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Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Julie Feeney joined the Peace Corps right after graduation to help her narrow her career goals: “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people, but those are very broad goals. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world.”
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From 2001 to 2003, Feeney worked in Paraguay. While there, Feeney served as a municipal development volunteer, working with the local government on matters related to decentralization. “We did everything from workshops on budget transparency to working with the local health center. But my biggest project, I would say, was building a community center in a rural area and working in conjunction with a youth group,” she explains.
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“It was a long, long process. And, actually, I [initially] didn’t want to get involved,” Feeney admits. “But then they started having fundraisers on their own. We did a Peace Corps course on family planning and career goals, and they came every Saturday for three hours. Their dedication really impressed me, so we started working on this project.” Feeney helped the community apply for grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the local government. She also helped with the health center’s construction.
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When asked which moments stood out for her, Feeney recalls a hot morning under a shade tree when an elderly man epitomized the Guaraní value of giving. “I really saw how people who had so little gave everything that they could,” she began. “We had been working in the morning, which in the summer can be more than 100 degrees and heats up very quickly, and we were taking a rest under a shade tree when an older gentleman comes with this really, really big bundle on his horse. He stops and takes off the bundle. And we’re talking for a while, drinking a tea everyone shares in Paraguay, and he opens up the bundle, and it’s bananas. He had gathered as many bananas as he could and ridden probably four or five miles just to bring them. Once we had eaten together, and shared for a little while, he got back on his horse and went back home. It was just a really incredible moment for me, realizing how much he had sacrificed.”
When they think about the Peace Corps prior to going, many volunteer trainees have basic questions and fears about such things as bathrooms and living conditions, and many expectations get shattered. “I had a really idealized vision of what the country would look like and the language that people would speak,” Julie Feeney recalls. “All these preconceived notions that you come with, I think they are your biggest obstacles.” For example, ahe chuckles when remembering how she had expected it to be “like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful,” only to discover that Paraguay’s industrialized cities do not fit that image. Likewise, Nick Spina had imaged that he “would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he was assigned to an Armenian city of 60,000 people.
Many Peace Corps volunteers discover that they have underestimated the language barrier or the technical assignment. For instance, Feeney expected that she would use Spanish principally, but soon discovered that people in the countryside in Paraguay speak Guarny instead. “It was a struggle,” she says. “I hadn’t expected to feel that kind of dependency on others for communication…. I didn’t expect to be a child again. So there were many different things that I had to reevaluate.”
Having already volunteered, worked with non-profit groups, and traveled abroad, Kate Fjell felt prepared for certain aspects of her assignment in Malawi. Yet, she remembers; “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!”
Moreover, Fjell adds, she hadn’t expected to feel so socially isolated and awkward: “Peace Corps volunteers will always talk about it being like living in a fish bowl. I was the only white person for forty miles, so I definitely stood out…and that was really hard. People were so fascinated. People would follow me to the bathroom, you know, because they wanted to know if I went to the bathroom the same way…. I wasn’t used to being watched all the time, and it took me a long time to get used to it.”
Because of these kinds of experiences, Spina reached an interesting conclusion: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations. You have to be flexible. Those who go in, saying ‘I want to do this, I want to do it there, and I only want to do that’, end up having a really hard time. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.” Beyond flexibility, one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps, according to these Peace Corps, is re-evaluating the meaning of success. “It’s not always tangible,” Feeney cautions, “it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learn to appreciate little victories.” Agreeing, Matt Rysavy adds: “You really think that you can go and make these humongous changes. In reality, they are just small dents,… but it’s still positive change. That’s what you have to remind yourself of when it’s all said and done.”