In our last blog post, we talked about Peace Corps volunteering, and answered some commonly asked questions about the program. While the experience of each volunteer is very different, it can also be beneficial to anyone who is thinking about joining the Peace Corps (or any volunteer abroad program) to hear what it’s really like.
For this reason, I have invited a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to answer a few questions about her experience as a volunteer in Bulgaria.
Where did you work as a Peace Corps volunteer? What was the project that you worked on?
I served in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was an education volunteer and my primary function was to teach English. I had the opportunity to teach both primary and secondary students since my town only had one school that combined all grade levels. English is a top priority for Bulgarians as it is now a member of the European Union, and a required second language. I also had the opportunity to work with community stakeholders, biology teachers and government officials to create an interactive biology laboratory for environmental education. We received funding from USAID to refurbish an existing classroom and develop a yearlong curriculum that was designed especially for the town and the surrounding local flora and fauna.
Why did you choose the Peace Corps for your volunteer abroad experience?
I chose Peace Corps because of its mission. I believe in the mission of the Peace Corps, to provide develop and foster cultural exchange. It is a unique organization that allows for volunteers and local communities to develop projects based on their community needs. I think many people are deterred from joining the Peace Corps because it is a two-year commitment, but from my experience two years was necessary in order to first understand the culture and people, and then to make a lasting difference. The duration of the service was an attraction because I did not want to feel like a tourist or a student taking a year off. I consider Bulgaria my second home. I was able to learn the language and have made lifelong connections.
Also, Peace Corps is one of the only organizations that provide volunteers with medical coverage, logistical support and project management training. It has adapted over its long history to provide volunteers with the necessary tools to succeed but still manages freedom in the projects the volunteers pursue.
What were you most concerned about before you left?
I was most concerned with what my living conditions and communication. I would say adjusting to living conditions was extreme at first but after the first initial weeks it becomes routine. I was surprised by how fast I adjusted. For communication, I was worried about the 3-month language training and my abilities to absorb such a unique language. It was a lot of work and often times frustrating but manageable.
What was the most challenging aspect of volunteering? the most rewarding?
The most challenging was periods of loneliness and feeling homesick; this usually occurred in the cold, dark months of winter and near the holidays. Even though I made Bulgarian friends and was able to visit other volunteers, some days you just want to be back home sitting on the couch surrounded by family. The most rewarding was working with students. While managing a classroom of 20 plus students was not easy, witnessing students grasp a concept or correctly use a new word was worth it.
What advice would you give someone who was thinking about joining the Peace Corps?
It is what you make of it. Do not expect to be dropped off in a town or village that has an outlined project or job function it wants completed; be prepared to learn as you go and develop your own role in the community. It is not a spring break trip, where you get to travel and see exotic places and if you treat it as such you will be disappointed by the end of your service. Make the most of your time even if confronted with unforeseen obstacles.
Can you give an example of “culture shock” that you felt while abroad?
My moment of “culture shock” came while I was in training, living with a family. My 13-year-old host brother developed excruciating pain in his side and was taken to the local hospital. Now the hospital looked like something out of a horror film. You had to bring your own sheets and blankets, no central heating and questionable smells. However that was only the beginning. Unfortunately for my host brother, he needed an appendectomy and what was even more unfortunate it was one of the biggest holidays in Bulgaria, St. George’s Day. There was no sober surgeon in the town. So he had to wait until a surgeon sobered up to perform the necessary operation. I could not believe there was no system in place at the hospital for emergencies. This never would have happened in a hospital in the States. He had to stay in bed and manage the pain all day before a surgeon was able to remove his appendix. I made a vow to myself to avoid any situation that could lead to a trip to the local hospital.
If you have any further questions about volunteering with the Peace Corps, please feel free to leave them in the comments!