How Peace Corps Changed My Life

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Now that I am back in the United States, reconnecting with my friends and family and adjusting to the realities of American life, many people ask me with fascination and respect, “So what exactly did you do down there?” It’s a good question. Many Americans do not have a real understanding of the mission undertaken by the 8,073 current Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 76 countries around the world.

To answer them, I reflect back on my service, an incredible, personal, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, and maddening ride through life in the Surinamese rainforest. The most accurate response (which I rarely provide) is that I gained far more than I ever sacrificed.

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While discovering a special corner of the world different from our own and establishing close relationships with people who approach life from a different point of view, I came to understand the differences and similarities between life in the Surinamese rainforest and the United States. Learning about the customs and values to which Saramaccans adhere, especially those that greatly diverge from their counterparts in America, provoked me to examine my own actions and values, and even my mission in life.

Who do I want to be? What do I need to confess? How have I deceived myself and others? Where have my actions diverged from my values? How do I want to be perceived? What changes will I commit to making in my actions, attitude and perceptions? To which meaningful cause do I want to commit my professional career? These are the essential questions that I contemplated.

First and foremost, I made a confession to myself and my family, coming clean on who I am, why I did the things I did — things I am proud of, and things I am not — and where I intend to go next. Only after that did I realize that I had never really thought about what I wanted my purpose in life to be. And if I did, I had never written it down.

So I started there, as if creating a personal constitution. While still in Ligorio, I wrote: “My mission in life is to live with integrity and character and to enthuse positive change in myself and in the lives of those in my communities around the world.” Writing this down helped me to set my moral compass, defining my values and goals as a person — the son, brother, and friend that I am, as well as the husband, father, and leader that I want to be some day.

Looking back, my Peace Corps experience has permeated every nook and cranny of my life. It has changed the lens through which I view the world and my role in it. It changed what I care about, and how I think about language and culture and money. It changed how I approach my relationship with myself and with others, how I approach every individual I meet, and how I empathize with people — outsiders, in particular.

It changed how I will, one day, raise my children and what values I will try to teach them. It taught me what I am capable of, alone and in a group, and refreshed my aspiration to reach my fullest potential. It gave me a new group of close friends both throughout the United States and in the Surinamese rainforest, the inspiration to become a teacher, and an undying love of mangos.

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Why, and how, did my Peace Corps experience inspire such monumental change in me?

Life in Ligorio is simpler, more elemental. While financially, Saramaccans live below the poverty line, to me, their lives are rich. They are tied to the outdoors. They live and take care of the basics, and they don’t do much else. They do it all with a skillful understanding of themselves, their community, culture, and environment, surrounded daily by their family members. And their lifestyle is contagious.

Since coming home, it’s been a struggle to incorporate those priorities and that simplicity in my life here. I crave that life, but our culture makes it difficult. We have developed beyond that, perhaps to our detriment.

Furthermore, I’d learned that people are people, no matter where in the world. We can do our best to study all the generalities and tendencies of a group, but in the end, every person carries their own perspective and personality to every issue. There are people who make you laugh, and some who drive you insane. There are hard workers and freeloaders. There are people who follow the rules and those who break them. Some children are academically driven, some athletically, some artistically, and others socially. Some people are happy; others, unhappy.

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When we look at people we don’t know, and speak of “foreigners” or “tribes” or “clans,” we perceive them as different. But regardless of divergences in culture and values, we all have the same basic human needs, desires, concerns, and emotions — and those similarities outweigh our differences.

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On the day I was scheduled to depart from Ligorio, I was hit by the most difficult challenge of my entire Peace Corps experience, humbling all of the obstacles I had faced in the past: saying goodbye for the last time to the Saramaccans who had treated me as if I was one of their own. Not a bone in my body wanted to leave.

As the plane climbed over the green canopy of pristine rainforest and I waved to the crowd that had gathered at the jungle airstrip to see me off, I realized that my Peace Corps experience had redefined for me what it means to be a man. In Ligorio, I had learned what type of man I wanted to be, and had started down that path.

