Welcome to the ChockaLife podcast. Welcome Kelly, thanks for talking to us about your time in the Peace Corps.
Kelly: Yeah, I’m really happy to be here, thanks for having me.
Sure, do you want to tell me a little bit about why you decided to go into the Peace Corps?
Kelly: Yeah, I’ve always been a person who loves to volunteer – loved traveling. When I first found out about the Peace Corps, it just kind of seemed like a natural fit- working with other people who needed a little help and traveling and seeing new places – but I think the real crux for me was when I was an undergraduate I studied abroad in Kenya and I saw where my homestay family was getting their water.
It was kind of a muddy stream and there were cows that were bathing upstream- and that’s where they were getting their drinking water from and I just remember seeing that and thinking – man this is terrible I want to come back and join the Peace Corps and help them to get clean water. So it was kind of my original intention even though I didn’t end up in the water sector.
Oh wow – and how did you end up going in the Peace Corps – about what time in your life did you go in?
Kelly: So I first applied to the Peace Corps right out of college and I was accepted but I didn’t end up going because I ended up doing AmeriCorps first. I kept applying and something would come up – life would just happen. Finally in 2006 I realized – life is just going to keep happening and if I really want to do this – I need to just do it. So I put in my application again in 2006 and then I had a pretty significant back injury shortly thereafter but I didn’t withdraw my application. They allowed me to prolong it and so I ended up entering service in 2009, almost nine years after I graduated as un undergraduate. But I actually felt that that gave me a huge leg up and so I felt like I was able to be pretty successful in terms of organizing people and having a few successful projects just because I’d had some life experience; so I was really able to draw on that.
Kelly: So actually not doing it right out of college, I felt it was actually a really big asset.
What is the process to apply?
Kelly: When I applied it was still a paper application. I know now it’s all online. The basic process, at least the one that I went through was, contact Peace Corps, they send you an application – of course now you can just get online and do it. Once you fill it out there’s an interview in the US at one of their headquarter buildings. If they like what they see in the interview you have to go through a series of medical exams – things like that – and if everything checks out – they nominate you for a country – although I think now they might nominate you for a country before they do the medical exams. So you get nominated and they tell you where you will go and what you’re going to be doing. You don’t get to decide. You don’t get to choose. Being flexible is really important.
So you don’t even get to choose the continent?
Kelly: No. You can give preferences but you can’t say I’m going to go to this country and do this thing. It just doesn’t work that way.
And what if you have a language – does that usually send you toward one country or another, do you think; or is it just random?
Kelly: Not necessarily, I know people who were really good Spanish speakers who were not placed in Spanish speaking countries. A lot of it too, is your skills prior to Peace Corps – like what are you good at; your niche and then they try to place you in a country where that’s going to be fulfilled. I did have Swahili experience before I went to Tanzania and that might have helped a bit. I don’t know.
So you went to Tanzania. Just curious, back a while ago they used to have quite a few business type Peace Corps positions.
Kelly: Oh sure, there are so many different sectors in the Peace Corps. There are youth development sectors, business sectors, etc. So you could go to teach small business to villagers or people in a city. There are definitely spots in cities or rural areas. You can be a teacher of English in a big city or you could be teaching business in a big city. You can also do those things in a rural village. There are many opportunities for many different types of placements.
I’m curious, did you have any student loans when you went in or when you applied, and are any of those forgiven? I thought they had programs like that now as well.
Kelly: They do. I know the Perkins loan you get a certain percentage forgiven for every amount of time you serve in the Peace Corps. By the time I went in I had very few loans and I was able to pay them off while I was overseas. But for most people with loans you can defer or forbear your loans. Having student loans are not a detriment if you want to go into the Peace Corps because they are easily deferred and forbeared.
So you went to Tanzania. What happens then? You get on the plane and then there are a whole bunch of procedures you go through after that, afterward, in country?
Kelly: Yep, actually it starts before you even leave America. A couple days before assignment to depart the country, you meet everyone who you’re going to enter the Peace Corps with – they call it a class. So you go through this whole process with about thirty to forty other people – at least for Tanzania – it differs for every country. So we all met in Philadelphia.
