In 1985, I joined the Peace Corps and began my service in Congo, Central Africa. I was an idealistic young man with a naively expansive view of my ability to help people and make a meaningful difference in their lives.
My first year serving as a teacher was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Day after day, I encountered new and frustrating barriers to accomplishing the most basic objectives: no chalk, few books, not enough seats in the classroom. Students were often sick, hungry, tired and preoccupied with a multitude of life issues far more important than the English I was trying to teach them.
These challenges added to the ones I brought to the equation. I was young and inexperienced. I wasn’t a very good teacher, and I was ill-equipped to address the issues I faced each day. The culture was very different from mine, with multiple languages I did not speak or understand very well. Accomplishing basic tasks like bathing, cooking, cleaning and getting from one place to another was far more complicated and time consuming than it was back home. Everything I was trying to do seemed harder than anything I’d ever done before.
And yet, my students dutifully walked for hours in often harsh weather and through difficult terrain to sit in my classroom. And so I did my best to prepare lessons and teach students who needed much more than what I could offer. My humbling daily reality sometimes seemed to mock my idealism. Every day I found myself reassessing what I was doing, wondering if I could and should keep going and adjusting my expectations for myself and what I could accomplish.
Looking back across the years since my stint with the Peace Corps, I feel a sense of sympathy and compassion for that bright-eyed, well-meaning, 23-year-old idealist. It’s as if I see my younger self as a young friend or family member who was thrown into the deep end of life and was struggling to learn quickly how to swim.
Fortunately, I did start learning – slowly. Around the beginning of my second year of service, I finally started to gain my footing. I no longer felt the constant need to reset or curtail my goals and expectations. Instead of saving the world, I decided it was okay if I only touched a few people and made some small, positive difference in their lives. I realized that, in the end, I was probably getting more out of the experience than my students. And I decided that maybe that was also okay.
The challenges and frustrations I experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer provided important life lessons that have stayed with me and guided me ever since. For one, I learned to look differently at big, seemingly insurmountable challenges. Instead of becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by the magnitude of an enormous undertaking, we can simply focus on the first, most basic, manageable step. We can take that step and then move forward one step at a time until the giant, imposing task is complete.
Second, and more important, I learned that offering meaningful aid and assistance doesn’t have to mean ending world hunger or achieving world peace. Too often, we fail to take action because we think our contribution is insignificant. We only want to do something if that something is big and consequential. When we find ourselves thinking in this way, we should try to remind ourselves that making a difference is incremental. Choosing to make even a small difference today, right now, can often make a bigger difference in the long term than we realize.
Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer meant facing significant challenges without ever achieving a whole lot. But I did learn a lot about resilience. And I do think there are at least a few people whose lives were improved – maybe only a little and maybe only briefly – as a result of my service. If we all go about each day trying to make small differences in the lives of a few, we might end up collectively making a big difference in the lives of many.
This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.
Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.