Framing: Beautiful Microbe, Beautiful Molecule

Before I started down the health science path I studied communications. In communications, there’s an idea called “framing.” Framing is a theory that’s often applied to the media and how it shapes public opinion about certain topics. The concept is that how you talk about a specific topic (ex. healthcare)—such as the tone you use and the details you include (or leave out)—can shape other people’s perceptions of the topic.

I’ve noticed that several of my science professors use framing as a teaching tactic. And, despite knowing exactly what they’re doing, I still fall for it.

I’m currently studying microbiology and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of new information to learn and for organic chemistry there are a few new thinking skills I’ve been practicing—such as being able to think about molecules in 3D. It’s an interesting challenge to train your brain to be able to rotate different molecular structures using only your imagination. I’m lucky enough to find microbiology and organic chemistry fascinating, but still it’s hard work. That’s where the framing comes in.

My organic chemistry professor introduces particularly complex or tricky molecules as “beautiful molecules.” “This is a beauuuutiful molecule,” he’ll say. He’ll also start a new chapter by saying “This is an important chapter. This is very cool…let me tell you why.” And, somewhere in that explanation of how awesome the challenging topic is, he’ll make a few comments about needing to practice the skills he’s about to show us. “But I will teach you how to…” he will conclude.

My microbiology professor does the same thing. I always know when he’s preparing to introduce a particularly complex metabolism, process, or cycle used by bacteria because he’ll pull up a picture of a microbe and say “This beautiful microbe…”

Those are current examples, but my general chemistry professor did the same thing. His word for hard concepts to learn was “interesting” rather than “beautiful.”

So what’s going on with this inappropriate use of descriptive words? Framing. Why? Because it works. As absurd as it sounds, it’s way easier to fight with a beautiful molecule than a molecule that’s “annoying” or “difficult” or “challenging” from the very start. I don’t think microbes are necessarily beautiful, but I approach them with much more interest and forgiveness when they are presented to me as “beautiful” rather than “ugly” or “evil” or “bad.” And, when trying to complete long chemical equations, it is a lot easier to complete the “interesting” problem than it is the “hard”, “tricky”, or “terrible” problem.

What’s my long-winded point? Before I dove into science I heard that it was “hard” and “confusing” and “dry” and “boring” and many other potentially negative adjectives. Sometimes I completely agree. But, most of the time, I do think it’s amazingly interesting. I think we’d do a lot of young people thinking about their future (and older people looking for something new) a service if we framed science as something wonderful. Sure, there is plenty about it that’s hard, and even monotonous, but most of it (all of it maybe) is not beyond most people’s reach. We’ve just conditioned our population to think science is either too complicated for them or not something they’d find interesting by describing it as scary, trying, and a thing that only geeks and brilliant people do. It’s worth a frame-shift around science. Why? What better way to find answers to medical questions, renewable energy questions, etc. than having more people researching and exploring those topics?

Advertisements

Happiness Comes from the Heart

Being a pre-med post-baccalaureate student, I take a lot of classes with humans that are 8-10 years younger than me. These young people are a dichotomy of vibrant energy and self-doubt. We are on same footing as we struggle to memorize microbes and how p orbitals shape molecules, yet we are not even in adjacent life chapters.

It’s nice to be a witness, rather than a participant, of the soul searching that comes with learning how to be an adult. I once was an 18-year-old too, but I’m glad that era is behind me. I know my young colleagues will come out just fine without any help. But, there’s one thing that I wish I could tell them so they wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of discovering it themselves. It’s simple but, alas, it’s something only experience can teach us: happiness comes from within.

I think many of us get lost in the weeds when it comes to happiness. We jump from shiny thing to shiny thing. We assume the next great object we possess will fill the holes in our soul. We look to family, friends, and partners thinking they can save us. We search for other’s approval of our look. We act based on strangers’ opinions, hoping that society will label us as “cool.” And as we skip and hop between all these outward forces, our emptiness expands until our core seems more like a beach ball than a rock. Hollow.

It’s not the doldrums, the pits, where the quest for meaning beyond ourselves drives us, but to stagnant waters and ships with limp sails. And, while some of my young lab partners might learn quickly that they are the only ones who can make themselves happy, many of them will take years to realize the truth. I’m not sorry for them. I know their journey will have many fun days and explosions of wonder. But, if they are like me, they won’t find peace until they understand that joy originates inside and spreads from there. I don’t wish the restlessness of the road upon anyone, but it’s a road we all must wander at some point.

