The following are the reflections of a Peace Corps Volunteer on the important rewards of volunteer work in foreign lands. It also explains the perils. This article is dedicated to Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia Campbell, who was murdered in the Philippines in 2007.

It has been more than ten years since I went from being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). Yet that period still remains one of the proudest, most powerful and certainly one of the most memorable periods of my life.

As far as its importance is concerned, I put opening my acceptance letter up there with having my first period, getting confirmed in the Catholic Church, buying my first bra pair of boots, being asked to marry the man I love, walking into my first classroom as a teacher rather than a student, getting married to my husband, and losing my virginity — and truth be told I was naturally gifted at all of the above – although I may be a little fuzzy on the details for some of them, as champagne was involved.

The difference of course is that some of the above are mere moments in time, whereas being a wife, a teacher or a Peace Corps Volunteer defines long periods of your life. I’m talking about in the greater scheme of things that is, I’m not in any way complaining about the losing my virginity part, it was great really, … ummmm … anyway…. The goals of the Peace Corps are threefold:

1. Learn about the country and culture of the host country to which you are assigned
2. Teach the host country nationals about the United States and our culture
3. Bring what you learn back with you to this country

It is in the capacity of goal number three that we all continue to serve our country as rpcv’s when we come back home. We all strive to act in a way that may seem unfathomable or stubborn to others, but which makes perfect sense to us. We represent our country, until the day we die, and often even after we die. If we lie, then Americans will be seen as liars. If we accept dishonesty from our leaders, then Americans will be seen as corrupt.

If we allow Tim on the to lie unchallenged and write things like, “according to the official figures of the United Nations the population of Iraq has decreased from 27 million people in 2003 to 25 million since the invasion�?, then Americans will be seen as stupid sheep who won’t even bother to fact check fat old vapid little toadies of the democratic party, since the United Nations’ own online common statistical database clearly states that the population of Iraq is currently 27.9 million and growing … but then I digress ….

In fact, people often ignore teachers in real life. At parties the minute someone finds out you are a first grade teacher they usually tell you how much they liked recess and how much they hated school. Rarely do they think you might have an actual opinion or even any valuable thoughts about current events, history, literature, politics, knitting etc.

But if they find out you are an RPCV, suddenly you become interesting, if just a little bit weird or maybe even dangerous … who knows what an RPCV might do? And everyone seems to either know someone who is an RPCV or who wants to be a PCV. So many times people have said to me that they have thought about joining, or regretted not doing so. I always encourage people to join; it really is “the toughest job you will ever love�?.

However, few will ever join and with good reason; it isn’t easy. As a foreigner in a strange land you are always watched, you always stand out, and you usually don’t know the language or local customs very well.

For example, if you are a small blonde woman with a fine sense of fashion serving in Asia, and you happen to get food poisoning, and you suddenly throw up repeatedly in front of a bus stop full of several hundred people all with black hair and dark skin, they tend to remember you, and I would imagine for quite a while … um … hypothetically speaking.

This can also make you a target. Not all cultures accept our customs. While I was serving, one volunteer I served with was beaten unconscious, we think because he was gay. At least one woman was raped. Many volunteers were robbed or victims of violence.

One volunteer told me that he wasn’t upset that he got beaten up for the third time, by several men, with several hundred people watching, none of whom helped him, including police. He was upset because people driving by stopped their cars and got out to watch.

In my own case, a man I didn’t know tried to push me down a flight of stairs for no particular reason that I can comprehend. This kind of thing can really get you down since you are only there in their country to help them.

Of course there are amazing things that happen too. One woman told me once that as a single mother in a developing country she barely had enough money to buy her child food, never mind a can of Pepsi or a Snickers bar. Without thinking about it, I went out and bought her some to give to her son, it was just a couple of dollars.

The next time I saw her she gave me three small Buddhist tablets that had been in her family for a hundred years … to protect me. Several months ago two men tried to force me into a car at knife point. This is just one example of how the smallest little thing you do while a PCV can pay off in big ways. The tablets worked, I’m still here, and a bond exists between our two countries that a treaty never could accomplish.

This is how we serve our country. I and many others are not brave or strong enough to go to war, but we do what we can do, and I was no less proud to take the Peace Corps Oath than my father was to take his oath when he was sworn into the Air Force during the Korean War. He also volunteered. The oath is the same,

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.�?

I mention all of the above not because I love the Peace Corps, which of course I do, but because I found out something today that had escaped my notice. Truth be told, most volunteers are in our twenties when we join and we have little or no experience. Let’s face it most of us can’t balance our check books; heck most of us don’t even have checkbooks.

But occasionally someone with experience joins, and these people serve both as mentors to those they help and serve with, and also as examples to us all back home. They remind us that at any age, we can still make a difference in this world on a daily basis. These are people that have given up successful careers just so that they can help others. These are my heroes.

In April of this year, the body of Julia Campbell, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Manila, was found in a shallow grave. She was murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She gave her life for our country and never got to be a RPCV.

However, she is, will always be, and will forever remain,

Julia Campbell
Peace Corps Volunteer
Example to us all

YouTube Video

Julia Campbell’s Blog. Please read her last entry.