so anxious about feeling lonely here in the first place. If people at home didn’t ask me so much about religion’s role in daily life, I wouldn’t be so moved by how the Islam here teaches inclusiveness and openness to people of all different walks of life. If I didn’t feel so insecure about my nontraditional role in this community, I wouldn’t be so happy about the girls at the dormitory making me feel extra welcome.
In the context of this risk I took, it’s only natural to be even more grateful and amazed when good things happen.