I believe it was June 14th we all met in Philadelphia where they do some basic introductions and basic paperwork, immunizations and things like that. On June 16th we all had our last hurrah in Philly with cheesesteaks and good beer and Starbucks, then we all got on an airplane and headed over to Tanzania. The first week we were there in Dar es Salaam, all together, and again we were doing introductory stuff. Basic paperwork, learning basic Swahili and then they took us to a little village where we all got individual families and every day we would meet, learn Swahili and at night we’d go to our families who only spoke Swahili. It was very much a cultural and language immersion. After about nine weeks of that, they sent us off to our various sites across the country. I would say Peace Corps training was one of the few useful trainings I’ve ever had for any job.
(Laughs) because of the language?
Kelly: Yeah, because of the language – and because of the culture. It was pretty helpful, at least to kind of get started for some of the projects and jobs that I was to complete. It was great. I studied Swahili for about a year before I went and that was through my undergraduate studies. So I studied for about a year in 1999 and the program was terrible and I really didn’t feel like I learned much and then two months in Peace Corps language training, I felt like I got it pretty well.
Yeah, the crash course really works. It is amazing what you pick up in just a couple months when you’re immersed in it. So they don’t just dump you in the country, they give you a really good solid grounding before you’re off.
Kelly: Yeah. I felt they did.
What did you end up doing in the Peace Corps then?
Kelly: (Laughs) I did a lot of stuff. I did the traditional two years in the village and then after that I actually added a year. So I ended up doing three years. But my first two years I was in a traditional type village – tiny, tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There was no vehicle to get into the village so you had to hike in from a main road. It was kind of fun sometimes (laughs). So I ended up teaching environmental education to the students in the school.
Again, drawing on my past experience having done that before. I worked with women’s groups to do some small income generating activities. I worked with an HIV-Aids group to reduce the stigma of HIV-Aids in the village as well as to help them create a chicken project raising chickens for meat, eggs, etc. I worked with farmers to try to teach them composting and to discourage burning fields.
I did a lot with women and girls empowerment and I taught a lot of life skills, HIV-Aids education, how to be a leader, how to set goals, things like that. That’s where I felt I made my biggest contribution, especially with the women and girls empowerment and teaching life skills. That was my first year.
So my third year, I worked with an NGO called Tanzania People and Wildlife Fund. They’re a conservation NGO based out of the Arusha area. They’re great. Their main base is just outside of a Masai village. I would work inside the village with students and adults teaching environmental education and helping the NGO develop, create and implement some of their educational projects in the village.
That sounds amazing! Where did you get the knowledge to teach this stuff?
Kelly: Prior to Peace Corps, I spent nine years teaching environmental education in the US so I really just drew on those experiences.
Does Peace Corps give you something in order to teach this stuff or are you just kind of on your own with this?
Kelly: When I first got there it was just being on your own, and it will vary from country to country. With Tanzania I actually worked closely with one of our supervisors to develop a guidebook on how to do this stuff. I know now all the subsequent volunteers add to it, change it and whatnot. The Tanzanian programs are growing quite a bit – in terms of, they are developing more handbooks for this kind of stuff.
So you weren’t completely alone in your village?
Kelly: Nope. It was just me and my lonesome. There was another volunteer that lived about an hour or so walk away from me, which wasn’t bad at all. Some people are alone for five or six hours with nobody around. Some people do get another volunteer in their village doing a different project. So it can really vary but I think most volunteers are by themselves.
How much time do you get off? What’s your typical week like?
Kelly: Well it really varies. Since I was an environmental volunteer, my schedule was very flexible. In a typical week I would teach at the school three days a week, teaching the equivalent of grades five, six and seven. Twice a week I would spend afternoons working in my garden, mornings at the school and evenings I would spend visiting with various villagers.
If I had questions or concerns about various projects, that’s when I would meet with my villagers in the evening. That’s when they all came back from the farms. On the days when I wasn’t at the school, I might go to a farm with a villager and spend all day hoeing corn or I might go to town. I would go to town about twice a month to get supplies and basic foodstuffs and things like soap and shampoo, things like that.
So, talking about going to town and getting supplies, what did you eat? Did you have to eat exactly as the locals did, did you get care packages? How does that work?
Kelly: (Laughs) the care packages were wonderful! So I would get those occasionally. I would eat rice and veggies every night. My villagers ate something like boiled flour and they call it ugali and then they would have some kind of a vegetable or sauce to go with it. Usually if I ate that it would be at lunchtime or at one of their houses. I didn’t ever cook that for myself (laughs). But, honestly, nobody makes it the way momma does, you know? I would just go to my neighbor’s house and they would go – Kelly, have some ugali.
