The Peace Corps Fellowship Program at MU obviously benefits the returned Peace Corps volunteers with its financial support and tuition waiver, but there are also deep rewards to the campus community. That is, just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill the university’s goal of globalizing the campus. The program, which has existed at MU since the fall of 2007, is currently sponsored by six graduate programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. For this special feature of SyndicateMizzou, we interviewed all five of the first MU Peace Corps Fellows—Julie Feeney, Kate Fjell, Craig Hutton, Matt Rysavy, and Nick Spina.
It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while career goals were narrowed. In others, this kind of international volunteer work was already compatible with their career ambitions. Regardless of the reason for joining, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given themselves.
All of the volunteers found their Peace Corps experience to be personally transformative, and part of the transition involved the shattering of expectations. Before going abroad, most of the volunteers had ideas that didn’t quite match with reality. “All these preconceived notions that you come with,” says Julie Feeney, “I think they are your biggest obstacles.” Recounting her first impression of Paraguay, for instance, Feeney describes landing in a large developing city “that is, I guess I would say, not very aesthetically pleasing.” Feeney chuckles now to recall how she had been “expecting it to be like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful.” Industrialized cities in the developing world, she realized, are not usually like that. Similarly, Nick Spina observed: “I had imagined when I went to the Peace Corps that I would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead he was assigned to a city of 60,000 people. Kate Fjell recalls: “I was very naïve going in. I had worked in non-profits before coming to Malawi, I had volunteered before, and I had traveled in other countries, but it totally blew me away. It was nothing like my expectations. It was so much harder, so much more rewarding, so much more challenging. It was just more. Everything was ramped up by a power of ten, I’d say, or maybe even a power of 100!”
Because of these experiences that contradict preconceived notions, Spina concludes: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations…. I always tell people entering the Peace Corps,” he adds, “to be flexible and be patient…. If you are impatient, and inflexible, it is not going to be a very pleasant experience. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.”
Beyond flexibility, which every volunteer mentions, Feeney finds that one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps “is re-evaluating what you define as success, because it’s not always tangible, it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learned to appreciate little victories.” Some of those little victories involved learning the language, while others involved the completion of the assigned projects. Another kind of victory was individual, internal, and experiential. “You live there for two years, and it becomes your home,” offers Spina. “After a while, I didn’t see it as a different place; it became my home, which is the goal. You want it to become a place you call home.”