The Peace Corps Identity

23 05 2013

I was recently asked what the most surprising thing about my Peace Corps experience was. One of the things that came to mind was what I am calling the “Peace Corps Identity.” Sitting in my Pittsburgh apartment two years ago, imagining my time as a volunteer, I envisioned a very autonomous experience. I expected to be at site for the vast majority of the two years. I expected to be working on projects alone, or with Tim. I expected to be completely separate from other volunteers once our pre-service training ended. I think we’ve all heard the Peace Corps stories, probably from the 1960s (and likely fabricated), of a volunteer not seeing another American for the entire two year commitment. That was more or less what I had envisioned.

Boy, was I wrong. First of all, there are a million reasons to leave site, from Peace Corps trainings in Phnom Penh to NGO meetings in the provincial town to supply runs for upcoming projects and events. All of these trips create opportunities to connect with other volunteers, who either live in the place you’re visiting or have come in for similar reasons. Not to mention that sometimes (gasp!), volunteers actually leave site for purely social reasons.

My cohort (K5s)

My cohort (K5s)

I’ve also collaborated with other volunteers on projects. All of my main projects required some amount of collaboration, whether it was brainstorming project design ideas, facilitating trainings together, or putting one another in contact with useful resources. This means that over the past two years, I have spent a lot of time with other volunteers. And even though I would say that I spend less time with other volunteers than most, I still feel as though I see them vastly more regularly than I had ever anticipated.

This regular communication has, not surprisingly, led to friendships, professional contacts, and a strong sense of group identity. I love the group I came in with and would be willing to help them in any way that I could, even if I don’t always necessarily get along with all of them as individuals. I have to admit, being a Peace Corps Volunteer – and a K5, more specifically – has seeped into the way I view myself and my personal identity.

One common thing we PCVs do together: Eat ice cream

One common thing PCVs do together: Eat ice cream

This may not be surprising for some. After all, plenty of people identify based on their high school or college. It’s not unusual to feel such a strong connection to groups like fraternities or sororities. Some people feel their identities tied closely to their hometown, their dance troupe, cribbage club, or neighborhood association. I just have never been one of those people. I had never identified so strongly with a group identity before, but it’s happened here in Peace Corps.

It didn’t just happen to me, either. The Peace Corps Identity is a powerful thing. I remember witnessing it during my short time in DC a few years back. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers were willing to interview, or even hire, people just because of their shared RPCV status. Peace Corps networking events, job fairs, and social groups were everywhere I turned. Joining Peace Corps – and I would argue, completing your service – gets you a ticket into a special club. Looking back, I should have realized the hold it had on people, but I didn’t. Only now, as a soon-to-be RPCV can I see how strong the bond is, even if I can’t fully explain it.

Katie

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