While others might make our lives brighter, we’re the only ones who can decide if we’re going to let in the sunshine or draw the curtains. I hope that when the going gets tough and the days seem dark the young folks around me take the time to look inward. There are many things beyond our control, but our emotions and how we respond to the world do not fall among them.

Are you lonely?

“Are you lonely?” is America’s version of the boyfriend question. I thought the coupling obsession was a Paraguayan thing. But, now that I’m back in the US, I realize I was mistaken. It’s also an American thing. Maybe it’s a human thing. Regardless, I’ve gotten a lot of practice justifying why I’m single. So, let me tell you…

…there is no reason why I’m single. I just am.

I know it’s hard to believe that a person can be happy just being. But, try to imagine it. Consider, for example, that I can go hiking on the fly and not wait for a soul. I could move anywhere and would only need to bargain with my future landlord and maybe the visa office. I can (and do) eat when, what, and where I want and don’t feel even a hint of obligation to coordinate with anyone.

Perhaps you’re thinking something like, “Fine, Jett, you’re busy and independent…but really you’re just waiting for the right guy. You’re lonely, but you forge on propelled by the dream of the prince who will sweep you off your feet one day.”

If something like that is on your mind, I must ask: Doesn’t that argument seem archaic? By now we should all know that princes only live in fairytales. They aren’t real, but metaphors for love and good fortune. I don’t need the metaphor. I’m not looking for someone to fend off the dragons. I do that just fine on my own.

Don’t despair, you’re partly right. I’m busy and I have great friends. But that’s the whole point. If I lived my whole life as I am—doing good work, engaging in hobbies, and enjoying friends—then I would have an awesome life. You see, my life’s not on hold. I’m not working toward finding that perfect man. I’m just living…and I also happen to be single. I’m not worried about love. Why should I? It’s spontaneous and stubborn. It will do whatever the heck it wants. Just like me.

I might one day stumble upon someone to be my partner in crime. I might uncover a person who makes me happier than I already am. If I do, I’ll marry him. I also might not find such a human. Either way, the trajectory is grand. I realize that many believe that singletons need to be saved. But let’s remember that when we, you and I, were taught about the American dream it was never said that it could only be dreamt by two.

Thanks for your concern about my emotional well-being. But, the better question is “What do you do?” I assure you the answer is interesting. I have a lot to say about me and my doings. And don’t worry, I’ll let you know if me becomes we.

On Growing Old

The best excuse for why I’ve been silent since spring is that the sun came back to Vermont and I’ve done everything I can to enjoy it. In Vermont, you spend eight months of the year waiting for summer to return.

Many Vermont summer days seem too perfect for an imperfect human like me to be part of them. They make me feel like a hideaway who, if discovered, will be kicked out. Tossed back to a land where the sun doesn’t flicker through the trees and the birds don’t chirp so musically. When I walk on these pristine days I let my mind meander.

On one such walk, I pondered growing old. I have a very vivid memory from elementary school. I was looking at the high schoolers and I thought, “I will never live to be as old as they are.” Yet, I did grow as old as they were. Not only that, I lived through college. And now I’m just a few years from 30 and I’m still living happily.

Some people fear getting old. Others complain about it. Others dye their hair and refused to tell you their age, as if time can be stopped through censorship. Recently, old people keep bursting into my thoughts. Many of my friends in Paraguay were more than twice my age. Most of the patients I transport to the hospital (I’m an EMT) were alive during WWII. My grandfather—the one who always made me laugh and was a humble, hidden source of strength—died. He’s still in my heart.

I thought about these elderly people as I walked. A slight breeze brushed away the mosquitoes and it smelled like grass and green things. I thought, “I’ll probably be 90 one day. What the heck will I be doing when I’m 90?”

I tried to envision what it would be like to be one of the white haired, wrinkly, and wise people who are always stoically at the edges of my life. For a moment, the thought made me sad. But, the melancholy passed and I grew calm. I would likely be old one day. And when that time came, I would not be busy like I am now.

