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A trip home, and some thoughts about (Peace Corps) success

Family and tough love are the best

Huddled over a cayenne-and-cinnamon-spiced mug of almond milk-hot chocolate, wriggling my toes in striped wool socks while snow fell outside, I knew I was home. Home for a week-long visit, that is. Visiting the United States for Christmas marked my first time out of Colombia in 14 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer. “There’s No Place Like/Home For the Holidays” rarely leaving my lips the entire week, I can’t remember ever being so happy.

Too happy, perhaps.

Family and tough love are the best

Family and tough love are the best

In true Peace-Corps-overthinking form, I had to wonder if the amount of happiness I felt was normal. Was it because I’d missed my friends, family and snow that much? Possibly. Of course, there was also the fact that everything was easy. After living in a “fishbowl” 24/7, dealing with a coastal sense of timeliness (or complete lack thereof), existing daily in a virtual sauna, and spending a year expressing myself in a language I’m not even close to fluent in—well, most US-bred “inconveniences” couldn’t touch me.

And yet. If being in the US meant experiencing unparalleled happiness, than conversely, perhaps my emotional state in Colombia had been worse than I’d let myself realize.

On the plane back to Colombia, I wondered if I was making the right decision. Last year was perhaps the hardest I’ve ever had, in every way. There were the difficulties I was expecting, including cultural adjustments, learning a new language, the necessity of redefining “success,” stomach issues, and terrible working conditions. There was also the other issue—the fact that I live in a city. I would do a lot, in life, to avoid urban living. I might even go so far as to sign up for, say, the Peace Corps…oh, wait.

Hot, raucous, and urban as it is, life in Barranquilla, Colombia has tested me in ways I never imagined would be part of my Peace Corps experience. With a year left of service, returning as a committed volunteer meant, for me, weighing the value of my presence here. Is what I do (chiefly, co-teaching English in public schools) “worth it”—worth the discomfort, worth living in a city, worth the minuscule and un-measurable progress, the endless days, the two-year investment?

With these doubts bouncing through my head, returning to the blazing Colombian coast from my snowy Christmas break triggered a meltdown in every sense of the term. All the past and imagined future difficulties glommed into one giant, arroyo-bearing black cloud. Again and again, I asked myself, “Is it worth it?”

Dread is apparently a common sensation at the one-year mark for Peace Corps volunteers. Solidarity in regards to feeling awful, however, is only a tad reassuring. More helpful was the support of my amazing family and friends, who, through a combination of tough love and rational advice, helped remind me of all the reasons I am doing this.

Which, it turns out, is only partially to “make a difference.”

It’s probably not a huge revelation that “making a difference” wasn’t the only reason I decided to join the Peace Corps. After all, as important as this is to me, there are a wealth of jobs that fit that bill. Becoming a volunteer was also about integrating within a new culture, learning a new language, and experiencing a new corner of the world—with the expectation that the price paid would be living far out of my comfort zone. With all those reasons, there should be many ways to measure the worth of my presence in-country.

And yet, “Am I making (enough of) a difference?” has been the chief way in which I have tried to answer that persistent question.

All of last year, I fixated on being able to justify my presence here through tangible means. Statistics, project successes, qualitative assessments— I wanted hard evidence for or against remaining in Colombia.
This past week, something clicked when I asked myself— To whom, exactly, was I trying to justify myself?

Turned out the answer was effectively…myself.

Thinking back through all I’ve done in my life, I realized that I’ve never needed any statistic or evaluation to tell me what it is I really found “worth it”: I just know. This doesn’t mean letting go of standards, but it instead requires that I know myself well enough to decide what I want out of service—and then making it happen.

For me, judging my Peace Corps experience is not solely related to making strides in the English department of my worksite. Instead, it is about relationships forged, life and work experiences gained, and, just as in any point in my life, how I spend “personal” time—whether I’ve contributed not only to the cause for which I work, but to my own personal development. No justifications; no need for quantification; no excuses.

Going home for Christmas was an incredible reminder of how lucky I am, but I guess I’m not ready to have all that wonderfulness back for good, quite yet. Last year was ultimately about creating a foundation upon which I can build this second year. I can’t imagine many other jobs where the learning curve would be so encompassing, long, and steep. I do know, however, that if I can finish my service believing that my time here was “worth it,” defining and accepting an internal rather than external brand of success, then I’ll have accomplished everything I meant to do (whether I knew it or not at the time I signed up) in my Peace Corps service. I know that, at the end of the day, if I can figure out how to be content with myself as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll be able to do that anywhere, in any situation.

Emily Fiocco
Emily graduated college in 2010 with a creative writing degree, which naturally led to working at a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin. After managing software projects for a year, she ended her spurt as an American professional to return to what she truly enjoys—traveling, living in new cultures, and non-profit work. Her life in the Peace Corps in the huge city of Barranquilla, Colombia has ironically turned her into an urban dweller. She is learning to make her home in a city that believes in fashion above all else, even during un-air-conditioned 100+ degree heat. Her job is teaching students and training teachers at a large, all-girls school, supporting the country’s goal to turn its schools bilingual by 2019. While here, her spare time activities include hunting down ovens in which to cook delicious, Colombianified food, embarrassing herself with highly gringa dance moves, reveling in the local geographical luxury of consistently labeled streets, and trying to improve her Spanish with the help of the local Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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