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