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Embracing challenges: My beginnings in the Peace Corps

group photo

Taken the last week of pre-service training. I treasure this photo and the memories, even now.

Peace Corps. For a lot of people, especially those who’ve already served, it means a lot. I’ve always heard former volunteers use words like “amazing,” “cathartic,” and “life-changing” to describe their service abroad, but when I was first accepted to the Peace Corps, I didn’t feel like any of those words applied to my current experience—I was scared.

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In my mind at the time, there was a lot to be scared about. For my desired assignment as an English teacher in Costa Rica, I had to submit a resume emphasizing my qualifications and experience in education as well as volunteer service. I remember looking at mine pitifully, thinking that I had no chance of ever being accepted. I regretted not taking advantage of my time as an undergrad volunteering or learning a new language. Why, I thought, did I insist on watching Project Runway for the fourth time instead of committing more of my time to a charity or afterschool program? Then, the comparisons inevitably followed my insecurities. I kept imagining that all the other applicants were superheroes who far exceeded the minimum requirements to join, being able to engage with and teach students while simultaneously saving a boy who fell into a river and singlehandedly building a house, all the while baking a really delicious pie. Like my meager qualifications could even compare with the volunteer behemoths I was competing with. So you can imagine my surprise when I was invited to an interview! I was so excited I actually dropped a bowl of hot chicken soup right on my foot. I was in the amazing condition of being both incredibly excited, and in incredible pain. Excitement fortunately won in the end, and I couldn’t hop to my computer fast enough to schedule the interview.

Arriving in Costa Rica

My first picture ever in Costa Rica. Fortunately, the lines were short!

Peace Corps had scheduled my interview for eight o’clock, but I totally forgot the Washington D.C.-based Peace Corps office is three hours ahead of California, thus leaving me with an interview at five in the morning. It wasn’t pretty. I don’t look good even in the middle of the day, let alone at a time when even the sun is asleep. Fortunately, I came prepared and was able to answer the interviewer’s questions to the best of my abilities. She mostly asked questions related to my past experiences in education, especially my volunteer work in an underserved community. A couple of days later, I received the news: I was invited to serve with the Peace Corps. 

Fortunately for me and anyone else feeling trepidation about joining the Peace Corps, there are three months of training. Yup, three months! Pre-Service Training (PST) takes place in country and includes intensive sessions on the language and culture, skills needed for the job, and practical information on health and safety. For many of the classes, we were in small groups, providing for a much more intimate setting where you could ask questions and interact with other trainees. For me, the weeks were split between Spanish classes with a local Spanish teacher and English teaching classes, where our program manager provided both materials and resources for us to use in our communities.

Thanksgiving in Costa Rica

Thanksgiving isn’t traditionally celebrated outside North America, so some volunteer friends and I decided to bring a little of it to Costa Rica!

Spanish classes were assigned according to fluency, which is determined by a baseline language test in the first days of PST. I was placed in a language-learning group with three other trainees. Believe it or not, our teacher was actually my age, and we hit it off immediately. At first she seemed very much like a professional, only smiling when we got something right. Then all of us in class would talk to her during breaks and lunch, and the real her came out. Admittedly, the language barrier was a little tough at first (she didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Spanish), but after she told us she met her boyfriend in a tree, we wanted to learn Spanish more quickly so we could find out more about her life! The more we talked, the more I was amazed at how similar our tastes were—from music to fashion to literature. I was so happy that I was able to make my first human connection with someone outside my country, and I still consider her as one of the first friends I made in Costa Rica.

Me and the Other Judges

Me in the middle with other Peace Corps Volunteers as judges at a local English Festival Spelling Bee.

Our program manager took the time to always remind us that he was there for us if we needed anything, whether it was physical or emotional support. I was relieved to hear that, given that I was in a new environment and didn’t know left from right. And while a lot of the classes I had were important, one of the things my manager stressed constantly was our need to adapt and be flexible in our communities; many of the exercises and classes during training were built around that idea. One of my favorite classes was titled “How to Teach in a Resource-Scarce Environment.” All of us were given five mundane materials (toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, string, etc.) and were told to make something to aid in teaching students. I was able to make a Scrabble board with some letter tiles from just a cardboard box!

“But was the experience of being a Peace Corps Volunteer ultimately worth it? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Throughout PST, our program manager told my group that, yes, we will be frustrated with certain things and that, yes, there will be unexpected and stressful situations. However, with ingenuity and pure determination, we would thrive in our communities. And, with the gift of hindsight and many experiences, I can say that he was absolutely right.

My days of pre-service training with Peace Corps presented some personal struggles, mostly in adapting to the new environment and coming to terms with my new home. However, as I approached PST graduation and my formal swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I became more confident and excited in my new surroundings, knowing that, unlike at home in California, I had a fresh start. I made friends that I still talk to today, host mothers that still call me their son, and students that still ask me questions about English. Was being a Peace Corps Volunteer challenging? Yes. Were there difficulties and personal struggles? Of course. Did I have to make some compromises along the way? Yup. But was the experience of being a Peace Corps Volunteer ultimately worth it? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Dani Park is the Stevenson Center’s public relations graduate assistant, as well as a Peace Corps Fellow in sociology. The content of this post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Costa Rica Government.