But when I cooked for myself, I’d make things like oatmeal in the morning. I had my little kerosene burner I could use in the morning for tea and oatmeal. Lunch I would usually find around the village. Dinner was kind of my quiet time, so I would close my gates and turn on my iPod, and I had a dog – so my dog and I would just chill out. I’d cook rice and veggies, usually.
So if you do go to someplace that is so foreign for food, does Peace Corps give you an introduction in how to cook and what to cook and food safety and that kind of thing?
Kelly: Yeah, actually they do. They have a really nice cookbook. At least, I can only speak for the Tanzania program. They have a really nice cookbook that they give us that’s been developed by volunteers over the years. It has all kinds of information about nutrition and what substitutes you can make because when you’re in a village it might be really hard to find certain things. It was great. Actually, you know, I learned a bit. I really enjoyed cooking before I went to Peace Corps but now I’m like “yeah! Give me anything and I can invent something!”
Right (laughs) So, it struck me, you said you had an iPod, so you had some access to electricity where you were?
Kelly: Only in town – again I would go to town a couple times a month and we liked to joke, you know you’re a Peace Corps volunteer when you time your trips to town around the life of your IPod battery – so I would only use it for a couple hours every night.
Kelly: I learned how to turn down the screen brightness, and once you turn it on try not to make it turn the screen back on again, you know, always trying to conserve battery life.
Real conservation. Practical conservation. (laughs)
And then a dog – how did you get a dog?
Kelly: There are dogs everywhere. I had had my house broken into when I was gone at some point, so I a) wanted a dog, I just love dogs and b) I wanted more security, so I put out some feelers and I ended up getting a little puppy that had just been born in the village. She was my pup and she was wonderful. She provided me company, provided me security, she was great at night – if anybody came to the house, she’d start barking.
Well did you worry about security then?
Kelly: It really wasn’t until my house was robbed that I did. They ended up catching the guy and who knows what happened to him. I mean, I didn’t worry about security so much but if I would walk around the village at night, I would walk with my dog. But during the day it was fine. My village was an agricultural village and especially during the harvest they would get a lot of kind of migrant workers who would show up in the village to help with the harvest. Those are the people I didn’t know but everyone else in the village I knew and they knew me. People would come to me after dark and be like, Kelly I have a problem and I need advice, so I trusted my villagers and they trusted me. All the random people that would show up from time to time; that would make me nervous.
Right. I’ve heard from other friends too that it’s interesting, the village kind of adopts you and thinks of you as their own and looks out for you. The other part is – aren’t they always over at your house or in your business and how does that work?
Kelly: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah, pretty much. My house was in the middle of the village – smack dab in the middle of the village and so people would walk by at six am and knock at my door or get me out of bed and I’m like “what…” and they’re like, I’m just off to the farm – wanted to say hi (laughs). And there were some days I had to close my gate. But if I did that and it looked like I hadn’t left my house – if it looked like my gate was closed from the inside – people would still knock. So while it was great, there were definitely days I just needed to hide for a little while (laughs).
Right (laughs) – that’s when you try and make that trip into town.
So what would you say were the best things about your experience?
Kelly: The people. Hands down. Don’t even have to think about it. Definitely, the villagers, just working with them, living with them and sharing gossip with them, smiling, festivals, things like that – that was by far the best. And then, just doing work that I felt really passionate about. Sometimes I felt the work made an impact and a positive difference – that was the best. For every success, I probably had ten failures but the successes were just that more sweet. Those are probably the best parts of serving.
And then what would you say was the hardest or most difficult part of it?
Kelly: The fact that they don’t run on our time schedule (laughs). So when you say the meeting starts at ten and everyone shows up at noon. You kind of get used to that but there comes a point where you think, this “whatever” project could’ve been done in a week but it’s taking us months. I like to get things done, I’m a doer and it would just drive me up a wall sometimes and I would just have to remind myself – alright Kelly, calm down, relax, go bake a cake or something because this is not going to happen (laughs).
Did you ever reach a moment or a time after like a year or so where you could just go with the flow? How long did it take for you to adjust to that schedule?
Kelly: You know, it’s funny, they say that with Peace Corps, or we assumed that with Peace Corps our patience was going to grow infinitely but I’m pretty sure, the opposite happened. My patience got shorter and shorter, and I was like ach! But I feel like I finally just got into it. It was probably about a year, or a year and a half, maybe, that I was like, ok (laughs), this is it, and this is the way. Then I found myself after that time, language comes easier, culture comes easier, and things just kind of come easier after a long time. Yeah, it definitely took awhile.
