Check out my article on American University's International Relations blog in celebration of Peace Corps' birthday: March 1!
Reposted below from the online IR Blog at American University:
Sharing Culture Around the World
In the Bedouin culture, “you’re a guest for three days. After that, you’re family.” Even though I arrived to my assigned Peace Corps village of Sabha with only ten weeks of Arabic lessons and a brief introduction to Muslim culture that mostly consisted of what I couldn’t do, I was shocked at how warm and welcoming my community was. As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer, my primary role was to teach English classes at the girls’ school in my village. Soon enough, I was tutoring girls and mothers English and math after school, holding exercise classes (which were held in a giant living room and consisted of attempts to teach my neighbors how to jump-rope), managing the English department at the school, and hosting pizza-making and cake-baking lessons. Peace Corps volunteers embrace flexibility – you go in with a certain mindset of your “assignment” and emerge with the ability to morph any space into a classroom and weave an element of cultural exchange into every conversation.
Village Sheikh with his two sons
Two Bedouins heading home before the sunset call to prayer
Two years immersed in a foreign culture taught me lessons no professor can ever teach in a classroom. I had read about Eid al-Adha and the customs of Islam’s biggest holiday, but when I witnessed a camel slaughter and drove around with the sheikh’s family to deliver camel meat to every Bedouin tent in my village, I understood what “community” means. When my female students explained to me that they wanted to learn English so that they could attend university in Amman or even Dubai, I was thrilled that education was valued so highly. When several older girls suddenly dropped out of school because their families had arranged a marriage for them, I wondered whether education for girls would ever take precedence over becoming a good wife.
Bedouin boy chasing his donkey in Wadi Rum
And during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, I would rush to my best friend’s home (a 55-year old lady with four kids), cook for several hours with her, wait for the sunset call to prayer, and eat a feast with their family. I learned how fresh olives are turned into the world’s best olive oil, how Bedouins will stop you on your way to school and ask you to bring a pot of fresh tea to their fields (and they don’t mind waiting several hours), and how my villagers had based their view of Americans on what they had seen from Dr. Phil and Oprah. It took a while to explain to them that these TV shows were mostly for entertainment, and didn’t define the average American!
My two-year Peace Corps service initiated my passion for international development. After working for a few years as a Program Manager of the Middle East and Latin America regions with a non-profit, I decided that the best way to capitalize on my experiences abroad and interest in community development was to pursue my graduate degree. Washington, DC is ripe with first-tier graduate programs in the field of international development, and I ultimately chose American University because, as one student told me, “If you’re wondering where all the RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) in DC are, they’re here. At American.”
My favorite village baby trying to help move the camels out of the road!
And it’s true. At AU’s School of International Service, I’m surrounded by other RPCVs who share my love for travel and cultural exchange stories, as well as professors, who have encouraged me to write op-eds, participate in Arabic conversation groups, and share my experience with undergrads that are considering applying for the Peace Corps. From my Peace Corps role as an educator and teacher, I’m now on the receiving end as a graduate student. As John F. Kennedy, who established the Peace Corps, said, “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
Mindy Ko is pursuing her graduate degree in International Development with a concentration in Development Economics. She served in the Peace Corps in Jordan from 2006-08 and is currently working with the US Protections Unit at the UN Refugee Agency.