Please humor me and travel back in time, to when I was living in DC and working for the Program team of Atlas Corps, an overseas fellowship for skilled nonprofit professionals. It’s midnight, and I can’t sleep. I’m lying in my comfortable bed, thinking of a Fellow who had emailed me a few days ago about his creaky old mattress. It was on my to-do list to order a new one, but I don’t think I got around to it that day. I started sweating, thinking how, because of my own negligence, a person in my life was losing sleep or developing back issues right at this moment.
Anyone who has worked to support participants of cross-cultural volunteer programs could probably relate to the rewarding yet burdensome feeling of other people’s challenging intercultural experiences lying in your very human hands. I loved my job because I loved being able to interact with, learn from, and witness the journeys of the people I was responsible for. But what I was responsible for, exactly, was unclear. To what extent could I control the environment, wellbeing, or success of other people?
In so many ways, having worked for Atlas Corps has impacted the way I have approached my own Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) experience. I came in remembering the amazing support Atlas Corps Fellows would give to one another. I brought with me countless stories of Fellows staying resilient, and even optimistic, through trying situations. But most of all, I remember carrying the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried, I as a staff member couldn’t single-handedly change someone else’s Fellowship experience.
Subsequently, coming to Morocco, I had the distinct sense that my own success and wellbeing as a PCV was solely up to me. I looked at Peace Corps not as the organization responsible for me, but rather, the organization that got me here.
Today, I carry the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I could have tried, I would not have made it through these 16 months without the Peace Corps staff. From facilitating our pre-service training where we learned Darija, liaising with our local administrations, or just being our ally amidst a lot of uncertainty, I have relied on staff support more than I thought I would.
That’s why I was surprised when a leading question at our Mid-Service Training (MST) last week was “how can we improve the relationship between Volunteers and staff?” As an Atlas Corps staff member, I asked this question often. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the luxury of not thinking about it until MST, where I realized that not all PCVs had the same, positive view of staff as me.
Will volunteers complain no matter what, or could staff really do better? My Atlas Corps-to-Peace Corps experience has given me unique perspective on cross-cultural volunteer support, and I’ve concluded that the answer to this question is more complicated than you’d think.
During the application process Peace Corps tries to set the expectation that, even though they take care of the basics like healthcare, language instruction, and site development, being a successful Volunteer will require a great deal of initiative. Still, without a clear role, the security of a formal job, a normal salary, or control over living environments, being a volunteer—especially an overseas volunteer—makes you vulnerable. In this vulnerable position, it is normal to expect the organization that brought you here to defend your existence and ease your experience.
Yet that organization is made up of human beings, ones that have their own lives, biases, and limits. It is hard to figure out, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, when to ask for help from staff, or when to rely on my personal support systems of other Volunteers, friends, and family. There were certain points where I could have smoothed out my challenges in Morocco much more efficiently had I communicated with staff first. For example, instead of advocating for myself, I waited a while before reaching out to my manager in regards to the local administration’s misperception of my role here. My focus on appearing independent hindered my ability to solve the issue quickly.
Some PCVs, no matter how adaptable they are, get placed in unsustainable situations. Others face issues related to their gender, ability status, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or age that I, with all my privileges, just haven’t had to deal with. In unsustainable situations, reaching out to staff for help is nothing less than a sign of admirable strength and perseverance in continuing service. Requiring staff attention does not mean that a volunteer is any less capable or independent; for that reason, each issue should be addressed with time, effort, and understanding.
Assuming Best Intentions
As an Atlas Corps staff member, it was sometimes hard to understand why Fellows waited to reach out to me with their issues when I could have helped out earlier. I remember telling Fellows that while I would always love to help, I wasn’t psychic and couldn’t assist with a problem I didn’t know about. At other times, though, it was hard to understand how Fellows wanted me to help in the first case. Here, all I could offer was personal empathy and an open ear on behalf of the organization as a whole; and sometimes, this was enough.
Overall, the lines are blurry between what the staff is responsible for and what the volunteers are responsible for in each individual’s experience. That is why the assumption of best intentions is key. Because maintaining clear expectations is perpetually challenging, mutual understanding and respect between all volunteers and all staff is crucial. While volunteers should know that staff does not have a magic wand to control every circumstance, staff should know that volunteers face a vast array of challenges related to circumstances outside their control.
Across the board, an improved relationship between staff and volunteers requires looking at one another as people; not just from staff to volunteer, but also the other way around. From a volunteer standpoint, we need to stop looking at staff as all-powerful caretakers. From a staff standpoint, volunteers should not be looked at as a monolithic group of (sometimes angry) customers. We’re all partners on the same team, trying our best, working towards an overall goal of meaningful exchange and service.
…At Least I Can Say That I’ve Tried
Especially today, international politics lies in the hands of people and forces that seem out of our control. Because of these politics, the student programs I benefitted from in Turkey are unfortunately not as available for Americans anymore. But the personal relationships I made there have stayed solid through ups and downs in Turkey-U.S. relations. Bringing individuals together across cultures and/or borders to learn from one another produces stories that are uniquely positive in the face of so much global injustice and pain.
