Friday, March 30, 2007

Why I Joined the Peace Corps

My cousin Susan from Arlington, VA asked what made me decide to join the Peace Corps. It's a fair question, and one I figured others might find interesting as well. So, I've pasted my response to Susan here:

...the answer is a complicated one. I suppose it goes without saying that my decision to join is the result of many hopes, desires and aspirations.

I suppose one reason I went for the Peace Corps is that I've spent the last four years in academia, and I think it is time for something completely different. I know what its like to be cooped up in a library, my face buried in books; I'd rather be actually doing and experiencing new things. Everyone talks about entering the "Real World" after college. It doesn't get much more real than this.

It seems like a lot of people right out of college have feelings of angst about what to do next. I sure did. I graduated the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor of Arts in History. At first it seemed like my options were limited: (1.) Teach, (2.) Get a job pushing paper at an insurance company or something equally mind-numbing, or (3.) Go to graduate school for History and maybe get some sort of history/research-related job. Option (2.) seemed right out. I had no desire to spend my time in a cubicle. Option (1.) didn't seem too bad, but I wasn't sure I was ready to jump into teaching right away, especially since it would require further education. As I've already alluded to, by the time I'd graduated college I had grown somewhat tired of the educational system, and needed a break.

That's also why option (3.) didn't seem too appealing to me. I really didn't relish the idea of going to graduate school, especially for history. To be quite honest, I didn't like history enough to pursue a master's or doctorate in the field. And, I didn't know what else might interest me enough to devote years of constant study, so I decided graduate school wasn't the best choice. I'd like to go eventually, but I want to make sure that I'm studying something I really like. Hopefully, given some time, something that really interests me will present itself. I feel that before I make any decisions about returning to school it would help to have more life-experience under my belt. Perhaps my service in the Peace Corps will help with this. Maybe it'll show me some new possibilities and open some new doors. I admire those people who know exactly what they want to do from the start. In comparison to them I must seem fickle. Then again, I realize I'm experiencing the same feelings that the majority of people have. Most of us spend our entire lives figuring out what we will be when we 'grow up.' I may feel lost at times, but that's only because life is a journey. And, at least I now have a sense of direction because I know the Peace Corps will be the next leg of that journey.

The problem I found while progressing through my education is that the system seems to be like a big funnel. At least this seems to be the case in my own experience as a student of the liberal arts, and it's primarily why I didn't want to pursue a history PhD. As I understand it, education is intended to broaden an individual's awareness, understanding, abilities, etc. However, the way the system works, it seems like the individual is forced to pigeonhole himself. Education starts out very broad, with general subjects. But as the student advances, his areas of study become increasingly specialized, to the point where they almost seem to depart from reality. It just seems too restrictive for my tastes and contradicts my whole philosophy of learning.

At UConn, I had several friends, teachers and co-workers who were working on PhDs. As a tutor at the university's Writing Center, I also tutored a few doctoral students, and read some of their writings. A lot of what I saw seemed really picayune, and quite frankly, very boring. Of course I mean no offense to them or their field. I just could never see myself writing essays on things like Henry Clay Frick's wardrobe, or Charlotte Bronte's favorite pastimes, or the philosophy of semi-colons. I think my mind would mutiny. This is not to say there's nothing substantial in the study of history, literature, philosophy, etc. It's just that so much has already been written that new scholarship is often enormously obscure. Such knowledge may make a person a master of Trivial Pursuits, but how much of it really matters anyway? Of course, I'm sure that it matters to some people. To me, however, it seems like the life of the academic is so insular that it's not practical. I suppose it takes a different type of person.

I do love learning. I love to learn as much as I can. But there's only so much you can gain from a book, especially a book so ridden with technical jargon that you can barely remember how it relates to the real world. There's certainly something to be said for experience. I look at the Peace Corps as an opportunity for learning. I'm sure there's a lot I can learn from life in the developing world. I'm hoping that what I gain from my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer will help make me a more-rounded individual. I'll have the opportunity to learn another language. I'll be able to view the world from another cultural perspective. I'll have the chance to meet new people. And hopefully, it'll be a chance for me to discover more about who I am and what I'm made of.

I like the idea of giving up everything I know and immersing myself in a totally foreign environment. It suits my sense of adventure. My life up to this point has been very good. I have no complaints. But I'm curious to see what else is out there. Most of the traveling I've done has been within the United States, and a little in Canada, Mexico and England. But I haven't really been anywhere totally unfamiliar, and any trips I've taken have only been for short periods of time. The Peace Corps will give me a chance to break out of the familiar and change my frame of reference. But, most of all, it will give me the chance to work with other people for positive change.