It wouldn’t be that bad being old. I’d sit on a porch somewhere watching the sun shine. Perhaps I’d still be flexible enough to lie in a hammock. I’d observe the young people zooming around and they’d wonder how I wasn’t bored sitting and staring at the world all day. I would be so occupied by memories of a lifetime and all the family, friends, and acquaintances whose stories I’d shared that sitting on a porch would be like being at a movie theater watching the best movie ever. The best movie because I was its writer, producer, star, audience, and critic.

Sometimes young people would pause long enough to talk to me. They might be my grandchildren or they might be someone else’s grandchildren. I’d talk about what I’d done, seen, and learned. My words would fall on deaf ears but, sometime later, those young people would remember something I said and it would help them.

As I walked thinking about being ancient I realized that I was content with time passing. I’d make it as far as I was supposed to go. The grandest part of the whole thing, the beauty of aging, was that my weakening state would leave me no option but to reflect. My frail bones would limit the history I could make in my last few years, and that wouldn’t be so terrible. It’s meant to be that way. It’s meant to be that we have some time to enjoy what has been and is without any need to build the future.

Old Haunts

I stared at the metro station that had been my home stop for several years as the train doors binged open and closed. That day I had no reason to get off there. I tried to remember what I had thought about all those times after interning, working, volunteering, and adventuring when I got off on that platform and observed the name written in white on a brown pole, “Cleveland Park.” Too many different thoughts to remember. Feelings arose—that of being too hot or tired from a long day at the office, but those were more sensations than memories.

It had been over three years since I’d visited DC—three years, but a lifetime of learning. The trouble with my recollection wasn’t so much that I didn’t remember all the good and bad things that had happened while I was in our Nation’s capital. The marathon training runs through Rock Creek Park when the sun glistened through the trees as I padded along the winding creek dodging bikers and baby strollers. I remember the roly-poly red pandas who I visited many weekends. The tart and sweet of frozen yogurt and mango. The smell of coffee emanating from my clothes after a shift at Starbucks—you can’t escape that scent, and coffee smells different when it’s associated with work, rich and bitter at the same time. I remembered the night I drank my first energy drink, my only all-nighter of college, so I could walk down to Obama’s first inauguration. I had tickets! I remember the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves reflecting in the pool at Jefferson’s feet. The flags on the Vietnam memorial stark against the black stone. The quiet white lines of tombs at Arlington—so many lost. The smelly humidity of the metro before a marathon. The chili fries at National’s stadium—Harper, Zimmerman, Gonzales…the presidents racing. The long night walks in the neighborhood when families strolled and the smells of different restaurants wafted across the sidewalk. The Greek deli where I got my college graduation lunch.

The trouble, though hardly that, was that the feelings of weariness and frustration that had laced my time in DC were gone. Completely gone and only the happy memories of my old haunts remained. The Kennedy Center at dusk. The strange winding of the canal through Georgetown. The roses. Roses in almost every garden. The long walks to the grocery store and the strolls past embassies. It was strange to think of embassies now. I’d been an expat. I knew what it was like to visit your country’s stronghold in a strange land. Oddly not comforting considering the comparison between American politics and the warmth of Paraguay.

I watched the people rushing out of the metro. I was sure not to esca-left—unforgiveable. I’d forgotten about all the fancy men’s shoes and checkered shirts, but seeing them I realized how unchanged cloud DC was. Suits of a cut only seen on the Hill and in old boys’ clubs abounded. I smiled. Funny to think those young men, dreaming of great titles and accomplishments, where not as unique as they imagined. As for the women, the boring shirts and sensible skirts. Even below the Mason-Dixon line so many folks lacked the flare that the south brings out if you let it. “Not far enough south,” I guessed. Of course, these folks were more complex than their clothes, but they’d lead you to believe their clothes were an expression of themselves. Hard to say, not knowing them.

Wandering the streets made me feel the freedmen of disengagement. This was not my home and could very well never be my home again. It was an easy thought. Whether the metro ran on time or late mattered little—it was no longer my metro. And besides, I’d waited hours in the hot sun for buses a fraction as nice as the dirtiest DC metro car.

