There is often a lot of discussion among Peace Corps Volunteers, the media, Congress and who knows who else about the effectiveness of the Peace Corps approach to development. I’ve never had a single college or graduate school course in development and I usually don’t jump into these debates with any sort of cohesive thought on development strategy. There are people far more qualified to discuss development. I do however have a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and I did work on foreign policy in Congress. I do know about things like soft power, winning hearts and minds, and Lexuses and olive trees. I like the feel-good, holding hands, making friends approach to saving the world. That’s why I studied diplomacy. And that’s why I’m here.
I believe that the purpose of the Peace Corps is to send 10,000 smiling (most of the time) Americans out in the world to meet people that normally would never meet an American. Our job is to put a real face to the title “American” for tens of thousands of non-Americans. Our job is to show that Americans aren’t just Baywatch babes, or young people gunning to lose their virginity as soon as possible. We aren’t just white people. We aren’t just rich people. We love and deeply miss our families when we are apart just as they do.
There are many other U.S. organizations dedicated to development and providing aid. They probably do a much better job of these things. Of course PCVs have jobs like teaching English, youth development, water and sanitation and community development because we have to do something with our days! I couldn’t get a visa to just ride on buses and take pictures with people. Those titles are our jobs. But I don’t think they are our true purpose for being here.
My closest friend and main counter-part here probably couldn’t be more different than me on the outside. She’s one of the most devout Muslim women I’ve met here. She is only two years older than me and has her fourth child on the way. She married her husband based on signs from God received through her father. But…Will and I are very close to her and her family. We eat dinner with them once a week and go places together. When they stop to pray at the mosque we hang out outside and entertain the youngest daughter who is still too young to pray. She and I like to sing 90’s love ballads at school events. She has warmly welcomed all my visiting family members. She says we are just like sisters.
I always tell people that even though we are different, we focus on the things we have in common, which deep down aren’t that different. We talk about family and fears and happiness. We talk about children and parents. We talk about our students and our lessons and what we’ve learned from each other.
The two of us visit other schools about twice a month. We both agree that it’s important to reach as many people and kids as we can to let them meet a real American. We tell them about American culture—mostly how it’s not always what they think. We tell them about how important family is to Americans. We tell them that smoking in America is rare now and that rates of teenage drinking, drug use and sex are receding.
She’s learned from me that, in general, drinking doesn’t mean you are a bad person in American culture. I’ve learned from her that not putting your kid in a car seat, in general, doesn’t mean you are a bad parent in Indonesian culture.
I think a lot of PCVs feel a lot of stress about the impact they are making during their time in the Peace Corps. I think the impact is what I described above. Maybe it’s selfish or patriotic of me to want people (especially those susceptible to radical anti-Americanism) to like us, but we need to keep talking, keep smiling, keep taking those pictures with people. That’s the impact. One person at a time. One heart at a time. That’s why I’m here.