September 18, 2020

Panel of Peace Corps alumni share stories from abroad

By Emmy Liederman
Staff Writer

A panel of former Peace Corps volunteers stopped by the Education Building on Oct. 11 to offer a real-life perspective on traveling the world to help those in need.

Panelists described lifelong benefits of stepping outside their comfort zone and leaving a familiar lifestyle behind. A typical Peace Corps mission is 27 months and consists of a three-month training period and 24 months of volunteer work.

The Peace Corps refers to its volunteer work as the “toughest job you will ever love,” and panelists echoed this slogan when sharing their stories with the audience.

During his three years of volunteer work as an economic developer in Peru, Peace Corps alumnus Joseph Coronado helped a group of students raise money for their graduation trip. The students had little financial experience, but with Coronado’s help, they were able to raise 3,000 soles and travel around Peru to celebrate their graduation.

“The best part is knowing there is a ripple effect,” Coronado said. “You help some people and the results continue. They now understand the value of saving.”

The central mission of the Peace Corps consists of three parts: providing service, sharing American culture and immersing oneself in a new culture. Many of the panelists noted that the minimalist lifestyle of their service countries made them recognize the flaws of America’s fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle. Alumna Amy Rivera (’01) shared her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.

“There was no electricity or running water, but you get used to it pretty quickly,” she said. “When I wanted water and it hadn’t rained, I just paid the girl next door to get it for me because it was a bit of a walk away. Coming from a westernized nation and a comfortable lifestyle, there is a shock that you have to get accustomed to.”

For many of the panelists, the absence of a fast-paced lifestyle was one of the biggest culture shocks.

“For me, it was about slowing my mind down,” said Cape Verde volunteer Andrew Vernaza, who worked as a vocational educator. “If I was trying to get a proposal in, I knew that not everything would move slowly and efficiently. Nothing ever happened instantly.”

Although this was occasionally frustrating for volunteers, it also allowed for more relaxation, free time and deeper connections within the community.

“My community and my host family treated me so well,” said Barbara Amaya, who worked as a health volunteer in Peru. “They always made sure I had hot water for baths and gave me a dog so I had a companion when I walked far distances. Sometimes it feels like I left my family.”

A Peace Corps volunteer receives many benefits, including 12 months of non-competitive job eligibility, meaning they can apply for government jobs without a competitive hiring process. Additionally, the Peace Corps can defer and potentially forgive student loans.

For Coronado, one of the biggest rewards was his change in attitude towards traditional American values.

“It helped me put my life in perspective,” he said. “You don’t have to get into that cycle of going to school, graduating, getting a job and having babies. Peace Corps made me realize that I can do whatever I want, and that is amazing.”

The Peace Corps provided volunteers with a chance not only to immerse themselves in a new culture, but also to form powerful relationships.

“Before I left, I went into my favorite restaurant, told the owner I was leaving tomorrow and he started to cry,” said Vernaza. “I was a part of his family. When I was saying goodbye to the bread guy, restaurant guy and fish guy, I realized I had really integrated into the culture.”

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