When I try to measure what kind of Peace Corps volunteer I was — what kind of success I had in Ligorio — it all comes down to two things: the relationships I built with the people, and my commitment to their community. In other words, what kind of man I was.

To me, the essence of what it means to be a man emanates from the heart. It was about my capacity to love and to be loved. The questions I now ask myself are all about relationships. “What kind of village member was I? What kind of neighbor? What kind of role model? What kind of teacher? What kind of friend? Who did I love, and who did I allow to love me?”

At the end of my service, I wanted to leave a legacy, to know that I made a difference. And all of that depended on the effort that I was willing to commit to Ligorio and its people, my belief in my responsibility to give back, and the challenge to identify my unique cause in life. I surfaced from this deep introspection with a greater understanding of myself and committed to work hard to align my actions with my values.

I can’t say that I gave it 110 percent every day. Some days, I napped in my hammock and read a book for the entire day. I made mistakes. I aggravated people, and people aggravated me. But that was the amazing rollercoaster of my life in Ligorio and of life in general. In the end, I can look myself in the mirror and congratulate myself on a life well lived in Ligorio, but that’s between me and me.

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- John

 

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23 Responses to How Peace Corps Changed My Life

  1. John Williams says:

    Thanks to Doug Cutchins and Rev. Joe Ehrmann for helping me articulate what my heart has been trying to tell me!

    • John Williams says:

      Also a big thanks to Colgate’s Rebecca Costello for helping me hone my wordsmithing and teaching me it’s alright to kill some darlings to make a story come alive!

      • Rebecca Costello says:

        John, You’ve a peach to work with — you’re a talented writer and your story is fascinating, heart warming, and thought-provoking. We can’t wait for you to see your article come out in the next Colgate Scene!

  2. Becky Pauliny says:

    Thanks, John for your heartfelt words. I am sure that you will continue to find yourself and who you want to be but now you have an idea of what direction you are going. Your time in the Peace Corps served you well. You are sure to be successful in your search! Keep growing and enjoy your newest position!! bp

    • John Williams says:

      You’re welcome! It is fun and contagious writing to such a supportive audience like yourself and other commentors! I am loving it up here in Lake Placid!

  3. Aunt Anne says:

    WOW John your words are so inspirational. I am so proud of you and your accomplishments in the Peace Corps. Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.

    Aunt Anne

  4. Kristyn Harvey says:

    WOW!!

  5. Brandi says:

    JDub as Ross calls you… How wonderful it is to witness the evolution of the boy to manhood. I am positive that as deeply as you felt your experience in the peace corps you touched those an moved them equally. The beauty is life doesn’t hapoen in a vacuum. Good luck in your new gig.
    Share yhe love darlin.

    • John Williams says:

      Thanks for the love Brandi! Even better was how welcome I felt when, even after several years, I walked into that Toots Shor kitchen and you called out “JOHNN!” like it had only been three weeks! … And Ross is doing an amazing job showing me the ropes of Lake Placid!

  6. Jim Morrison says:

    Hey John,
    It’s been great following your incredible ride into a totally alternative universe. I found your last piece so moving. It makes me wonder at what kind of world we could have if more of us made those kind of connections to people so different in circumstances from our own. Thanks for representing Gilman, Baltimore, Maryland, the USA so well.

    • John Williams says:

      Thanks for your continued support and for being an amazing teacher Mr. Morrison! I am teaching up in Lake Placid right now and have a newfound respect for the work that teachers do. I will do my best to stop by Gilman when I am back in town over Thanksgiving.

  7. Hey John,
    I have had an amazing time following your tour in Suriname. Your ability to immerse and integrate yourself into the society, embracing the barriers of race, culture, and language shed a beautiful light on the transformative nature of your service. I hope you are kind to yourself as you reintegrate into society here in the US and never stop reflecting on the heart-driven life you have now led. Cultural immersion expands your personal perception. In the US there are lots of social forces and pressures placed on young people to “succeed”, and I am very excited to see how your experience in Suriname will shape the direction you choose towards personal fulfillment. I hope it includes skiing. Send it!

