Jessica Marcy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 2003-2005. She currently works as a web reporter at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics.
“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” my mom said into the phone. “You might want to sit down.”
On the other side of the line, my mom held an invitation from the Peace Corps with my assignment. I waited anxiously to hear my fate for the next two years. “Mali and water sanitation,” she said, her tone suggesting no one would ever want to go to a place like that. “Are you disappointed?”
For the past couple of years, Peace Corps had seemed like an intriguing possibility, an opportunity to go anywhere in the world and be completely immersed in a foreign culture. For awhile, it was simply something that I wasn’t ready to commit to, but I now knew it was the time. Though I knew very little about Mali, it actually seemed like a pretty perfect place and, though I knew almost nothing about water sanitation, I knew it was a serious need and would provide me an opportunity to do meaningful work.
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?
Inside: Use Google Earth to Create a Trick-or-Treat Map GeoFeature: Prepare for Geography Awareness Week 2008 Geography in the News: Election 101 Blog: PTA President Jan Harp Domene on Geo-ed and the 2008 Election