Whenever someone tells me how brave I was to join the Peace Corps, I always pause for a moment. Yes, it was a challenging experience, but leaving all my friends and family wasn’t the hardest part. Neither was living overseas, dealing with no hot water and the barriers of cultural assimilation.
No, going to the Peace Corps wasn’t the hardest part. It was coming back.
I’ve heard the same thing from many of my fellow volunteers—returning to the States after years serving in a developing country is not the smoothest of transitions. I, for one, didn’t expect this at all: I was so excited to be back in America, to eat cereal and peanut butter, and to go grab cocktails with my best friends that I neglected to think about how the experience I had gone through affected me.
I also didn’t realize just how much time I had missed. It’s impossible to resist the impulse to want to find everyone where you left them, but while I went off to Azerbaijan for three years, my friends started working their way up the career ladder, saving money, and deepening relationships. While they are getting promotions and moving in with significant others, I’m sending out resumes and trying to remember to call the people I forgot.
Technology had changed even faster than my friends. The iPhone just started to gain momentum as I was leaving, so when I heard of this mysterious contraption called an iPad, I laughed it off as a passing fad—until I went back home and ordered a coffee at the local coffee shop. When I was handed an iPad to pay for my drink, I stood there like an idiot until the cashier finally said, “You just sign it with your finger.” My mind exploded.
But perhaps the hardest thing about returning has been feeling like I lost the purpose in my life that existed in Azerbaijan. There really is something to be said about waking up every morning and knowing that the work you do is appreciated by those around you. In America—especially in an economy that makes it difficult to find a position that you truly feel passionate about—that can be pretty hard to come by.
With all this in front of me, it would have been terribly easy to curl up in my parents’ basement and refuse to see the light of day or interact with this strange new world. Thankfully, that same drive that made me go in the first place wasn’t content to just let me admit defeat. Here are a few strategies that helped me get back in the swing of things.
Give Yourself Some Time, But Not Too Much
I made the mistake of landing in America and starting business school a week later. I barely had time to remember what I had missed before I was overwhelmed with meeting new people and wrapping my head around new concepts.
On the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine had to wait nine months before she started school. Not quite enough time to get a great job, but way too much time to not do anything. She hated sitting around her parents’ house—after giving so much up and being so important to others, it’s hard to suddenly feel needy and dependent.
Basically, you need a little bit of time to relax, enjoy being home, and come to terms with the new world—but you don’t want to be sitting around feeling useless for months on end. The time needed is different for everyone, but I would recommend two to three months of resettling before jumping into anything big. The Peace Corps gives you enough cash to put money down for an apartment and get yourself back on your feet until you find a job or start school, so take advantage of that.
And no, traveling does not count as part of that transition time. If you are backpacking around the world, you are still living in hostels, showering only when you get the opportunity, and doing your laundry in the sink. Come home. Be home.
Stay Close to Your Fellow PCVs
Whenever a friend would ask me about my experience, I found I had about 2.5 seconds to talk before his or her eyes glazed over. As much as my friends love and support me, it was difficult for them to understand what I had done.
That’s why it’s good to stay close with other volunteers. The Peace Corps has an incredible network of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (or RPCVs) to help you out when you are back. There are conferences, career fairs, career coaching seminars, and socials in almost every major city in America designed especially to help you get moving again.
I was even luckier: I got to move to Boston with my best friend from the Peace Corps. As roommates, Azerbaijani became our own secret language (much to the dismay of our third roommate!). And without even talking about what was going on, we’ve been able to work through readjustment—together.
Carry Your Experience With You Everywhere
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how what you did in the Peace Corps transfers to the “real world.” But in reality, there are endless stories and attributes that not only should strengthen your self-worth, but are also valuable tools to use in interviews and on your resume—whether or not you enter a field that’s directly related to the work you did. Quantify what you can, but know there will be a lot that you can’t. So think about how it applies to what you want to do: your commitment, loyalty, determination, initiative, courage—I could go on and on.
When I was finishing up my last year in Azerbaijan, I started to apply to business schools in the states. I was surprised to find how much I had to talk about in my applications. Teaching art to students in rural villages may have seemed irrelevant to business, but it showed me the value of creative thinking to those who are least able to access it. Living eight hours away from my supervisor gave credit to my claims of taking initiative, being innovative with limited resources, and working without constant oversight. I extended my contract by six months, showing my determination to a project I believe in. I’ve carried those experiences even further to my current job for a nonprofit theatre company that brings free professional productions to individuals across all demographics.
At no point was I ever sure about how Peace Corps would inform the path my life has taken. But I’ve been home for a little over a year now, and I can say that looking back over all of the challenges I’ve faced, I would still make the same decision. Every day I think about the people I met there, and how much they gave me. I had heard it before I left, and now I know it’s true—what I gave to my community was nothing in comparison to what they gave me.