November 28, 2010

How to Be the Change with Gandhi

Monday Night Radio, an online worldwide talkshow, recently hosted a wonderful program with Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, talking about his continued work and how people around the world can be the change they wish to see. I was able to call in as a guest and share a question with Mr. Gandhi which I have included here (you can also listen here to the audio clip):

Anne: The books look wonderful. Alright we are going to let Travis, calling in about the Peace Corps and his experience with the Peace Corps to talk with you have the last minute. Here you go. Travis, are you there?

Travis: I am here. Yes.

Mr. Gandhi: Hello, Travis.

Anne: Travis, you are on the air with Mr. Gandhi.

Travis: Hi, thank you so much for allowing me to say something here. I have been serving with the Peace Corps for two years. I have one more year that I have extended beyond the normal two years of service. I am in Mongolia. One of the things I have really noticed is that other people want to make change. They see needs in the community and people who are living very normal lives have extraordinary dreams that they want to come true. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the things that I have seen is that it’s part of my job to help people see... (the connection here became difficult)

Mr. Gandhi: You are breaking up there, Travis.

Travis: Oh, I’m sorry.

Anne: No, don’t be sorry. It’s a long way to Mongolia. Can you restate your question?

Travis: Sure, sure. I’ve worked with a lot of people and helping people who are very inspired to change their communities. They don’t think they are capable of doing that themselves. I wanted to ask what your experience has been when you are helping people and when you are working with others and you are trying to inspire them and see what they are capable of. I think that is also what a great leader can do is help see people what potential they have to make change themselves and do simple things in their lives to help others. If you are trying to help others and be a leader and share with others what they are capable of doing, what kind of things have you seen that are really helpful?

Anne: That is a great question, Travis.

Mr. Gandhi: One of the things that I did was to study the people and find out what are their potentials. Even the people who are volunteering to bring about the change, they have certain potential and certain capacities and we need to learn about them and project them. Very often we are motivated through change but the person themselves they don’t know how they can use their own strength and their own abilities to help that change. We as the leaders of this group we need to examine this and find their strengths and make them realize those strengths and then use those strengths to help the poor people there.

Travis: Yes. I think that is so true.

Anne: Travis, thank you so much for the call. I’m sorry to cut you off, but we’ve run over.

Travis: Thank you.

Mr. Gandhi: Thank you, Travis.

Anne: Thank you for your service as well.

Travis: Thank you so much.

Anne's assistant was also kind enough to talk with me after the program to ask more details about my Peace Corps service, my recently published book the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook (which they mentioned at the bottom of the transcript for that night's program) and invite me onto the program in the next few weeks to talk about Peace Corps. We will see how that goes, but if it can help promote the work of Peace Corps, encourage understanding inside and outside of America and maybe even help encourage one more person to join this incredible organization, I really look forward to the opportunity.

If you'd like to listen to the whole program with Mr. Gandhi, you can find the audio available here on iTunes and the full transcript here at

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November 11, 2010

Inside Worldview

This month, Worldview (the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association) came out with its 50th Anniversary Issue to honor the speech by John F. Kennedy which first mentioned the idea of our organization. Throughout this next year the Peace Corps worldwide community is celebrating 50 years of friendship and world peace, ending with big celebrations around the world next September.

This issue of Worldview includes great articles by Volunteers and Staff from the early days of Peace Corps all the way up until present day. I'm honored to say I got a small spot alongside other great stories as I was asked to write about what I think Peace Corps means to us today. I wrote about success and how we can make the Peace Corps experience last as long as we want it to. Thank you to Todd, Alex, Claire, Alison, Judy, and Erica for your help this summer as I tried to write something good enough to be read by 30,000+ RPCVs, PCVs, staff and people all over the world.

Anyway, here is a PDF of the actual printed article and I've also included the text below...

Peace Corps Volunteer, 2010 Edition
By: Travis Hellstrom

Sometimes a story is so good that I don’t want it to end. As the pages in my right hand get lighter, I might even flip back a few chapters to try and enjoy it again—to remember what just happened and maybe catch something I missed.

For whatever reason, I brought that blue invitation packet with me across the ocean, the same one every Volunteer gets in the mail with “Peace Corps invites you to serve” printed on the front. It’s been a long time since I opened it, more than two years. A couple papers fall out: a booklet entitled Your Assignment, a Staging Workbook, a Diarrhea Flow Chart from the PCMO (with “No pun intended” written below the title), maps and a few other handouts. It all feels like it happened yesterday, but strangely it feels like it happened to someone else. I open up the Staging Workbook to a page with the heading Personal Definition of Success. Ruled lines and blank space fill the page underneath the sentence, “I will know that I am a successful Volunteer when…”

A lot has changed since I wrote on that page. At some point during service my understanding of success and happiness (and which comes first) reversed. As my relationships grew, “being” with my counterparts, students, fellow volunteers, friends, and family became more important than “doing” and relationships became the end, not the means. It was simple but profound for me.