Old haunts. They weren’t haunts at all, really. Just little snapshots into the past. But I no longer saw any of the scenes as I did then. No. They all had a different filter. And this time, the view was bright as the afternoon, January sun in Paraguayan. The vignette lens that had once allowed the shadows to creep in around the edges of my old stomping ground had been replace by a softening and brightening filter. I noticed the sidewalks, their cracks had been filled. The sidewalks were new just like my path. And the corners of my mouth creeped up all on their own. If my positive outlook, adopted from Paraguay, could endure the city where politicians were trying to put our country forty years behind in education, rights, and healthcare, then it was safe to say I’d come to visit just at the right time. The right time to prove that rain and sun are different sides of the same sky. I saw the sun.

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?

Life’s Soundtrack

At first it was strange to throw toilet paper in the toilet rather than the wastebasket and be in a comfortable climate rather than melting of heat. Those contrasts caught my attention first and in a jarring way when I arrived back in the US several days ago, after living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for 27 months. But, where one puts toilet paper and how the weather is have always been minor details of life to which one easily adjusts.

My Peace Corps service ended on April 8, 2016. And, I’m still journeying to where I’ll live next. I’m visiting family, not seen for over 2 years, before I settle into what I imagine will be a hectic lifestyle. And as the visiting continues, I’m taking my time to adjust to this new world called the U.S. of A. It was both out of urgency and strategic planning that my first stops in America were to visit my grandparents. I spent so many hours sitting, chatting, and talking about old times with Paraguayans, doing the same in English with family has been a treat.

But, even in the bubble of my grandparents’ homes and neighborhoods my time in Paraguay seems to fade like a dream. As one person commented on Facebook, “It happened and now it is over.” Or, as my grandmother said, “that place you visited.” I had to laugh at the choice of the word “visited.” Can anywhere one stays for over two years count as a visit? “Visit” seems like such a trival word to describe a place I consider home and from which I emerged a new person. Words. That brings me to the point of this ramble.

There are many details that are different about living in Paraguay and living in the US. For example, I can talk to a guy my age in the US without anyone jumping directly to the conclusion I have a fling with him, where as in Paraguay people would most likely think there was something going on between he and I. But, for now, the diverging details are not overwhelming. The harshest changes I currently feel are the different life sounds between the US and Paraguay and that I have lost the key words and phrases I’ve been using for two years to express my thoughts and feelings.

On one hand, it is nice to once again understand what everyone is saying around me. On the other hand, it is so distracting to know every blasted word the people in line in front and behind me are saying. Who should I listen to? How can I think of my own words when there are so many words flying around me that I effortlessly understand? It was a lot easier to tune out in Paraguay where I did not understand every thing people said.

I am joyful to hear so many people speak my native tongue, but my goodness how the sounds that make those words sound like gravel against a shovel or nails on a chalkboard. I never realized how ugly and harsh English can sound. The twang, whine, and nasal of English words is almost painful to my ears. I miss the round vowels of Spanish and the flow of Guarani–two languages that are melodic compared to the clanking nature of English.

It’s not just the sound of the language that is dissonant to my Paraguay-tuned ears. It’s the music, or more accurately lack of music. Where is my cumbia? My bachata? Paraguayan polka? Why are the houses and buses and streets silent? What is this new phenomena of silent nights? I used to have to wear earplugs to escape from Spanish-language love songs, and now I can sleep without earplugs because there is not even the roar of dirt bikes and heaving old trucks to disturb my slumber. Am I in the land of perfect sleep?

The soundtrack is different in my country from that of my Paraguay. But, that is not all. The words and phrases I can use to express myself are different too. It is obvious that speaking in different languages means using different words. However it is not the language, but the phrasing that is tripping me. Even when I translate, or try to translate, the words and phrases I used in Paraguay to English, it doesn’t work. Why? Well, a lot of the words don’t have an English equivalent. How the heck am I supposed to say “tranquilo” or “no más” or “opama” or “kaigue” or “hi’que” in this blasted native language of mine? I can’t.

“Tranquilo” could be translated to “tranquil,” “no problem,” and “life’s good,” but it means all those things and more. The same goes for the others. “No más” literally means “no more,” but it can actually mean “that’s all,” “no problem,” and “It’s not a big deal.” “Opama” literally means “It’s over already,” but that’s hardly a good suggestion of all the things “opama” can mean in context. Both “kaigue” and “hi’que” don’t even have English translations…so there’s that.