Having conversations during MST about how to make Peace Corps better, I remembered how strongly I feel about making intercultural volunteer programs more sustainable and worthwhile for everyone involved (yes, I’m a nerd). Being a volunteer program staff means giving other people the opportunity and space to learn, grow, give back, and find their paths. Being a volunteer myself means learning, growing, giving back, and finding my path.
Even if my path leads me back to giving other people that opportunity and space, I have finally learned how to help and support others without staying up all night with feelings of guilt or worry. Empathy and genuine concern are assets I have that, if left unmanaged, will hinder me from helping anyone at all. Indeed, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve learned from experience that for the rest of my life, the only person I am fully responsible for is myself. This much-needed realization is perhaps the most empowering one I’ve had so far.
Last new years, I made a “2017 map” for all my goals of the year. It was a pretty ambitious mess that included taking several online courses, starting new initiatives, becoming skilled at multiple things, and of course, working out every day. The map was a lot—and so was my new years night, which I spent on zero hours of sleep, on a beach in Agadir with fireworks and dancing.
Fast-forward one year, and I present to you, the first 24 hours of my 2018.
On December 31st, 2017, I fell asleep at my host family’s house by 9:30 pm. My 2018 map, too, looks much less ambitious than last year’s. I want to cope with my anxiety better by writing things down, I want to stop drinking milk, to think more positively, and to be nicer to strangers and myself. My overall theme was to have enough optimism to keep me from freaking out about, well, everything.
I came home and made said map with a close friend in site who also is trying to focus on reducing anxiety. I left for a run, and two things happened. First, the same friend texted me that our neighbor’s grandfather had passed away, and we needed to go visit them to bid our condolences. As I neared home, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” came on my music shuffle – the song that reminds everyone in my family of my maternal grandfather, Papa, who would be 87 years old by now. The song ended--
I'm just a son of a son, son of a son
Son of a son of a sailor
The seas in my veins, my tradition remains
I'm just glad I don't live in a trailer
I traded my headphones for a scarf and entered my neighbor’s house not knowing the deceased but instead with a vivid memory of my own Papa’s shiva. My friend instructed me to say “Baraka f r3ask,” which means, “blessings be upon you.” We walked into a huge crowd of people, sitting together, being together. Some were silent, while others were in the kitchen cooking. My friend mentioned that everyone comes and brings food, “Sedaka” so that the family of the deceased doesn’t have to cook.
I got that small, humbly awestruck feeling I get so often when I’m here—a reminder that, no matter how many times I feel different, the painful and profound stuff that’s essentially human, like anxiety or loss, makes any cultural divides pale in comparison. I told my friend that in my religion too, we say barucha, we give tzedakah, and everyone brings food and sits with the family of the deceased so they don’t have to cook or be alone.
It seems strange that I’ve repeatedly thought about loved ones lost when I’m reflecting ahead for a new year. Their quiet wisdom gives me permission to let faith and personal growth, rather than pragmatism, guide my choices. This year was tough, but it did turn out okay. I came to Sidi Bouzid with no friends, no work, and no confidence. I live here now with lifelong friends, projects I’m proud of, and the knowledge that, even if not everything I try succeeds, I still have value.
I came to Morocco with a focus on professional growth, sense of competition, anxiety, and a denied American arrogance. I spent the first year chipping away at these barriers—I’ve grown more personally than professionally, and I’m fine with that. I’ve seen that patience can be even harder than productivity, and that loneliness and isolation, like happiness, are passing feelings rather than permanent conditions.
I recently finished a book that talks about Americans going abroad as “not an escape,” but potentially a “project of remembrance…where we may also discover that the possibility of [American] redemption is not because of our own God-given beneficence but proof of the world’s unending generosity.” No matter what baggage, anxiety, or arrogance Peace Corps Volunteers come in with, they will all experience unending generosity in their country of service. This undeserved chance can humble even the most aware and conscious American.
The author of the book, Suzy Hansen, was supposed to write about Turkey; instead, she ended up writing about the U.S. I was supposed to write this blog about Morocco. Only now, I realize I don’t write about Morocco, but instead, myself. I write about how my past colors my present, and how my own view is being expanded to push out blind spots I didn’t even know I had.
I came here seeking something shiny, new and foreign, but I feel my multi-layered past and identities—collective points of pride, shame, and responsibility—even more keenly than I did at home. Maybe it’s a physiological phenomenon that happens when you’re away from the familiar.
Or maybe it’s because, by going out on the sea for adventure, I’m closer to home than ever. Maybe it’s because my Papa was a sailor at heart, and so am I. If that’s true then I no longer need to be a “new me” to find some elusive fulfillment. Learning to be more comfortable with myself—as I am—is what prepares me to keep seeking new adventures in 2018; stormy as the waters may be.
Where it all ends I can't fathom, my friends
If I knew, I might toss out my anchor
So I'll cruise along always searchin' for songs
Not a lawyer, a thief or a banker
But a son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!