Toni Schneider is a former Peace Corps Volunteer who was
stationed in Bulgaria
from 2005- 2007. National Geographic has had the pleasure of her company in our
education department since then, and we’re honored to highlight her experiences
on the blog. We couldn’t think of a
better way to end Geography Awareness Week than by noting one very important
application of geographic knowledge and skills: volunteerism and global
When people hear that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, it
elicits one of two responses: “I always wanted to join the Peace Corps!” or
“The Peace Corps? Is that a real job?” In
honor of Geography Awareness Week, My Wonderful World asked me to write about
my Peace Corps experience through the lens of careers in geography. Check out
the Google Earth tour “Geography on the Job” to get a glimpse of my work with
the Roma community in Bulgaria.
Ever wonder what a volunteer does all day long? See my “Day in the Life” section at the end
of this post.
What inspired me to
Every Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) is asked, “Would
you do it again?” For me, I’ve already shouted “yes!” before the question has
been finished. Serving as a Peace Corps
Volunteer completely changed my perspective on the world, without changing the
person that I am. Anyone searching for
an extraordinary way to truly experience a culture (eating chocolate gelato in
front of the Trevi fountain does not count!), learn a little language and a lot
about humility should seriously consider joining the Peace Corps. As a community member, a Peace Corps Volunteer
walks through an ever-revolving door, changing their role more frequently than
their wardrobe – becoming everything from inquisitive stranger, to technology whiz,
and hopefully, to community member and beloved friend. The transition from one role to another is
filled with fear, confusion and tears, but equally, respect, joy and clarity.
People are familiar with the sentiment that inspired John F.
Kennedy to create the Peace Corps, “Ask not what your country can do for you,
but what you can do for your country.” What they don’t know is that he also said,
“The logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.”This more than anything continues to inspire
me personally, as well as influence my career path.
I spent my entire childhood growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in
southern South Dakota, a place not so dissimilar
to my Peace Corps work in the Roma ghettos in Bulgaria. Faced with not only soaring unemployment, but
also below-average life expectancies, lack of opportunities, and inadequate
education, most youth on the reservation and the Roma ghetto have little hope
to succeed in either career or education.
Those with hope often do not have the means, and those with the means
have hardened to things like hope, and would prefer to leave their home
communities and never return. I treated
Peace Corps as an opportunity to be trained to work in impoverished
communities, and the experience has given me many ideas about the types of
programming and development methods that I hope I can one day help to apply to
my home community. I would like to see a
youth movement that functions like a civic council – researching problems,
hearing concerns, and finding solutions that fit the community. This kind of program not only empowers youth
to become leaders, it also gives them a sense of ownership over improvements to
their city. I feel very fortunate to have had the life experiences that I’ve
had, and feel it’s very important to give back to my community. Ultimately, I would like to return home to the
Rosebud to become the change agent Peace Corps trained me to be.
Day in the life of a
Peace Corps Volunteer
I arrive just in time for the weekly staff meeting at the
Pernik Municipal Palace of Culture where I help create arts education projects. Before the meeting even begins, I’m scolded
by coworkers for coming to work with wet hair, do I really want to catch a cold
and die? (How was I supposed to know that my neighbor turned off the
electricity to fix something in his apartment? So much for my hair dryer!)
All of the typing games I played in middle school have paid
off, and my coworkers believe I’m a computer genius. Today I’m teaching our Public Relations
person how to use PowerPoint for a meeting with the Minister of Education and
Culture. This presentation should give
us the edge to receive the funding we need for an upcoming multimedia arts
education project. Since my organization
is not-for-profit, we have no revenue of our own to support any programs or
ideas that we create. To help fund our
ideas, we often write grants in either English or Bulgarian, depending on the
source of the funding.
During a mid-day coffee break, I review daily newspaper
headlines with my coworkers Ivan and Sasho.
Their favorite topic: Do I really think America will elect a woman or a
minority as President?
The Regional Expert on Ethnographic Affairs has proposed a
music and dance program that would include youth from each ethnic group in
Pernik. This idea would bridge the work
done in both of my organizations, the Palace of Culture, and my primary assignment, a non-governmental organization that focuses on
building tolerance among multi-ethnic youth in
our city, O Romano Drom. We look at some
strengths and weaknesses in the community, and identify possible partner
Finally, time for lunch!
My best friend, Ogniana, happens to be in the city center. Her work as an investigator for the local
police is often demanding, especially as she is the only female in her
district. We catch up at a local
pizzeria, and before going back to work, she hands me a basket of fresh
vegetables from her father’s garden.
I accompany some coworkers to several electronics stores to
compare prices for the budget we are preparing as part of a grant proposal.
Since credit cards and checks are barely existent, most of our purchases are
made by cash to local merchants. Being a
“locavore” in Bulgaria isn’t a question of lifestyle or choice, it’s business as usual.
Back to O Romano Drom where a group of Roma students are
anxiously awaiting our bi-weekly English lesson. I am sometimes hesitant about teaching, but
the informal style of our “English Club” means the students are in high
Many rising musicians pass through the Balkans, and
frequently, they perform at the Palace of Culture. One foreigner is news enough, but two (one of
whom speaks the local language) almost always brings the media around. I spend a few minutes translating an
interview with the local TV station before running off to my next event.
A group of local women gather once a week to rehearse old
Slavonic songs. Rehearsal never begins without a few cups of coffee and news
about former or future choir members. They keep telling me our CD will be
My coworker, Desislava, and her family has adopted me as one
of their own, and that means I get great home cooked meals! Dinner starts out with a traditional shopska salata (fresh cucumbers and
tomatoes topped with “Bulgarian” feta), several salamis and a glass of local
spirits. The main course is a stew-like
entrée, cooked in a clay pot covered in traditional Bulgarian art. Dinner rarely lasts less than 3 hours, so by
the time I catch the bus back to my apartment, I’m exhausted but so happy to have
one more day in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Looking to broaden your horizons, taste new foods, meet fascinating
friends, participate in international
development work, practice your translation skills, and maybe even record an album in a foreign language?! There are few better hands-on experiences for geographers than the
Peace Corps. Learn more about the Peace Corps at PeaceCorps.gov.
Teachers—bring the world, and important topics like
international development, cross-cultural communication, and many more—to your
students through the eyes and letters of Peace Corps volunteers with World Wise Schools’ educational