This post is the first in a new series called Giving Back. This series features people who are trying make a difference in the lives of others and, in doing so, working to make this world a better place. I think that we can all agree that the world can use more kindness and people helping others.
The first person in this series is Devin Mara, a Peace Corps volunteer. I’ve known Devin since she was a young child and I am so impressed with her decision to join the Peace Corps. Devin is dynamic and adventurous. It doesn’t surprise me that she has landed on an island in a remote part of the world, helping to educate the children living on the island (and doing Zumba with island residents).
Here’s my interview with Devin.
What made you decide to join the Peace Corps?
I first heard of Peace Corps in high school and it immediately appealed to me and is the sort of thing I envisioned my older self doing. Joining was in the back of my mind all through college. A few months after I graduated I decided to browse the website, just to see what positions were taking applications, and found myself hitting apply a couple hours later. By that point, although the sense of adventure is certainly still a part of it, my decision was more practical. I wanted experience teaching abroad and to do so in a program that would support me in that task.
Tell me a little bit about the process of applying.
The application process has undergone a bit of an overhaul in the last few years. As older RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) know, it could take years from submitting an application to getting to a country and often applicants didn’t know where they were being placed until after they accepted an invitation. Now they (the Peace Corps organization) have streamlined the process and allow more choice in location.
The timeline can still vary tremendously from person to person, especially for those with medical considerations, but my process was smooth. I applied in late September, interviewed in mid-October and was invited a couple weeks later. I received medical clearance in January and legal clearance in April.
Where are you assigned?
I’m serving in a small village on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. About 7 degrees from the equator, Pohnpei is the largest island and capital of the country, with a population of about 40,000.
How long have you been with the Peace Corps?
I began my training May 29th in Honolulu, arrived in Pohnpei June 1st and swore in as a volunteer and moved to my permanent site on August 11th.
Once you are accepted you have an orientation and training period, right? What’s that like?
After a brief orientation in Honolulu (think name games and talking about feelings) we had just around 10 weeks of training in Pohnpei before becoming Peace Corps Volunteers. My class had 19 trainees and we all lived with host families near the school we used for classes. Training lasted from 8-5, Monday to Friday and every other Saturday for that period and we had sessions about the culture of Micronesia, the language of our island (volunteers are placed in all four states which all speak different languages), health, safety and security and technical teaching training, part of which involved teaching summer school with Pohnpeian co-teachers for three weeks.
Now you are in your assigned job. Tell me about it. What are you doing and what is your day-to-day life like?
My job title is English Literacy Co-Teacher/Co-Planner. That means with my (fabulous) Pohnpeian counterparts, Yumi and Eliza, I teach English to first and second graders, as well as work with Yumi and Eliza to plan the lessons. There are two sections of each grade, so I teach about 100 students total, each section for 45 minutes a day. In first grade we are learning the alphabet, currently on letter M, and in second grade we are learning question words. I also tutor older students with learning difficulties twice a week and am working on starting an after-school program.
Are you learning a local language?
Yes, I am learning Pohnpeian, I scored Intermediate-Low in my Language Proficiency Test at the end of Pre-Service Training. However, as English is the official language of the country it’s fairly easy to get by without Pohnpeian fluency, so my language acquisition has stalled a bit. I’m comfortable with greetings, introductions, eating dialogue and classroom instructions, but when two Pohnpeians are conversing it goes right over my head. I’ll have more lessons in November and July at additional trainings.
Do you have a dress code?
Not officially, but we are encouraged to dress like locals for integration purposes. I heard another volunteer joke, “We dress to please the most conservative grandma, not blend in with Micronesians our age.” I typically wear either a mumu or traditional skirt and T-shirt to school. Fashion here is very casual and increasingly influenced by American style. You see many young girls wearing jeans, shorts or leggings which I’m told ten years ago would never have been accepted.
Are there any other volunteers near you?
There are six other volunteers on my island. The nearest is about 30 minutes away by car. We all try to meet up at least once a month for a group check-in, and sometimes more often for birthdays, holidays or other special occasions.
What do you do for fun?
I’ve always been an avid reader, but I’ve been doing a lot more reading since arriving than I did at home. I bring my Kindle everywhere with me. I’m currently halfway through the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series. It’s a great way to pass time here, because I can do it while spending time with my host-family. I’ve also found myself, somewhat unintentionally, leading several Zumba classes, both at my home with my host-mom for community members and at school for teachers and students. Less productively, I play a lot of Candy Crush.
Do you have cell phone and internet access?
Yes and yes, but not all volunteers do, My site is fairly central and my host-family progressive.
Is there anything that you miss from life in the U.S.?
My family and friends mostly, but also having control of my meals. My host-mom cooks me breakfast and dinner most of the time, and while she’s a great cook sometimes I just want to decide what I want to eat that day. I don’t miss any one food specifically but more the variety of choice and my independence.
What surprised you the most about your experience so far?
I had an image of myself sleeping in a hut by the beach and being totally isolated from life at home, but that hasn’t been the case. Pohnpei is a different world in some ways, but much more comparable to life in the US than I thought before I arrived. Thanks to the pace of modernization I’m able to be in touch with my parents and friends as much as I would be living in a different state. Also, Pohnpei doesn’t even have beaches! It has mangroves, I was slightly bummed to discover.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about joining the Peace Corps?
My first piece of advice would be to get experience interacting with people from other cultures, whether that is volunteering in your area or traveling somewhere new. Additionally, carefully consider the commitment because, as much as I love my service so far, 27 months is a long time and it’s not always fun. Finally, read as many books and blogs about service as possible because doing so helped me start to understand what Peace Corps service is about, solidified my desire to apply, and after my invitation kept me excited for my departure.
Thanks so much for sharing your Peace Corps experience with us. Good luck with your journey. Hopefully we will catch up with you later and learn more about how it is going.
Do you know a volunteer?
If you know of someone whom you think would be willing to share her or his volunteer experience with us, please let me know (email@example.com).