By: Curtrelle C. Rawls
While most moms asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” my mom, asked, “What do you want to give when you grow up?” She asked this question at an age where most of us can only think of pursuing careers or participating in events that bring us the most financial and personal gain. I remember plenty of Saturday mornings, when I could have been watching my favorite cartoons, we were volunteering. Like any adolescent or preteen, I thought, “What do mean, ‘What do I want to give?’” Little did I know; this question would be the driving force behind many decisions in my life, including, my career decision and my decision to serve in the United States Peace Corps.
When did I know that I absolutely wanted to serve in the Peace Corps? Summer 2012! During my undergraduate studies at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), I was given the opportunity to travel to Ghana, West Africa. There, my classmates and I participated in tourist activities and performed service projects. However, what locked me in to international service was participating in every day events with local citizens. We submerged into the culture by attending church, playing soccer (losing terribly) against local kids, and visiting with the village Chief. I then knew that any service project that I did I wanted to be able to be on the grassroots level, not just in and out, but actually live with the citizens and dive into their culture. Furthermore, the director of the Honors’ Program at PVAMU was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and advocated strongly for black students to serve. In 2013, Peace Corps partnered with my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated to have a Campus Ambassador within each undergraduate chapter. I was always considered, “the sister most likely to be working in a remote location serving others,” so everyone felt it right to vote me into this position. It seemed, at that time, my paths were directing me to Peace Corps service.
Ok, so you love service and would like to do it internationally? The Peace Corps application process is simple. The application is short and concise. You pick the field you would like to work in, and list the top three countries in which you wouldn’t mind serving. If you don’t care which country you serve in, there’s an, “Send me anywhere” option. Simply, go to PeaceCorps.gov and click “Apply.” My personal process moved quickly. I applied in September of 2015 for a June 1, 2016 departure. Once my application was submitted, I was contacted about in which program and country I was under consideration to serve. I interviewed within the next week, and received an acceptance letter two days after my interview. Life got REAL REAL, REAL FAST! After accepting the offer, you will immediately start your medical and legal clearance. Legal clearance is easy, fingerprints, background check, and you are finished. Medical, on the other hand, is a little more tedious. You will receive a packet of all the medical documents that are needed. You will complete a thorough physical (and well women’s, if applicable), dental x-rays and exam, and vision exam. If you’re like me, and see a mental wellness therapist regularly, you will also have to get cleared by your therapy provider. If you have records of every immunization you’ve ever received in life that is amazing and will save you a lot of time and money when it comes to immunizations. (Side-note: Peace Corps will give you some immunizations if you don’t have them, so don’t stress.) There are also reimbursements available for this “health check of a lifetime” that you will have to perform. After being medically cleared, you can prepare to depart for 27 months of service!
TWENTY-SEVEN MONTHS?!?! Yes, 27 months. That sounds long, right? Two years and three months sounds better. Thinking of service as 27 months will stress you out. Take service day-by-day. Each day you complete you are adding to your term, not counting down (although, there will be days you pull out the countdown calendar). Think of each day, to invest in yourself and those around you. Most people are in undergraduate for four years, graduate school for two years, and take up to eight years for advanced degrees. Now, let’s be real and admit that those four years of undergrad passed so quickly that we don’t know where they went, and if we could get them back, we would. Two years and three months…two years and three months.
What if I can’t finish my service? Begin your application process with the expectation to serve 27 months. Enter your service with that same expectation. Think of it as making a commitment to yourself and the community you are serving. You wouldn’t want anyone to commit to repaint your home and decide to not finish after painting two walls. However, if you decide PC is not for you, or for some reason, you are unable to finish service, it’s okay. It is volunteer work, you will not have to repay any money and you will not be penalized. Some things are out of our control, because, well, LIFE HAPPENS! My service with Peace Corps ended early due to circumstances out of my control. I’ll say now, I’ve never had an interviewer ask me about why I was not able to complete my service.
Ok! So, what can I expect? I wish I could give insight about what to expect during service, but I can’t. While I was preparing for service, I was in contact with a volunteer that was currently serving in Rwanda, Dr. Cassandra St. Vil, and I picked her mind about what to pack and what to expect. She gave me the best advice. She said, “Sis, I can’t tell you what your service will be like, and even if I could I wouldn’t, because it’s your service and you have the ability to make it whatever you want.” I did not fully understand until I actually began my service. One thing I can say for sure, expect to be uncomfortable. Embrace being uncomfortable. If you are a minority, know that Peace Corps is still working on recruiting in diverse spaces like HBCUs and Black Greek Letter Organizations. With that being said, expect to be more uncomfortable than your counterparts. You will be mad, you will be frustrated, but it is nothing you have not dealt with before. You will find people, or better yet, people will find you that love you and the service you are providing to them. It will feel like home at some point. Peace Corps in each country is different, and service is different for each volunteer. Make your own realistic goals about what you would like to contribute and what you would like to gain.
Its volunteer service, I’m supposed to be giving not gaining. Let me be the first to say that your country of service will give you more than you will leave there. You’ll do some projects, start some programs, maybe even build a school. You will leave an everlasting impression on your community. In fact, I talk to people in my village on a weekly basis. Although, you’ll leave all of this, you will return home with much more. Completing service makes you eligible to apply for fellowships, like the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, to further your education. Many universities have programs and financial assistance specifically for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. When I was interviewing for jobs, upon returning home, interviewers were simply moved that one would commit to serving others in a different country. As a nurse, I expected interviewers to ask whether or not I maintained prudent nursing skills while working outside of a hospital setting for so long, however they wanted to discuss my service, what I did, and what I learned. Honestly, I gained more patience and self-awareness. Being the only American in a rural village, I gained more confidence. I also returned home more aware of others and sensitive to their needs. Your selflessness and fearlessness to uproot your life and put others first will fascinate people and open many doors. More important that fascinating others, you will fascinate yourself. You will grow in ways you’ve never thought, overcome obstacles you never thought you would face.
People decide to serve for different reasons, what matters is that they serve. Peace Corps service is the hardest job you’ll ever love. I’ve never met anyone who regretted their service or said it was a waste of time. So, whether you are into international service or local service, the question remains, “What do you want to give when you grow up?”
*Today’s guest is Curtrelle C. Rawls. Curtrelle C. Rawls is a 25-year-old from Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University where she earned her Bachelor’s of Nursing Degree. She currently works as a Registered Nurse on an Acute Medical-Surgical Unit at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Curtrelle served in Rwanda as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2016-2017. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. When she has spare time she enjoys reading, exercising, photography, and spending time with her grandparents.