Making a Difference

We Peace Corps Volunteers often don’t feel like we’re making a real difference in our host countries and at our sites. But my good friend, Kate, recently wrote a great blog post, citing some things that remind us of the difference we do make. The changes may not be visible, but they’re there. An excerpt from Kate’s post; my feelings are the same:

“If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want a hundred years of prosperity, grow people.” (Chinese Proverb)

I think this quote is a beautiful way of explaining what we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are doing in Ukraine. Its not so much that we’re teaching English (although we are), but we’re changing deeply entrenched attitudes about education, about America (and Americans), and even about the world itself.

[…] Ukrainians truly suffered under Stalin and the USSR, and as a result, their national identity is quite pessimistic and they have very low expectations about life and the potential for achievement. This is a huge difference for me as an American, because Americans are raised on slogans like “if you can dream it, you can do it” and “anything is possible.” I think the best way to highlight this contrast in worldview is to tell you the opening line of the Ukrainian national anthem: “Ukraine is not dead yet.” If that’s not pessimism, I don’t what is.

So yes, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in Ukraine. But what’s more important, I’m a PCV introducing radical concepts like hope for the future, honest academic achievement made through putting in the work required to learn a language (instead of buying grades), and even crazier concepts like volunteerism (unheard of in Ukraine), and world friendship (for those of us not too cynical to believe this might be possible).

A lovely lady named Iryna, who serves as Peace Corps Ukraine’s Training Manager, sent all volunteers a little encouragement via email last month that pointed out the importance of our work here, for days when it feels like we’re accomplishing nothing. I was really inspired by her words, so I’m going to share them with you:

“Although 20 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the changes in the mentality of our nation, which hopefully will be followed by the changes in the spirit – from “Ukraine has not died yet…” as our national anthem states to something more optimistic and engaging like “Ukraine will live and prosper and each of us is part of it… ” – are not happening overnight and might require several generations. So, what I want to say, is that when you are interacting with my countrymen in your communities (be it in a work setting or while drinking tea or playing football) and sharing the genuine beliefs you brought here with you that “Life is not what’s happening to you, but rather it’s something that depends on you” and yes, “You can do it and I trust in you!”, you are influencing their mentality and it IS, in my opinion, the MOST IMPORTANT thing you could do. No global indicators (which are being developed now) would be able to measure this growing self-confidence, belief in ourselves and overcoming this passiveness and pessimism which were fostered and enforced by the system which expected everyone to feel and act like a dumb nuisance and never to stick out. It is the sparkling eyes of your students, the pleasant feeling people around you are experiencing after having done something for their communities, the excitement of speaking up about your personal opinion, the joy of understanding that we are no longer an enclave of the Earth but rather a part of this global world, which makes Peace Corps very relevant in Ukraine in this very dramatic time when our country is still torn between its authoritarian past and democratic future.”

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3 thoughts on “Making a Difference

  1. jamescorps says:

    Definitely similar sentiments for Volunteers down here in the Dominican Republic. It’s always nice when you see, put into words, exactly what you’re feeling sometimes.

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