It's rare when I post something positive about my time in the Peace Corps, even though there were many. I thought now that the world is ending that it might be a good time to share some lessons learned from that time that I hope I will carry for the rest of my life. In truth, my time in the Peace Corps has defined my life, and the things I've learned on how to be a Peace Corps have translated heavily in my post-service life. Indeed, I see myself not as a scientist, but as a Peace Corps volunteer who happens to do science.
Lesson one: Be positive! The first thing someone told me when I got in to the Peace Corps is that "In the end, everything will be alright." This has often not been the case, however, positivity can positively influence the outcome of your life. Believing in yourself, believing that things can change, is often the most important thing about changing a community. When I heard Barak Obama's "Change" message, I knew he had been a community organizer. Once a group of people believe they can do something, the work of a community organizer is minimal compared to having to carry the community by themselves. From my own service, I like to relate the story of two villages. One was a lowland village who basically just told me "Nothing will change, just give us money." While another was a village I had to hike hours to get to. Once I got there several english speaking students approached me to ask for help. When I asked what this was, they replied that they wanted power, but since they were so remote, they formed a committee to see how they could bring power to their village. They contacted some NGOs, procured a grant, and started a solar cooperative to provide each family who signed up a single solar panel on a pole for power. All over the village I saw these units, indeed, the only place I saw them in The Philippines for the most part. What help did they want? They wanted to know if they had done things right. I think I will forever be trying to figure out what the difference was between these two villages, but I do believe positivity has a big part of it. But positivity is a reward unto itself. When a person or a group of people fall into the trap of constantly focusing on negative thoughts, everyone is impacted. Performance falls, confidence deceases, and people are generally unhappy. But this is not a cheap touchy-feely hippie dream. This is a mantra. It is difficult to think positive, and much easier and more common for me to focus on the difficult things in life. However, we Peace Corps volunteers do difficult things. And doing difficult things will always mean you have lots of hard days, lots of sad days. There is enough bitterness and hate to go around. But positivity? It will carry it's own reward in body, life, and soul. You will need every ounce of it to be what you are.
Lesson two: Build communities. A fundamental purpose of the Peace Corps volunteer is to improve the community in which they live in. The reason Peace Corps volunteers are put in local communities and given local salaries involves the idea that in this way you can somehow interact on a more local level as equals with the community. In this way, the needs and desires of a community are given priority, rather than what the volunteer can do for them. From all these interactions I began to get the impression that if you want to improve the environment, if you want to improve the economy, if you want to get kids to go to school, everything involves interacting with people one on one. You build communities one person at a time with the people around you. Whether you're in a dirt road village, or in a high-tech DNA sequencing facility, all the interactions between people determine if they will collectively rise and fall. Wherever you are in whatever situation you are in, build a culture of constructive improvement and mentorship by engaging and inspiring people to address their own hopes and dreams, and you will build a society.
Lesson three: Work hard, play hard, and care much. As Americans and as engineers we are known for working hard, and playing (drinking) hard. However, I would say empathy is also important. It is ok to care. It is ok to cry when you see something bad happening to someone or something. It is ok to say something when you see someone in trouble. It is ok to listen to someone talk about their lives, and to learn something about them. As I've said, reason makes us better than animals, but empathy makes us human. Be passionate! Be passionate about your friends and their lives. Be passionate about what you do, and love the beauty of it. Be passionate about living and being alive! And never stop being friendly to others. Care about your friends, care about your work, but also care about yourself. You cannot help others when you cannot even help yourself. If you are sick, in debt, or over-worked, you cannot do good in this world. When you do not respect even yourself, you cannot have empathy for others. If you are cynical and say nothing good can ever happen by human hands, or that those good things are worthless, keep this in mind. One day you will say something and realize people are actually listening to you. Someone will actually change their thinking based on yours, more often in a negative way, you will then begin to change your tone. Everyone of us touches each others' lives with each interaction we make. These touches are so subtle as to be imperceptible, but each interaction has a life time of impact. You could make it a lifetime of negative impact. A lifetime of self-centered impact. Or you could dream of something more. What would it be?