The point was driven home last week when I spoke with my host country counterpart and friend. I asked her what she liked about Peace Corps and she thought about it for a while. “Volunteers help people,” she said, “they’re kind and they listen, they’re talented in many areas and they stay with us for a long time.” I smiled and asked, “Don’t other organizations do that too?” I named a few organizations we were both familiar with, but she looked back at me a little surprised, “Those have people?”

In a world of budgets, deadlines and benchmarks it’s easy for me to forget about people, but a Volunteer should never do that. When someone smiles at the mention of Peace Corps they’re probably thinking beyond awesome projects. They are thinking about who they knew: the teacher who served in their village, the counterpart who became their friend, the Volunteer who became part of their community. More than what we do, people remember who we are. With that in mind, every interaction changes and so then does the end of the story.

When my Peace Corps story began, I thought there was a set number of pages to fill—twenty-seven months worth. However, more recently, I’ve noticed the story just keeps getting longer. Twenty-five months in I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride, I’m still at the beginning. We live in a changed and changing world with technology that allows us to communicate with people like never before. Now especially our service in the Peace Corps can be just the beginning of life-long and life-changing friendships, if we want it to be. It’s our choice.

Maybe that’s one of the best things about our Peace Corps stories and the relationships we form as Volunteers, they last as long as we want them to. We have our whole lifetime to finish the sentence, “I will know that I am a successful Volunteer when…” If the story is so good that you don’t want it to end, it doesn’t have to.

Travis Hellstrom is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Mongolia. He is editor of the Unofficial Peace Corps Handbook. To learn more visit

November 5, 2010

Two Days, Two Amazing Friends

In the last two days I have met two incredible Mongolian friends who found me through the Advance Humanity project and it has been unbelievably inspiring for me.

Last night I met with Uuree, a wonderful woman who just finished her two master's degrees at Syracuse in Public Policy and International Development. Her English was better than mine and her smile and laugh were contagious. She talked to me about growing up in Mongolia and then going to school in the U.S., working since 2003 with USAID and then developing a passion for international development. “I wanted to talk with you,” she said, “because I want to help someone. I want to know that because of me someone’s life has changed for the better.” She read about our Community Fund project after hearing about it from our friend Yoomie and she wanted to learn more, so we met together to talk it over. The idea is still young, but it has a wonderful story developing around it: a family coming together, a grandmother learning how to read and write, a community store being built and a group of friends from all over the province honoring millenia of nomadic tradition while stepping into this new century.

After speaking for an hour, it was time for us to say goodbye. As we walked outside into the chilly Mongolian night air she turned to me and said, “Travis, I am so proud of you. You are so young and look how much you have already accomplished. You have a lot to be proud of.” I told her how happy I was that, because of this wonderful family and this wonderful project, we got this chance to meet together and work to help others. If this is how the Advance Humanity project continues to develop, we will all have a lot to be proud of.

Then tonight I met with Mendy, an ambitious man who just got back to Mongolia in the spring after attending the MBA program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “I was the youngest in my class by about 10 years,” he told me, “and when the instructors asked the other students in class, ‘So how many businesses have you started?’ I always had to answer none. I left the program to get some experience back here in Mongolia, but I am excited to go back and finish my degree in the next 5 years.” In the past few months, he has started a business that now has 30 employees and a waiting-list of 20 organizations who want to partner with him. The projects he listed in just a few minutes floored me, it was like listening a Mongolian Steve Jobs.

Over the next few months, one project we are excited to work on together is a TEDx Mongolia event. It’s a lot to take on for sure, but Mendy is all over it. Whether he’s pitching an idea to the Mongolian Prime Minister (which worked), or starting up Mongolian Silicon Valley (now under construction), fear doesn’t seem to be in Mendy’s vocabulary. I suppose it shouldn’t be in mine either.

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November 1, 2010


I am a huge fan of ZenHabits which is a blog on simplifying life by Leo Babauta. I like the weekly articles, the clean look of his website and the helpful advice he shares with his readers.

One example is this 121-page PDF which he released this past week called Focus. You can download it for free, no catches. If you are interested in focusing in on things you care about and letting go of distractions, finding some calm in this often chaotic world we live in or if you are even just trying to let go of a few bad habits, you might like this book. I read the whole thing very quickly and found it very inspiring. I’ve even stopped biting my nails since reading it, which is one of my worst habits. I know it’s not always easy to change how we live, but that’s what Advance Humanity is all about it. Change yourself and then change the world. And focus always helps.

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