Nearly forty years ago, as a Bachelor of Civil Engineering seeking a 180-degree break from academia before pursuing graduate school, I applied to ACTION, the 1970’s-era aggregation of government service efforts that included the Peace Corps, VISTA, and a smattering of other programs. I received multiple prospectuses, mostly variations of building bridges in Afghanistan. I contacted my ACTION rep and apologized that I was not interested in going to another country; I wanted to serve in the United States. I didn’t tell her I was afraid to go abroad. I didn’t tell her I feared being the Ugly American, that I worried about struggling with a foreign language and had zero confidence in my ability to actually design and build a bridge. ACTION placed me in Levelland, Texas, about as psychically far from Cambridge as a person can go and still remain in the United States. I had a remarkable, transformative year. I believe I touched a few lives and I appreciated all those who touched mine. When graduate school beckoned, I was fresh for the call.
Today my daughter leaves for the Peace Corps. She suffers none of the doubt I did at her age. She has already traveled to more than twice as many countries than me, has a more nuanced view of the globe than ‘Ugly American’ can describe, is facile with languages, and when confronted with the challenge of traversing a river, no lack of confidence will keep her on the near bank. Besides, Abby has a keen sense of surpassing her parents, and the most elementary math demonstrates that Cambodia is far beyond Texas.
Abby leaving fills me with wistful pride. My gut aches hollow when I think of my little girl 8,700 miles from home, but I fill that void with the satisfaction that she is doing what she wants, and her pursuit is grounded in so much good. All parents pray that our children will avoid harm, we worry over the dangers of violence and drugs and indifference that surround us; we are consoled when they mature into active participants in the world. But when they surpass simply doing alright and engage in such a positive way, we wallow in their reflected glow. My pleasure in seeing Abby follow such a noble dream blunts how wretchedly I will miss her.
Joining the Peace Corps is a profound act of hope trumping reality. The United States has over 1.4 million military troops on active duty, many of them introducing democracy to our neighbors with flack jackets, bombs, and bayonets. A mere 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers represent our nation in 139 countries armed with nothing more than a willingness to live among others, learn their language, understand their customs, and share the seeds of our bounty with those interested in listening. It is a Ghandian approach to changing the world; one that seems unlikely to succeed. But history shows time and again that every attempt to create lasting peace through coercion fails, so what else is really left but an attempt to understand each other at the individual level.
The hope of the Peace Corps is that small interventions, face to face across a table, a classroom, or a rice paddy, can produce meaningful and lasting results. But the Peace Corps also believes in mash-ups; in throwing together people of divergent cultures, religions, and ways of thinking. The pairing may produce friction, or incremental improvement, or the cross-culture mix might just foment disruptive change.
In a world of seven billion people, gigantic corporations, environmental destruction, and social disorder that leaks across national boundaries it is easy, almost rational, for a single person to survey the situation and turn away from the chaos. The odds of making an impact are so small. But the Peace Corps, and Abby, teach us that the odds are still greater than zero.
As Abby flies west to the East, she bestows upon all of us left behind hope in a world that still offers the opportunity for one person to make a unique imprint. She brings to a Cambodian community the hope that one young woman cares enough to give them two years of her energy and talent. And she herself brims with the hope that thrives on constructive action. Although I place good odds that Abby will effect useful change in whatever she encounters in Cambodia, I am certain that whatever benefits she gives to that country will be returned to her ten-fold. In offering so much of herself, Abby is sure to receive knowledge, understanding, and compassion beyond measure; gifts that will shape her entire life.