    • John Williams says:

      Matt!! What’s up dude! So far my experience in Suriname has led me up to Lake Placid, NY where I am teaching, coaching and loving life! Hopefully there will be many turns (even if not in that amazing Alta fluff) in the near future! Thanks for your kind words and hope you are continuing to give’r as well!

  8. Bill Auerswald says:

    JDubs: Great to read this and know that you had a great experience and that you are back safely. Have you thought about speaking to students about your experience? If so, let me know and I’ll try to arrange for you to speak to our Upper School. It would be great to see you and they could really benefit from hearing about what this did for you. Best to you, Mac and Mr. & Mrs.Dubs!

    • John Williams says:

      Thanks Coach! I am glad to know you enjoyed the blog! I have definitely thought about speaking to students about my experience but have yet to seriously gauge schools’ interest levels. I would love to do it at Indian Creek….right now I am teaching/coaching in Lake Placid so I bet I am on a similar schedule to you all but maybe we could still work something out!

    • John Williams says:

      Thanks Coach! I am glad to know you enjoyed the blog! I have definitely thought about speaking to students about my experience but have yet to seriously gauge schools’ interest levels. I would love to do it at Indian Creek….right now I am teaching/coaching in Lake Placid so I bet I am on a similar schedule to you all but maybe we could still work something out!

  9. Jill Reynolds says:

    Hi John, You have never met me but I am a friend of your mother through knitting, the Baltimore Speaker Series and exercise. I am a RPCV from Sierra Leone several decades ago. Your blog has been incredibly interesting and moving. My service impacts me to this day and has made me a more introspective and accepting person–as well as a host of other changes. Pit latrines-bring it on, mystery meat-delicious, power outages–no problem, bathing with less than a gallon of water-piece of cake etc. Welcome home. I wish for you many more meaningful journeys.

    • John Williams says:

      Ms. Reynolds! Thank you for the kind support! I am glad to hear that your experience in Sierra Leone still influences your life today. I hope one day we meet in person so I can hear how the influence Peace Corps has had on your life has changed over time. I look forward to it!

  10. John — I am so proud of you and all you accomplished in Suriname, and know that your time there meant just as much to our Saramaccan friends. This experience will stay with you forever. Just the other day I told a Grinnell student, who referred to Peace Corps as “some time off before grad school,” that for me, grad school was the time off, and that Peace Corps was the life-changing experience.

    This is exceptionally well-written. You should seek to publish it somewhere. Maybe the PC national communications office would have some ideas? A shorter version to the Baltimore Sun?

    Let me know when you are ready to continue our conversations we started in Suriname about your future.

  11. John Williams says:

    Thanks Doug! That means alot coming from you! I appreciate the recommendation of trying to get it published and I will try to start looking into it. Regarding our conversations, I decided to pursue a teaching opportunity and am loving the challenge of serving as a teacher/coach/advisor/dorm parent. I will definitely reach out to you as I think towards the future!

  12. Meg Hanley says:

    Hey John,

    I was led to your blog by the Colgate scene–an hour later I am still here. Others have remarked on your impressively effective ability to spin words into recollections and reflections (and its deserved!) but I wanted to give you a shout out for your photography. Metsan’s portrait jumped out at me in particular. It bears a striking resemblance to this photo from National Geographic’s George Steinmetz: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/04/a-boy-and-his-goggles/
    Kudos to you & be well!

    Meg

    • John Williams says:

      Thank you for the kind comment, Meg! I am really glad you enjoyed Metsan’s portrait. On top of being my favorite little rascal in Ligorio, he was running around in his tighty-whitey underwear with those goggles acting like a superhero and I couldn’t resist from sprinting to my house to grab my camera. It does resemble that NatGeo photo – only Metsan made his goggles in Kindergarten art class!

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