Last week was the graduation of the last group of Atlas Corps Fellows with whom I worked. Every graduation, during a session on “Cultural Re-Entry,” there’s a part called the “Adjustment Timeline” where each Fellow charts their emotional and mental wellbeing during their year of service—then they share with everyone. Since it is basically a giant session of feelings and reflections on life’s ups and downs (with laughing, crying, and everything in between), I always felt privileged and elated to able to sit in on it. But I had no idea it would provide me with so much useful perspective as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
See, real life and overseas volunteer life both are like rollercoasters—I’m sure everyone knows this metaphor. But the difference with international volunteer programs is that there’s always an opt-out option—you can usually jump off the rollercoaster into a seemingly soft, familiar bed (aka, home). While this seems like a great thing in theory, it actually makes coping and patience harder – because coping and patience then seem like choices.
In real life, when you’re not on an 18-to-27-month timeline, and aren’t living on a stipend, you find ways to cope and wait no matter what. Sure, you can have a mid-life crisis, quit your job, get a body piercing, go all “Eat Pray Love,” or do something crazy like joining the Peace Corps, but that stuff usually has immediate consequences and takes at least a little bit of money or planning. On the other hand, if I wanted to terminate my service early right now (lovingly known in the Peace Corps community as ET-ing), I’d return “Back-Home Baller” style with no questions asked.
When people told me I’d learn patience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was annoyed at the entitled idea that one would have to go to another country to learn a human characteristic that is important in every country. Of course, there are plenty of people more patient than I who have never volunteered overseas. But I don’t think it’s the “overseas” aspect of service that tests our patience (I’ve studied and worked abroad before this and didn’t learn patience then). Instead, I think that programs like Peace Corps and Atlas Corps require patience from their participants because there’s always a question of whether to wait it out, or leave.
Of course, I’m going to wait it out, especially with the support of other volunteers, friends and family back home, friends in Morocco, and the people at my site. But it’s really hard to do that right now. Let me tell you why, keeping with this theme of time and counting:
From my list, you might be able to glean my personal- and work-related challenges. If you can’t, let me spell them out more plainly for you:
What does make me feel better is talking to returned volunteers, Atlas Corps Fellows, or current volunteers that know the intricacies of how things change throughout the fixed timeline that I’m on. We can remind each other, that with time, the following things are going to happen:
And yes, I realize that “feeling like a waste of space” is also a very counterproductive, self-deprecating thought. So I try to zoom out and remind myself that while youth development projects like teaching classes, organizing camps, or starting initiatives justify the Peace Corps presence here in Morocco, they are just a means to an end. And that end is cross-cultural relationship building. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, before I even left the U.S., international exchange (formally goals two and three of Peace Corps) is something you can’t record, monitor, or even evaluate the success of. It also takes a lot of time.
When you haven’t accomplished anything tangible, you feel like a waste of space, and your goals are as ambiguous as cross-cultural relationship building, waiting it out is hard. That’s when I remember that in two years, this will just be a slightly lower dip in my own “Adjustment Timeline.” For now, I’ll just have to be patient.