Monday, September 27, 2010

New Blood

This weekend I was lucky enough to go to the airport and meet the 8th group of future Peace Corps volunteers coming to Azerbaijan. All 63 of them arrived on a flight from New York. Last year I met 59 volunteers and the year before that, my group of 60 arrived.

This year’s group, like the ones before, was about 2/3 women, with about 8 older volunteers and about 35 who are between the ages of 22 and 24. Four or five are racial minorities and a few joined with their spouse.

The trainees got off the long flight after brief greetings, piled on three buses with their luggage and took off for three days of orientation before being delivered to their training site host families in local communities for their 11 weeks of training. Most will make it and become volunteers in December and disperse to new locations all over the country.

So who are these volunteers and why do they join?

Volunteers seem like a typical cross-section of well-educated Americans. They come from most areas of the country and different religious backgrounds. The great majority have college degrees, and most are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. The only other things I can think of that most have in common is that the great majority love to read, are very down-to-earth (no princesses) and are politically liberal.

Just like in any organization in the US, people join for different reasons. Many have traveled extensively and are adventure-seekers. They love having unique experiences.

Others have been teachers or worked in the helping professions. They join for altruistic reasons. A few people join to add experience to their resume and do something interesting and rewarding.

Some haven’t been able to find a professional job in America and are waiting out America’s economic problems. Some older volunteers are at the end of their careers and do it as an enhancement to their retirement, while others would like to retire, but can’t afford to. Peace Corps service means they don’t have to support themselves for two years and have an opportunity to buy health insurance when their service is over.

Some people aren’t ready to make the decision to either join the world of work or get their masters degrees. Peace Corps volunteers seem to be much more interested than typical college graduates in getting their masters degrees. Most volunteers either have a masters’ degrees or want to get them. Relatively few have work experience after their masters’ degree.

A few people in the group that left last year went back to their previous profession or re-retired. Some joined masters programs. Some found professional jobs and a few went on to different adventure opportunities. But many seem to be unemployed, working part-time or underemployed.

We are supposed to serve for two years after our training, but some people choose to leave or have to leave. Reasons for leaving are medical issues, family problems, violating rules or in some cases, volunteers just don’t like it here.

The job is a hard one. Problems that most volunteers notice in some other volunteers are depression, alcoholism, excessive partying, worrying about family members and situations back home, failure to integrate into the community, homesickness and negative attitudes toward Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, most volunteers don’t have significant problems; in fact some volunteers love it here so much that they apply to stay longer, up to a year longer.

One of the benefits of coming here that I didn’t realize beforehand, is that I learn a lot about other areas of America from talking to volunteers. Now I feel that I have friends all over America as well as all over Azerbaijan.

Although we come from different states, professions and fields, I am proud of most of the volunteers that I work with. They are hard workers, use their talents, develop new ones and grow in the process.

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