For as long as I can remember, people were always asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still get that question at 27. "What is your five-year plan?" "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" "What's next?"
The questions are daunting. Does anyone actually have an answer to this? In high school, I thought I had an answer. I was going to go to college, and then I was going to join the Peace Corps. I went to a Peace Corps talk during my freshman year of college and applied my junior year, and three weeks after I graduated from the University of Florida, I left for Cameroon, in the armpit of Africa, to embark on a 26-month adventure.
The Peace Corps volunteers I met all had various reasons for joining. In my group, I was one of three who joined right after college. Most had been doing various jobs for a year or two and wanted a change. Several, surprisingly, were middle-aged and wanted a career change or break. Some had burned out on Wall Street. There were even a few retirees. Some joined because they were having a hard time finding a job during the recession, others because they wanted an adventure, and maybe even a few because they wanted to escape the realities of living in America. I cannot honestly say why I joined. I feel as though I did not have a choice, as if it was something I would deeply regret not doing.
Being in the Peace Corps is different for each person. For one reason, there are many fields for which one can volunteer: agriculture, education, health, economic development, youth, community development, and hybrid versions of these. There's the old cliche that life is what you make it, and that has never been so true for me as during those two years in Cameroon.
After a three-month training, I networked and really tried to get to know my community for a few months. I was working as a community economic development volunteer and was partnered with a microfinance organization that was possibly more interested in my being a white female than in any suggestions I could offer. So I worked with nonprofits that focused on business classes for women, taught in a prison, helped an orphanage become sustainable by teaching them how to make jewelry, found funding for a well at a blind center, and helped with about 20 other projects, some that failed and some that were, in my eyes, successful. Those were projects I wanted to do, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to be assertive, independent, creative and resilient while making an impact on my community.
Having been back in the U.S. for three years now, the skills I learned while living abroad have not left me. I approach my job tasks in a different light than do my colleagues. My current supervisor has called me a "free spirit" in terms of how I approach projects, and I feel honored by that. Why should we approach projects and ideas the way we always have? Why not be creative and look for the path that will be the most beneficial to those we aim to serve? Of course, joining the Peace Corps is not the only way one can learn these skills. Yet, for me, it was the most supportive organization for my personal development that truly fostered a culture of creativity, independence and cooperation.
There are disadvantages, as well. While my younger cousin just bought a house, and my Facebook is imploding with friends getting married and having children, I still feel a bit aimless, despite completing my two-year contract, graduating with an International MBA and now working at a national recreation area. While some may consider the opportunity cost quite high, I had a wonderful experience, learned so much, now speak French, and feel that I really did make a difference in my small town. I have never been so sure of anything as I was about my decision to join the Peace Corps, and I will forever be grateful to myself for fulfilling that dream.