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Peace Corps Volunteers

Modern-Day Pilgrims

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the United States Peace Corps. Two years of their 40 years I “served.” From the moment I caught sight of my large private office in the newest school in the Czech Republic I knew my experiences would be about as close to those who have inspired admiration for four decades before me as a wild boar is to a hedgehog.

While not all the region’s volunteers had it as good as I did, and we all faced our own kinds of challenges, I never really believed my hardships were as great as those of my predecessors. I wasn’t building bridges or plowing fields. I was teaching English in an honors school in a plush new classroom and living a better life than I had as a grad student.

With all the talk of “giving back” associated with the 40th anniversary my old doubts resurfaced. I couldn’t help but feel that I, most of all, should be giving back, considering I never really gave anything in the first place.

Then by chance I opened The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. Cousineau made me realize that what links the tent-dwelling volunteer of Mongolia with me is the same thing that links every journey born of worthy intentions. Our experiences all converge along the proverbial pilgrim’s path.

The pilgrim and the volunteer are sojourners leaving home to learn and teach: bringing along an offering of the heart and coming back with something to share. We seek to nurture our ideals and broaden our horizons as we connect to the world, instigate change, and bring our impressions to the people back home. Only a lucky few of us ever see the fruits of our labor or fully realize the value of our good intentions. But whether the journey ends in a perception of success or failure, whether our impressions result in acceptance or rejection, in understanding or in deeper misconceptions, the soulful journey is one of introspection and internal change.

Every volunteer, whether with Peace Corps or with one of the tens of thousands of volunteer organizations worldwide, shares the pilgrim’s soul. The end result of our journeys will not be in the individual’s story but our combined experience—the shared realm of self-awareness and social consciousness which continues to grow, one pilgrimage at a time.