By Emily Johnson
They say that Peace Corps volunteers inevitably fall into one of three categories. There’s the Resume Builder—the one with eyes fixed on the bright horizon of her future, the one to whom Peace Corps is just one more step on the path to get there. There’s the True Believer, that big-hearted idealist, who believes ardently in the Peace Corps mission as one of the only ways to truly change the world. And, finally, there’s the Runaway. The one whose legs itch with the burning desire to go, the one with so much built-up baggage that it was just easier to leave it all behind, the one who left not only to find new faces, places, and adventures, but also to find herself.
You were the latter. Peace Corps had always been that nebulous, half-formed idea, that option forever simmering on the back burner, that you never fully considered until the day you got in. Until, confused and hurt and directionless as you were, you realized that perhaps the vast haziness of the unknown was exactly the balm your wounded spirit needed, the cocoon you’d wrap yourself in until, two years later, you’d burst out, diamond-hard and unbroken. You had absolutely no idea what you were getting yourself into—you just knew you had to go, that you’d regret it for the rest of your life if you didn’t.
You couldn’t have known how true that would become, and how thankful you’d be that you were strong enough to leave. But, day by day, over a rollercoaster two years, you’d learn.
You’d learn that you could survive and even thrive in suffocating heat, even though you’d swear it would kill you before a month was out.
You’d be terrified and exhilarated at the same time when you realized you’re in one of the most remote sites in the country.
You’d learn how much humans rely on communication as you flounder through learning a new, completely foreign language.
You’d come to appreciate fruits and vegetables in a way you never had before, tasting them straight out of the ground or picked, sun-kissed, ripe, and juicy, from the trees.
You’d discover new expressions in new languages that encapsulate ideas and feelings better than English does, and you’d come to use them without even thinking about it, letting them roll naturally off your tongue as if they’d been inscribed in your brain since birth.
You’d experience the helplessness of the foreigner as people try (many times successfully) to take advantage of your naïveté and cultural inexperience.
You’d learn to savor hard work as something that brings you closer to your village—something that, despite the sweat in your eyes and the dirt staining your hands and face, is deeply satisfying in its usefulness to the community.
You’d come to understand that the kindergarten mantra of “sharing is caring” is more than just words—it’s one of the truest maxims you know.
Your resolve would be tested countless times, and each time you’d emerge stronger and more resilient than before.
You’d learn that true strength is not loud or muscle-bound or necessarily masculine; more often than not, strength is quiet and hardworking and filled with love and patience. You’d see it in the women, bending down to wash their clothes or to place buckets of water on their heads for the fifth time that day. You’d see it in the men, in the way they look at their children, and in the way they join together, laughing and ribbing each other, to build a hut or repair fencing.
You’d be lonely, lonelier than you’ve ever been before, and you’d learn what it means to be vulnerable, to bare yourself to friends and ask for their support and love. And, though you’d be terrified to do it, you would—and you’d be surprised and grateful, over and over again, as your friends listened to and talked to and understood and loved you.
You’d be surprised at how fast time flies—as weeks slip by in the blink of an eye even though each day drags on for what seems like forever—and how effortlessly your village and your host country become your home.
You’d learn to navigate the ups and downs of the culture like a local, with an ease and familiarity that would shock you.
You’d swell with pride when you successfully finish your first independent project, grateful to have had the chance to give back to the community that has already given you so much.
You’d question—many times—your Peace Corps role, your motivations, your strength, and yourself, but your innate stubbornness would keep you going despite every reason you could think of not to.
You’d see things—four lions lounging in the middle of the road, a local tribe’s elaborate initiation ceremony, the birth of a child—that you’d only read about or watched on television.
You’d gasp, lost for words and breath, at how fiercely you’d come to love people you had no idea existed two years ago.
You’d learn all over again how strangely fragile the heart is—how it can expand endlessly to encompass all the beautiful people you’d come to care for, yet how quickly and completely it can shatter when the time comes to say goodbye.
And you’d learn that all those things you were trying to leave behind, all the issues and dramas that seemed so overwhelmingly important and present and defining, were only tiny potholes in your path forward.
Peace Corps wasn’t what you thought it would be, and your experience was completely different from what you’d imagined or heard about—but it was exactly what you needed to reconnect with the things that matter, with the people and the world around you, and with the person you wanted to become. There’s a reason they say that Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love: nothing about it is easy, but everything about it is worth it.
Emily L. Johnson is a recently-graduated Atlanta native and self-described city girl who, paradoxically, spent the last two years in a 200-person village in Senegal, West Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Since returning to Atlanta, she has been extremely busy reacquainting herself with American culture via Netflix marathons, pizza binges, and craft beer. Find her adventures on Instagram at @em.ell.ee.