Sounds. Words. Music. Language. They dictate who we are and how we explain ourselves to others. When I first got to Paraguay, and for all my time there, one of the biggest challenges I had was feeling like I could not completely express myself in Spanish and Guarani. Ironically, I now feel the same way in my homeland. I’m at a loss for words and homesick for the familiar sounds of my community in Paraguay. The language. The music. The spitting of frying oil and roaring of dirt bike motors. I know the sounds of my American environment will soon become just background noise. But right now, my new life’s soundtrack is bombarding my conscious mind.

Lice

Once when we were children my sister got lice from school. I remember it was a big, embarrassing ordeal. We all–my mom, my sister, and I–used lice shampoo right away. This memory makes me smile often, as I go about life in Paraguay. Things are so different here.

Most kids have lice in Paraguay…that might be an exaggeration, but not a terribly erroneous one. The difference is, however, that lice are not considered to be the end of the world in Paraguay, as they seem to be in the States. People I know here don’t use shampoo to kill the little buggers either.

Lice control in Paraguay involves a child sitting in her mom’s, aunt’s, couscin’s, or sister’s lap while the older woman combs through the girl’s hair with her fingers and kills the lice she finds between her finger nails. This is a ritual that is neither hidden or done with shame. It is undertaken out in the open and in front of visitors without hesitation.

Grooming in Paraguay is more communal than I experienced in the States. The lice picking used to remind of apes and the other habits between women (mostly) like cutting each other’s toe nails and cleaning each others feet made me a bit queasy. Feet are for walking, not for touching in my book. But, nowadays I find these behaviors normal, though I still don’t actively participate–I guess we all have our limits.

The easy-to-maintain sterile world many people in the States live in allows us to forget that germs and bugs and dirt are just part of life. I think many of us could benefit from remembering creatures like lice aren’t usually the result of negligence but are just part of this little world in which we live. I’m not exactly saying that we should all go out and get lice, but I’m suggesting that their appearance shouldn’t be a catastrophe.

The Women of Paraguay

Last week I attended a girls’ leadership camp, the Paraguayan version of the international initiative Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). It was my second year helping plan and attending GLOW. The camp is 3 nights long and brings together 50 girls from across Paraguay to talk about being leaders in their communities.

A fantastic group of young women attended this year’s GLOW and we, the volunteers who helped organize the event, were thrilled to have speakers and support from many Paraguayans. GLOW inspired me to reflect on how Paraguayan women have helped me make sense of Paraguay since I started my service.

My biggest struggle in Peace Corps is navigating Paraguayan gender roles, many of those for women are contrary to who I am and many of those assigned to men make me uncomfortable. I’ve had a plethora of eye-opening experiences with regard to how different people see men and women in Paraguay. But, one positive aspect of the female reality in this hot, little country towers above all else, and that is the strength and cohesiveness of Paraguayan women.

There is a bound among women in Paraguay that I never experienced in the States. When I came to Paraguay it was like returning to kindergarten. I was still an adult with adult thoughts, but I understood Paraguayan culture about as well as a five-year-old understands how to live independently, which is to say I felt lost. The Paraguayan style of teaching is to criticize and instruct through jokes. It is hard to deal with at first, I think most of us like to be taken seriously as humans. Between the jeers and the hiccups during my first months, Paraguayan woman after Paraguayan woman gave me advice.

As a result, I grew as a person. I’ve absorbed a little of the Paraguayan woman’s ability to defend herself. I know how Paraguayan women usually act, even though I don’t always follow the rules because I don’t like most of them. I’ve come to understand that while men in Paraguay are free and powerful, women are not as disempowered as I thought they were at first. And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that many Paraguayan women have a strength that many American women I know lack.

The Paraguayan woman is a nurturer. When she is young she looks after his siblings. She treats her father like a king and her brothers like princes. She cooks and cleans and works to make the men in her life happy, even at times when those men do nothing. But, while I as the outsider often find this sickening, there is a positive side to the Paraguayan female sacrifice. She is proud of her work. She is good at negotiating with the men around her, and leading them to compromises that benefit her too. She is close to the women in her family. By her teens she knows her mother, sisters, female cousins, aunts, and grandmother as well as life-long friends in the States know each in their 80s. She knows the needs of every member of her family. She knows how to barter and form strategies to meet those needs.

