Peace Corps, Volunteerism, and Culture Shock


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Children marching and singing at lunch. Image by Karri Stout.

Why would anyone from a wealthy country volunteer to go to a remote area and work under difficult conditions?  Karri Stout, Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania answered those questions in an interview with Decoded Science.  Stout’s community project is to stock a library, which will function as a community library, at the local school. These answers put a personal face on social science findings about volunteerism and intervention in the third world.

Stout’s volunteerism is an experience that more and more Americans are seeking out.  According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 64.3 million Americans volunteered in 2012, up 1.5 million from 2010.

The Peace Corps volunteer experience is unique in that it involves traveling and staying in Third World countries. The Peace Corps’ 2011 volunteer survey found that 87% of volunteers surveyed after their service  would “probably” or “definitely” make the same decision to sign up if they had to do it over again, and 86% would “probably” or “definitely” recommend the experience to a friend.  This is despite the finding that fewer than 36% of volunteers reporting  running water and electricity was “always” being available at their residence, and that  77% of volunteers were placed in rural towns of populations less than 25,000.

Volunteerism: Motivation to Help

Stout recounts that her motivation to serve in the Peace Corps initially was to use the Corps as a stepping stone to a job in the Environmental Protection Agency.  Now, she writes, “The plan may have started as using the Peace Corps as a stepping stone to the EPA, but has become so much more.  I have been deeply touched by this experience and am humbled by the strength of the people in this village.”

Stout reports that she believes the first world has an obligation to understand poorer nations. “because the developed world needs to understand how others live with very little, but the only way to do that is to live the way they live, to see firsthand the hardships these people live with every day.  The only way the developed world will grow and prosper is to give.  We need to take a step back and truly see the world around us.”

What does this mean? The Peace Corps’ volunteer survey asks, to what extent have “Americans gained a better understanding of the people of your host country?” and “… host country nationals…gained a better understanding of Americans?”  The answer – while local volunteers might cite helping their neighbors, Peace Corp volunteers are motivated to increase international understanding.

Culture Shock

Yet, seeing other parts of the world as it is is not always easy.  Stout states that the “the first two months of service, during Pre-Service Training, is spent living with a local family. You eat, sleep and try to communicate with the family without knowing the language or what mannerisms are culturally inappropriate.  From the 2nd week in country you are thrown into the ocean of another culture with only your smile and   mime to ease the feeling of shock and helplessness.”

Culture shock is defined by sociologist Gordon Marshall on as “an occupational disease suffered by those suddenly immersed in a culture very different to their own. The term generally implies a negative reaction (physical, cognitive, and psychological) to moving within or between societies, but some authors have suggested it may have benefits for the individual concerned…‘  Stout did experience culture shock.  Yet, as the definition states, she found the experience overall to be positive.

Decoded Science asked Karri Stout what surprised her most about life in the village.  She replied, “I had no idea how strong someone could be until I saw school children carrying 10 liter buckets of water on their heads, seeing a woman with a baby strapped to her back cultivating her farm or a grandmother balancing a bundle of limbs on her head while walking barefoot.”

Click to Read Page Two: The School Library Project

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