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Being White, a Woman, and Why I Joined The Peace Corp

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Being White, a Woman, and Why I Joined The Peace Corp

Sometimes you have to reach down inside of yourself and really search for that inner strength. There comes a time when you have to take a leap of faith, and trust your gut instinct. I found my inner strength when I took a leap of faith and joined an organization that had been around for years, since the 1960s. I was so scared, having an overwhelming feeling that I had made a mistake, having quit a good job, to be a volunteer, but I used that fear, and embraced the unknown. I knew that I had to do something bigger than myself, and something on a global scale.  I had to give back to a country that had given me so much. At age 33, I joined the Peace Corps and dedicated two years of my life to serving overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer.

This wonderful organization was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and there have been thousands of people that have served in the Peace Corps since its beginnings. People have various reasons for joining the Peace Corps. My reason was to find my inner strength and to give back to my country.

I grew up a middle class white girl in Orange County, California. My parents supported me in everything that I did and always wanted something better for me and my sister, than they had. That’s the goal for every generation to improve itself. I graduated from High School, went straight on to College and after college into a “career job”. I did get a Master’s degree along the way. But although being a teen age girl is challenging, I never felt challenged, in the sense that I never went ‘without’.

I worked and worked and saved money and tried to better myself but something was always missing. I figured it out by the time I turned 30 and at 33, quit my “career job” and joined the Peace Corps. I became a Peace Corps Volunteer and was officially employed by the U.S. Government.

It was a big step and a lot of preparation. I spent six long months just trying to get cleared by the Peace Corps, medically, and financially.  Then I had to go to an Interview with a Peace Corps recruiter. Then a country assignment and an overseas job assignment. Joining the Peace Corps, took inner strength, but being in the Peace Corps took everything I had. The assignment was for two years, plus three months of training and I was sent to Jamaica.

The day I left for the Peace Corps was July 4th. How appropriate that I should leave on the birthday of the United States. I flew to Miami and met up with all the people that were reaching down inside themselves and taking a leap of faith. There were 77 of us in all. That first night, I stayed in a Miami Hotel and I met all the other people that were joining me on this journey.

The next day, I flew to Jamaica and when the plane landed in Kingston, Jamaica and I walked down the stairs onto the tarmac; my first thought was “Damn it’s hot here! I’m going to be here for 2 years”. I still think about that moment to this day and I have told the story over and over again.

So what does one do in the Peace Corps, well that depends on what sector you are assigned to and then the Peace Corps Staff finds you a job. For three months, we lived with host families and attended training and learned about Jamaican Patois (the Un-official language of the island). There was a swearing in ceremony, that was a lot like graduation, and then we left the training site and went all over the island to start our service.

I learned very quickly how to do without. My first year I had no clothes washer and I washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line to dry. I had no hot water in the house that I lived in, so I learned to take cold showers, and then, to make things more challenging, the water would end, or “lock off” as the Jamaicans would say, at 11 pm every night and come back on between 5 and 6 in the morning. There was no toilet flushing at night.

I will say the most challenging aspect of being in Jamaica was being the white face in a crowd. Most Jamaicans are black and there are many different shades of pigment on their skin. There are a few white Jamaicans, but none of them lived near me. I grew up in Orange County, California which as you may know is predominately white, asian and hispanic. There were no black people in my high school class and I had no black friends until college.

“Photo courtesy of the United States Peace Corp”

I come to Jamaica and I all of a sudden have thousands of black friends, of all ages. I also had 14 marriage proposals, from random Jamaican men, none that I was actually dating. For the first time in my life I was in the racial minority and it was quite a challenge.

So I learned to do things and start to think the Jamaican way. What is the Jamaican way you may ask? It’s realizing that things that make you upset or frustrated are really not that bad. For example, Jamaican people talk during a movie. Jamaicans discuss movies and talk to the screen during the show, I got use to that. Another example was music, on Friday and Saturday night music was played outside my house from 7 pm to 5 or 6 am. There were no noise ordinances and Jamaicans party all night long. As you probably guessed I learned to live with it. One of the hardest examples was drinking warm beer after a volunteer project or a work project, because the person had no power or no refrigerator, but wanted to give us a token of appreciation and I drank my fair share of warm beer.

As the days turned in to months and the months into a year, I began to appreciate the Jamaicans and look as it as a challenge. Actually what I was doing was assimilating into the culture. I got more and more comfortable as the days went on. I didn’t have to dig as deep down inside, and I wasn’t scared anymore.

One year into my service, came my biggest challenge. Hurricane Ivan struck the island of Jamaica. My house was destroyed and my school, where I worked, was heavily damaged. After that hurricane, I was homeless. I had never been homeless before and had never been through a natural disaster of that magnitude.

It was at this point that I had to search for inner strength. I was struggling with homeless and was getting depressed in the process. I thought about quitting several times. It took everything that I had to will myself to get through every day. After two of the toughest months of my life, I found a room the rent with another Peace Corps Volunteer and I was posted at another job.

So, the days, weeks, and months started to go by and I was again assimilating myself and learning the Jamaican way, and learning a new job. The Peace Corps has three goals:

 

1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women

 

2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served

 

3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

 

As my time grew near the end, I started to examine my Peace Corps service, in relation to the three goals. One, had I help train men and women? Not technically, I did work with a lot of students and helped prepared the men and women of the future, all of whom are adults today, in 2018.

 

Did I promote a better understanding of Americans? Hard to tell, I did my best to be a hard working independent woman. But at time of my service, American was struggling with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.  Views of the United States were mixed, and I heard a lot of negative view of our government.

 

The final goal to promote a better understanding of other peoples, I mainly did this when I got home. I gave presentations, spoke to groups about the people in Jamaica. I talked about the culture, and the diversity and many, many “Jamaica Way” things that I learned. So I would say ‘yes’ I accomplished the third goals.

 

My time in the Peace Corps was special and it was the single scariest and most rewarding adventure of my life. I will never regret having taken a leap of faith to join the Peace Corps. I also feel that I got to search my soul and understand myself a lot better and that I am stronger for having done it. I encourage all people to dig deep down and search their soul and also, to put themselves out there and challenge themselves and bit. You will find it rewarding!

 

https://www.peacecorps.gov

 

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Shanyn Behn is a new writer to BurstOut Magazine. She brings a fresh perspective to the magazine as a Gen Xer. She lives in Long Beach, and has been in the Public Service Work for 17 years. In her free time, she enjoys reading, live theater and playing her dogs. She captivates readers with her perspective while creating new experiences.

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