By the time a Paraguayan woman becomes a wife, a professional, and/or a mother she is the heart of her family. She is the life force and the glue holding people together. She remembers everyone’s birthdays. She does little things to make children feel loved. She can plan a party like a professional event planner. She never misses a detail. She can plot the path of her children so that one day they will be even greater than she is. She knows the powerful members in her community and she knows how to win their respect. She can not control her husband or her brothers, but she is a master of limiting damage. She looks to her core and her female friends to find the power she needs to get through the worst obstacles. She is beautiful. She laughs and she never forgets the women growing up around her.

Paraguayan women are proud. They may not be able to shut down the catcalls that follow them everywhere they go. They may not be free to do all that they desire. They may be afraid to break the norm. But, they don’t let these things stop them. They know how to deal with a rude, drunk man with eloquence and a smile. They know how to see the essence of a person. They know how to fight and to forgive. They know what it is to fall and to get up again, and they know how to win.

When I think about the girls who attended GLOW it makes me happy. They will one day lead their communities.They will improve the lot of the women who come after them. I believe that they have all they need to be and do whatever they want in their lives, and I am honored they shared a bit of their greatness with me.

Hardship

I had dengue, a mosquito-born virus that at best feels like the flu and at worst kills, earlier this month. I had a mild case and feel better now. While I was at the Peace Corps office, seeing the doctors, several volunteers commented that they wanted dengue because it is a badge of courage. This struck a nerve in me, mostly because it is a good illustration of what I believe is a counterproductive and mistaken belief some Peace Corps volunteers have about their service. Mainly, the idea that Peace Corps is about physical hardship and surviving.

Peace Corps is about a lot of things–among them are helping people, growing as an individual, and sharing culture–but it is not about hardship and people should not join the Peace Corps if that is all they seek. They should take up rock climbing, backing-packing, or some other grueling (though rewarding) activity that will take them to the desolate places where most people can’t or won’t go.

Some volunteers are quick to share stories of illness, days without running water and electricity, and weeks of isolation. Perhaps these aspects of their service stand out to them because of their shock factor. Perhaps those volunteers think these challenges are uncommon in the lives of humans. We, Paraguay volunteers, have a word that means “fancy,” which we use to describe volunteers who live in cities and have easy access to grocery stores or have AC in their homes. Sometimes volunteers joke that Paraguay is the “posh corps” because compared to some other countries where Peace Corps works we can get around with ease and could get to a hospital if we were to fall ill.

I reject this frame that Peace Corps makes those who serve stronger because of the physical obstacles they overcome. Illness and less-than-easy living conditions are not an oddity in the human experience, they are the norm. I’m from the States and I lived a time without running water and lived in places with limited, or no, cell service. It only takes a quick trip to the major cities of the US to find food deserts. For example, people who live in the two wards on the “wrong” side of the river in Washington, DC, have almost no access to grocery stores. Around the world, people make do with little.

Peace Corps is outstanding because of the cultural exchange between volunteers and host country nationals. The hardest part of Peace Corps is not fighting big spider that come into your house, it is diving into a world that does’t speak your language and that follows different societal rules than the ones you know. Peace Corps challenges you because it asks you to make friends and contribute all you can to improving your place of service while navigating a culture that you do not, and never will, completely understand like you do your own.

My point is this: In the Peace Corps, energy focused on finding and surviving hardship is energy wasted. Peace Corps, no matter where you are, is difficult. You will struggle at times. You will wonder if you will make it to the end. Some people don’t complete the whole 27 months, and usually their decision to leave has nothing to do with which amenities they had in their homes or which illnesses they caught. Most volunteers do finish. And those that do have more stories to tell than their dear family, friends, and acquaintances at home have patience to hear.

Volunteers I implore that you don’t make the 15 to 30 seconds most people will give you to talk about your service about dengue. To focus on something so trivial to your service is to do yourself and your host country a disservice. Tell your friends something fantastic you learned about your strange home. Tell them about something you did to help make life better. Tell them about the men, women, and children you met. Tell them something that matters. Tell them something that would make your host country proud, not something that perpetuates the misconception that those who live in the “third world” are downtrodden.