Diane Brown: Peace Corps | KERA News

Diane Brown: Peace Corps

The Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Commentator Diane Brown had hoped to be part of the organization's history, but things didn't quite work out as she planned.

I joined the Peace Corps at the 20-year anniversary in 1981, intending to make Tunisia my home for two years.

The toughest job you'll ever love, as the Peace Corps slogan goes. Unfortunately, my tenure lasted less than a month. The bottom line - I was not Peace Corps material.

Sure I possessed some of the outward characteristics of a successful volunteer: a skill and interest in traveling abroad to help people in an underdeveloped country. Early in the Peace Corps' history, most volunteers taught English; however, by the time I joined, practical knowledge was viewed as more important. My skill was small animal husbandry, which I had acquired caring for goats, poultry, and rabbits. Actually, it was not limited to farm animals, as a beekeeper was the other person in the small animal husbandry group.

Despite my initial compatibility with the Peace Corps volunteer profile, it quickly became clear that more intrinsic characteristics that I did not possess far outweighed the outward ones.

Peace Corps volunteers must be flexible and adaptable in order to become accustomed to a new culture and way of life. Indeed, the Peace Corps website lists those traits as the top two for a successful volunteer. Tunisia's country director, who manages and directs the volunteers, soon discovered that I was much too structured to fit into the Peace Corps. At the age of 21, I honestly did not understand the ramifications of his analysis of my personality, even though on a deeper level I realized how accurate he was. I've jokingly described the best Peace Corps volunteer as a person who can build a house out of a couple of pieces of wood. I would need the detailed plans, materials cut to exact specifications, and someone to tell me what to do.

Moreover, I was also not particularly open to the new culture. One tradition in Tunisia involved women painting their fingers with henna. The other women in the Peace Corps group eagerly embraced the new ritual, while I decline to participate. Being aware intellectually that one was embarking upon a new cultural landscape versus experiencing it were two different things.

Before setting off on my Peace Corps adventure, I had lived a particularly sheltered life, growing up in a small town and rarely traveling beyond such area during my formative years. In fact, other than my overseas birth, the furthest I'd been was one trip to Oklahoma. Unfortunately, such narrow exposure to the world translated into a limited appreciation for and knowledge about other cultures at that point in my life.

In addition, volunteers must learn the language of the country. Despite learning some Spanish in high school and college, Arabic was something quite different. I was assigned to the slow learner class with two guys who were actually worse off in the linguistic cognition department than I.

At the time of my involuntary departure from the Peace Corps, admittedly I was adrift. However, the experience opened a new pathway. I realized I still had the desire to help people, but closer to home. I also wanted to expand my intellectual horizons and experiences. So, I became active in social and international causes, began volunteering, and obtained two advanced degrees. The Peace Corps turned out to be an enlightening experience, but just not exactly the one that most volunteers have.

Diane Brown is an attorney from Highland Village.

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