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.
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!