Like all things beautiful, this chapter has come to an end. My dream that started five years ago as a fleeting thought to join the Peace Corps to serve a greater cause than myself has unfolded and is now being neatly tied with a bow; a gift to my life. It was never a race to the finish, rather a daily journey, sometimes because the end simply seemed impossibly far away. Throughout the rollercoaster ride of my service, I watched the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into months until that magical number, 27 months, finally appeared on my calendar. As I stare at that final date marking my close of service, I realize that there is no beginning or end. This end, in fact is the start of a hopeful beginning of the next stage in my life. Everything that I struggled to learn over the past two years is what I needed to bring me to my next journey, another stepping stone across the pond. Because without the things that I’ve learned here, from the people that I’ve met, and from the places that I’ve seen, I would not be who I am today nor ready for the challenging goals that I’ve put forth for myself. My Peace Corps service has taken me on the ride of my life, through astounding highs and back-reflecting lows, of looking deep within myself to put forth the very best of who I am. My time in the Peace Corps has sparked a brilliant need for a life of constant learning and an irrevocable passion for leadership. It has entirely transformed my way of living, moving, thinking and being. Despite my numerous falls and failures, or perhaps because of them, my service has taught me to question rather than comment, to feel loneliness and cherish company, to let tears flow and to hold back judgment, to receive criticism and give love without reason. It’s difficult, nearly impossible rather, to pinpoint the moments that forced me to question what I thought to be true. Conclusively it seems to be a succession of daily choices to face my fears, accept challenges and embrace difficulty. Like chiseling away at marble with the right tools and ferocious passion, the end result is often an astounding representation of the artist herself and who she has become in the process.
Let me first be honest, though. In the vast array of emotions that I’ve felt, amazement, joy, pride, I’ve also felt greatly selfish at times. To experience and live within poverty by choice is considered noble, I’m told. But knowing that at any moment I could escape it, step outside this world if I ever felt that it were overwhelming, just didn’t seem right to me. At the slightest threat of danger or simply because I decided it wasn’t fit for me, I could have had a free plane ride back to where I came from, to a country that most people only dream of traveling to, a place that I call home. And my neighbors, my colleagues and greatest friends could not do the same. Regardless of sickness, lack of water, terrorism, threat of civil war, or any other realities, there is no quick escape to paradise for them. So as much as I wish to say that my 27 months allowed me to experience poverty and hardship first hand, I cannot. I guess I’m sharing this bitter reality with you because I’m not a hero, I’m not a savior of any sort just because I chose to make a difference, but I am an ally. I’m a compassionate friend for those who were born into poverty with no other choice but to overcome it or die trying. Because I choose not to ignore it. I choose to face the world’s poverty not with a determined solution but a helping hand. The Peace Corps has forever imprinted a deep respect for those who were born into misfortune but continue to make the best out of their situation. Living and working alongside those who find happiness despite a lack of luxury has changed me entirely. There are no gifts greater than that.
Before I left, people always asked me why I was joining the Peace Corps. When they found out that I would be gone for 27 months, they thought I was crazy but gave me a comforting pat on the back anyway. When I told them I was going to Colombia, their hearts must have sunk as their eyes widened. Their minute understanding of Colombia being the drug cartel capital of the world is often the first thought for those who have yet to see the beauty that it truly holds. To tell you the truth, I had no idea what to say to them. I myself wasn’t even sure why I was leaving to a country I knew very little about to work with people I had never met and to receive a mere $6,000 a year after indebting myself to earn a college degree. But what I did know was this; that the Peace Corps was something I needed to do. It was a warm hand pulling me in the direction that I needed to go at the time, and I couldn’t say no. There are very few things in life that you feel 100% about. Serving in the Peace Corps happened to be one of those callings that I couldn’t ignore. Even as difficult as my days were at times, I never once considered turning my back on the people I committed myself to. It’s true what they say that the Peace Corps is undoubtedly “the toughest job you will ever love.”
It has pushed me in ways to move outside of my comfort zone and into an open arena of endless possibility. My customs which fit the majority in the United States were now the minority. I was the odd ball out. I was the one who all eyes were constantly watching. With their best intentions, Colombians would always ask why I did the things that I did. Why I ate so many vegetables, why I read so many books, why I walked everywhere, why I ‘left’ my family behind, why I believed in certain things and not others, why I didn’t have any children, why I have a German last name if I’m from the United States, why I don’t wear high heels, why I like to be by myself sometimes, why I didn’t get paid, why I taught differently, why I lowered myself to my students’ level, why I didn’t shout to be heard. And the questions never ended, over two years. Which is why every moment was an opportunity to learn about those around me and especially about myself if I surrendered to look deep enough. In the United States self-reflection is often a priority at the bottom of one’s to do list, so when I found myself being constantly questioned about the most mundane tasks I couldn’t help but see my actions for what they were: different. In my own country I’ve heard people say that school often does not produce citizens who are prepared for the real world. It’s difficult not to agree after seeing where the classroom fails our students in the greatest way possible; a deficiency in time to just… think, to slow things down for a moment to consider who we are in this world if not in comparison to just one other culture. Because if we don’t know who we are, we fail to recognize the worth that we possess and the world of talent within ourselves. I believe that the Peace Corps has done that for me. It has given me lenses to see the world through a different set of glasses; to understand that I live differently than many others, and that that’s ok.
Curiously, I wasn’t as nervous to come to Colombia as I am now to return home. There are so many opportunities open to me now, so many decisions to be made. It will be, perhaps, the only time in my life that I will have an entirely clean slate to choose where to go next, with the liberty of having nothing to prioritize my next step. And while starting from zero and having nothing seems disheartening, it’s more of a blessing to me. No children, no mortgage, no car, no pets, no furniture to haul. Those things will come in time, but for now, less just seems like so much more to me. In fact, I came to Colombia with two suitcases and I’m leaving now with just one. My things have turned into memories which I carry now in my heart, the most cherished of all necessities. It’s not about what you have, but who you are.
So to those who have helped make me who I am today, I hope that this small but sincere message is well received. To my family and friends in Wisconsin, I want to thank you for your endless support, for encouraging me to fulfill my dreams, and for all the gifts that you’ve sent my way. For those of you who came all the way here to visit me, my mom, my aunt Shelly, Laurie and Sherrill, your visit was inexplicably uplifting. It meant the world to me.
To my Peace Corps friends who have become my family, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for inspiring me, for being my cheerleader, for showing me what honest team work looks like, not only professionally but personally because some days just seemed impossible to get through without a warm hug from a friend who’s got your back. Rarely are we given opportunities to work with such successful, like-minded people who have all come together to make the world a better place to live. I have no doubt that you will all go far in whatever life brings you next. I’m unboundedly happy to see you again back home.
To my Colombian friends who have shown me how to live, you were always the anchor that held me here. Leaving now brings me a wave of sadness almost too great to overcome. I know that I’ll be back one day to find you just as happy as the day I left and we’ll pick up our friendship right where it left off. I’ll never forget all that you’ve done for me here.
And lastly, to my Colombian families, because there were so many of you who received me with open arms, I want to say thank you. Thank you for letting me into your homes and into your hearts, for laughing at my jokes (despite how not funny they were), for making me laugh in return on the days when all I wanted was to cry, for challenging me to see my true potential, for seeing me as a leader, a friend and most graciously as part of your family. You’ve shown me what it means to be Colombian, a kind-hearted, colorful, happy, hard-working, ever-laughing, ever-dancing, music-loving people. You are joy.