We had a few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji come to speak with us during Pre-Service Training (PST). My training group was still very new to Peace Corps, and there were many things we didn’t know. There were six of them speaking as a panel and answering our questions, but one of them stuck in my memory above the rest.
This man, whose name I cannot recall, was intelligent, down to earth, and hilarious. He was goofy looking, like a caricature one might find in The New Yorker. Combined with his personality, this odd man captivated me and had me hanging on his every word. That was the first time I had really thought about what it meant to be a Peace Corps Volunteer since my service began.
The man sat beside his wife and spoke of his Peace Corps service many years ago. He had wild stories of hiking to town in order to find a working phone, and of getting strange diseases that put him out of commission for days or weeks. Most important to me, he spoke of feeling down and of quitting.
Fiji Group 90, the group who got to Fiji one year before my group, had a very high dropout rate. Some of us were worried by this. I knew from my AmeriCorps service that most programs like this have about a thirty percent dropout rate, but theirs is over fifty percent. Out of the twenty-eight volunteers they started with, thirteen are left.
I was never worried about other people dropping out. I am not easily influenced by others, and I knew coming into this that it was going to be tough. After all, the Peace Corps motto is “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” I’m not a quitter. I came to Fiji knowing that I wouldn’t leave until my service was over, even if it literally killed me.
The man at the front of the room was speaking on quitting. He said when he joined Peace Corps, he pushed Early Termination (ET) off the table. For him, it wasn’t even an option. That freed him up to focus on getting through the low points of his service, rather than dwell on them and consider quitting. From the time he said this, I told myself I would do the same thing. Even though quitting wasn’t an option before, now it wasn’t even the slightest possibility in even the worst case scenario.
The goofy guy continued talking about a chart that Peace Corps had given him. It graphed the typical highs and lows of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Years later, Peace Corps still gives this chart to volunteers, so I have posted it on my wall to remind myself that feelings of sadness and depression are perfectly normal and to be expected.
The man discussed how he had looked at the chart and thought to himself, “Ok, it is February, I should be feeling down right about now.” That way, when he felt angry or depressed he could assure himself that it was just a normal part of Peace Corps service. It is highly unlikely that a Peace Corps Volunteer has ever or will ever go through his or her service without feeling anger, depression, or doubt. I have inserted a picture of the chart below.
This inspirational man who works at the embassy also spoke on the topic of illness. He asked us if we still received the Peace Corps manual entitled “Where There is No PCMO [Peace Corps Medical Officer]”. We informed him that yes, we were given one by the Peace Corps. He told us how scary the manual is. He said when he got sick he would look through it, trying to diagnose himself, and he would usually come out of it thinking, “Well, looks like I have malaria, typhoid, and a little bit of Ebola.” We all got a laugh out of that because it really is true. I think they only provide us with that manual to scare us into staying in our home and wearing a bubble suit.
Overall, I am very thankful the unnamed man came to speak with us. It is likely that he will never know how he inspired me to be the best Peace Corps Volunteer I can be, just as it is likely that all of us PCVs will never know the impact we had on the country in which we serve. But those things don’t matter. All that matter is we do our best every day to empower others and let them know that we understand the struggle. All we can do is keep chugging along.