What the Peace Corps meant to me

Courtesy of Nick Roll
Monitor correspondent Nick Roll attends a 2018 taping of a radio show by a Senegalese journalist visiting the health post where he worked while serving in the Peace Corps in Dya, Senegal.

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It wasn’t until I returned home from the Peace Corps that I noticed the Senegalese restaurant down the street. I instantly knew this was somewhere I could speak Wolof, to the confused delight of the kitchen staff.

I joined the Peace Corps in 2018 for the opportunities: to experience West Africa, to improve my foreign language skills, and to do some meaningful work along the way. I never thought lessons learned there would be applicable back home. But here I was, in my hometown of Cincinnati, speaking Wolof with a set of neighbors I had never known I had before.

Why We Wrote This

Is the Peace Corps still valuable? Our reporter grapples with the disillusionment with the program he encountered while reporting today’s lead story – and how it fits with his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The Peace Corps has always had two missions: to build literal bridges through volunteer work, and to build more figurative cultural bridges. One can easily log the number of wells built or mothers trained in nutrition classes. It’s harder to measure the impact of cultural exchange carried out, cross-border friendships made possible, or worldviews expanded.

In many ways, the figurative bridges that the Peace Corps builds are exactly what today’s divided yet shrinking world needs a heavy dose of. The challenge for the program will be making sure its ideals are being lived out in the field, and not just on paper in Washington.

It wasn’t until I returned home from the Peace Corps that I noticed the eatery down the street from my house. The white sign read “Darou Salaam Restaurant.” Like many Senegalese restaurants trying to make it in America, it promises “African food” and “food from all over the world.” It eschews the specificity of a West African country most people haven’t heard of for mass appeal. 

I had never even noticed the place before. But now, I instantly knew this was somewhere I could speak Wolof and order a plate of thieb, a local dish made with fish, vegetables, and rice. I proceeded to do both, to the pleasure and confusion of a kitchen staff who’d never seen a white American speak their language.

I joined the Peace Corps in 2018 for the opportunities: to live in and learn about West Africa, to improve my French, to learn a new language on top of that, and to do some meaningful work along the way. While adjusting to life in a rural village, I never thought lessons learned there would be applicable back home. But here I was, two neighborhoods over from my childhood home in Cincinnati, speaking Wolof with a set of neighbors I had never known I had before.

Why We Wrote This

Is the Peace Corps still valuable? Our reporter grapples with the disillusionment with the program he encountered while reporting today’s lead story – and how it fits with his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer.

If my time in Senegal was the Peace Corps at its best, Wednesday’s lead story, which I co-wrote with our Johannesburg-based staff writer Ryan Lenora Brown, probes a bit deeper. We find global citizens and do-gooders, yes, but also people who are disillusioned, unsure if their work is actually helpful, and questioning what representing America means in such a divided age. 

The Peace Corps has always had two missions: to build literal bridges through volunteer work, and to build more figurative cultural bridges. In many ways it’s been successful. In many ways it hasn’t. What I learned reporting this story was the danger of generalizing, whether positively or negatively. No single experience with the program seemed to be universal.

Amid drastically competing visions for the program, then, what is the Peace Corps supposed to do? There’s no shortage of ideas. In the Senegalese capital, Dakar, where I live now, I was out recently with some other former Peace Corps volunteers. We debated whether the organization should exist and whether it was effective – a classic Peace Corps pastime. In some ways, it felt a bit rich – benefiting from the program, moving to Dakar, and then pondering whether we should pull up the ladder behind us. But most crucially, we debated what we meant by “effective.” One can easily log the number of wells built or mothers trained in nutrition classes. It’s harder to measure the impact of cultural exchange carried out, cross-border friendships made possible, or worldviews expanded. 

In many ways, the figurative bridges that the Peace Corps builds are exactly what today’s divided yet shrinking world needs a heavy dose of. That can only happen if volunteers coming into the program bring humility, rather than elitism or saviorism. The challenge for the Peace Corps will be making sure its ideals are being lived out in the field, and not just on paper in Washington.

What I know is that I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. And I hope, when speaking Wolof in Cincinnati, that I can light that same spark in my Senegalese neighbors as I felt on the rare occasions in Senegal when I had the opportunity to speak my language, English – a feeling of instant relaxation, and a sense that I belonged.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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