I guess that's some of the background on why the Peace Corps seemed an attractive option. My actual decision to apply was triggered by some events during my senior year at UConn. I took an alternative spring break to New Orleans to help with the hurricane recovery. I was with a group of about 50 UConn students who helped gut homes affected by hurricane Katrina, and in the process I met some of the most inspiring and admirable people. It was only a week, but it's something I'll always remember as one of the most positive experiences of my life. In fact, I was so inspired, I decided to go back a second time in May 2006. Another inspiring experience from my senior year was tutoring at an inner-city public high school in Hartford, Connecticut, where I worked with students with their writing and reading comprehension. Every week I went to Hartford Public High School to visit one particular social studies class. Eventually I got to know the kids, and made some solid connections. I felt like I was making an impact, especially when I discovered a desire to learn in the students who weren't usually receptive to their teacher. Being a hurricane relief volunteer and tutoring at Hartford High broadened my understanding of the troubled world in which we live, and awakened me to the fact that I can make a difference. Furthermore, both experiences helped me to see the value in volunteer service and reinforced my desire to make a positive impact.

It was with this desire to help others that I applied to a program called Teach for America. It's a program that places recent college graduates in troubled schools throughout the country. The idea is to give under-privileged students a better chance at success. Applicants for Teach for America need not have a degree in education; they are given TFA's own intensive teacher-training. It seemed like a good program and a good cause, given the ever-present need for quality education. Moreover, I felt Teach for America would allow me to do something important. For a long time now I've felt pressure to do something significant with my life. After all, I have two very successful older brothers to keep up with. I thought Teach for America would allow me to make a positive impact.

Much to my disappointment, Teach for America did not accept me. When I had applied to the program, I put any other plans on hold because if I were accepted, my obligation would have been for two years, and I had to ensure that I didn't have any other conflicting obligations. So, when I found out I was rejected, I was left without any concrete 'plan B.' Then, one day a co-worker of mine at the UConn Writing Center asked me, "why don't you look into the Peace Corps?" Her partner had served in Malaysia in the 1960's, and he loved it.

Before my co-worker mentioned it, I'd never really considered the Peace Corps. But, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that I was at a perfect stage in my life to pursue such an option. It also occurred to me that being a volunteer in the Peace Corps would allow me to serve the greater good, just as I would have with Teach for America. But, it seemed to me that the Peace Corps would offer far more than Teach for America in the way of cross-cultural and life-experiences. So, that same day I went to the Peace Corps website to learn more and to start my application. The rest, as they say, is history.

In retrospect, I'm glad that Teach for America didn't accept me. I have a couple friends in TFA who absolutely hate it. I've also heard that TFA's training for its teachers can be lacking, resulting in tremendous stress and high burn-out rates. Applying for the program, I knew it would be a challenge to jump into a troubled school-system and expect significant gains from an un-experienced teacher with limited funding, few resources, and under-achieving students. I understood it would be tough, but, as I've heard from some who have been accepted, it can be a little too much. Perhaps, as with many things, it's what you make of it. But in any case, I'm glad things turned out the way they did, because now I have the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps--something I think I'll enjoy more anyhow. I'm trying very hard to go into the Peace Corps without any expectations. But, as I'm sure you can tell, I do have some. It's very hard not to. At the very least I do have the expectation that this will be a positive experience, no matter what happens (I'll make sure it is).


JamesD said...

I just wanted to say hello. I just accepted a TEFL position in Romania today. I go to staging on May 15th so we will probably be in the same group.

Mike said...

Congratulations, James. Welcome to group 23! With about a month to go, I bet you're excited and nervous (I sure am). I'm surprised they're still inviting volunteers this close to departure. Seems to be cutting it a little close, wouldn't you say?

Email me at if you'd like to exchange introductions.

Jack Nork said...

Great post Mike. Keep em coming!

John said...

Enjoying the Blog Mike. I see a book coming at the end of all this.
We're proud of you son!
Mom and Dad

Anonymous said...

You summed up my mentality EXACTLY. I just graduated from Brandeis with degrees in Anthropology and Art History and am really fed up with my depressing options. I simply do not know what I want my life to be. Then I realized I could do this- I just applied to the Corps today.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Mike on finding a cause that speaks to you.

I once asked my wife what her plan was when she decided to major in Political Science. Turns out she had none. PoliSci was easier than everything else.

Me. I was 13 when I decided to be an engineer. No problem being motivated to get a graduate degree ( 1994 ) and I have had steady employment doing what I love.

Perhaps that was the missing element for you ( and my wife ). Being able to know what you are passionate about and then just doing it.