Well it says something that you signed on for an extra year. Not everyone does that. A lot of people are just like two years, I did my part, ok, I’m ready to go, but you signing on for another year, that speaks a lot to the experience.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean it was incredible and I was certainly not ready to leave. I felt like I had more that I was ready to give and there was more I wanted to do and I’m not ready to leave it yet. When I did leave, I was ready. Definitely, ready for a change and to leave but now, I’m like, any opportunity I’d love to go back. That’s what I’m working on now with graduate school. Hopefully, I’m going to go back and do more. I feel like once you really get the language, it helps a lot with just kind of understanding and integrating into the culture.
Yeah, language is really the key because you can’t really get to know people until you can speak with them fairly fluently. So just wondering, can you extend for longer than three years or do they kind of want people to cycle through the Peace Corps?
Kelly: You can. I believe the longest you can serve is five years. Again, it might vary depending on the country. I know in Tanzania we had a volunteer who, I believe, extended and she did a fifth year. And then, after that it was done because they do put a cap on it at some point.
And how was your transition back to the US – and what do they (Peace Corps) do – how does that work?
Kelly: Yeah, so for every month that you serve in the Peace Corps, they put a little bit of cash aside so that when you finish Peace Corps they give you a lump sum of money. That helps in readjustment. They also have opportunities to talk with psychiatrists and things when you come back to the US to help adjust, which is great.
There are ways to stay connected. There are a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteer groups around the country and I’m actually a member of the Colorado one. That’s really nice because then you can talk to people who’ve had similar experiences in the Peace Corps and connect that way. It’s really nice to have people to connect with.. Like I had some friends who came to visit me (in Tanzania) and I can talk to them and they actually understand a lot of what I’m talking about. Coming back to the US, I’m still adjusting, it’s just still hard – I have to think – which way do I look when I have to cross the street (laughs).
Kelly: Where can I find food that doesn’t look perfectly manicured? I always tell people I had a freak-out and most volunteers when they return have a freak-out at the grocery store because the food is plentiful, it all looks perfect, you know, there’s no haggling…
It’s kind of a weird sensory overload when you come back because of the variety and the choices that you haven’t had to make in so long that it’s paralyzing.
Kelly: Yep, exactly. I went to Taco Bell right after the airplane (laughs) and I couldn’t even look at the menu it was so overwhelming. There was like letters and numbers and pictures and they’re all squished together and I couldn’t even look at the menu.
(Laughs) Wow! Well that’s really good to know that they take care of you when you come back and then you have a little chunk (of money) to get started. Is it still true that you get preference for government jobs when you return from the Peace Corps?
Kelly: You do have something that’s called NCE status, noncompetitive eligibility, however, using it is somewhat challenging, I have found, because a lot of government agencies don’t realize how it can be used and the usefulness of it. That’s something that I feel can be enhanced as a part of the program. But, for a year you’re supposed to have that status. And then, if you go to school, that gets deferred, which is nice. You are supposed to get preference. Of course, this year, coming back during the sequester was a little more challenging.
Right, exactly. I guess my final question is – would you do it again? And what would you advise other people who are thinking of doing this?
Kelly: I would do it again. Right now, I’m in grad school so that I can go and do Peace Corps kind of work but get paid for it. So, I guess for my retirement plan, I would totally do it again. I mean, it was an incredible experience and I would recommend everybody do it for sure.
I would just recommend that people not be afraid to give up two years of your life and go do it. It’s really not giving up two years of your life, it’s, I don’t know (laughs) adding two years of an incredible experience to your life and if you’re in a position, financially, emotionally, family-wise, whatever – where you can do it – do it! I get so many people who tell me, oh yeah, I thought about doing that when I was younger or I kind of wish that I had done that – but it’s never too late – you can do it into you’re in your eighties.
Kelly: And we’ve had volunteers who were older so –
Kelly: Uh huh.
Yeah, keep the dream alive! Don’t give up (laughs)
Kelly: Yeah, you can always do it and they accept married couples too.
Wow, that’s great! Kelly, thank you so much. I appreciate you giving us this advice about the Peace Corps; it’s been incredibly helpful.
Kelly: Great, it’s been fun to talk about it.
If you have any questions for Kelly or about the Peace Corps, please go to ChockaLife.com