Here at Plastics, we understand that joining the Peace Corps is a post-graduation option that many (including us) consider seriously along with work, graduate school, and going for a swim.
There are a lot of factors that go into making that decision, and a lot of voices that can contribute to your thinking. We want to give you as many as possible, including people who loved their time and people who didn’t, people who served recently and people who served a while ago.
Jonathan Zimmerman is one of the latter. He was a Corps member in Nepal from 1983 to 1985 and now teaches at NYU’s Steinhardt School. We talked to him about his time in the Corps, and his thoughts on service for a new generation.
The Peace Corps has had the ability to excite the imaginations of young people for generations. Why do you think it continues to have this power?
I think there are a couple of reasons. One of them has to do with one of my favorite quotes about the Peace Corps, from Justice Douglas William Douglas. He was a big supporter of the Peace Corps. He said, “It was the worst thing the United States has done overseas, except all the other things.” The Peace Corps is problematic. It’s a complicated endeavor. But I do think it’s a unique way for Americans to experience the rest of the world. It’s not without its political and moral complications but there’s nothing like it in terms of the opportunity it gives Americans to experience the world.
Tell me about your decision to join the Peace Corps.
I come by this very honestly because believe it or not my parents were in the Peace Corps. My father was a Peace Corps director in the 1960s in India and Iran, so I grew up there as a kid. I was a Peace Corps brat. To be honest I always thought that I would do it. Neither of my siblings did, interestingly. I knew that I wanted to see the world and I knew I wanted to be an educator. I knew the Peace Corps was a perfect way to do both of those things.
Were you considering any other options after graduation?
It has become much more difficult to get in. There are a couple different reasons for that. One of them is that there are fewer countries that have the Peace Corps. The world has changed and it’s a dangerous place to be an American in ways that it wasn’t in 1983. We can talk about the cause of that and what to do about that, but anyone who denies that is like people that believe in Santa Claus. It is a much more dangerous world for Americans and that’s a big factor. The other reason it has gotten more difficult is that the world has become more urbanized in a massive way. So this mud hut and latrine idea of the Peace Corps is decreasing. They’re posting in urban areas. And lo and behold, in these urban areas, which is what the world is becoming, they actually want people with skill — unlike what I had. It’s not that I didn’t have any skills, but I was highly inexperienced.
Say you’re a college student about to graduate college and don’t know what to do with your life. Would you recommend the Peace Corps for someone like that?
It’s an interesting question. It depends what you mean by “don’t know what to do with your life.” In some ways, everyone who’s 21 doesn’t know what to do with their life. I mean even someone who’s going to law or medical school doesn’t know what kind of lawyer or doctor they’re going to be, or these days, even if they will be one, in the case of lawyers. So if you’re utterly and completely aimless, I don’t’ think it’s a good bet for you. First of all, you’re going to uproot yourself for two and a half years, from everyone and everything that you know. It depends on what you mean by “don’t know what you want to do with your life.”
I guess I’m talking about today’s B.A. generalists.
It’s kind of an impossible question to answer. It depends on who you are and what your goals are. When I say goals I’m not talking specifically professional goals. I’m talking about your goals as a human being. I mean, if you’re somebody who is A, adventurous, B, highly flexible, and C, tolerant, and you do want experience a big swath of the world that you haven’t experienced before then by all means it’s a great thing. But if you don’t’ have those attributes it’s probably a really bad idea.
People who aspire to be teachers have a lot of options for how to train. Do you think the Peace Corps still offers one of the best ways to learn?
I can say it was for me. It’s hard to generalize with the Peace Corps because there are so many different countries. The Peace Corps was where I received my first formal training to be a teacher. It was quite brief. It was a couple months long. But it was excellent, actually. I know it varies country to country. The irony of my own experience is that in some ways the Peace Corps was a very bad preparation for being a teacher because the students were so committed. I taught kids that walked two hours each way to school. They really wanted to be there. There were no discipline problems and there were no motivation problems. If you weren’t motivated, you wouldn’t walk up a mountain for two hours. I think it exposed me to the cultural differences and complexities surrounding school, which I think is a great thing for any teacher. To understand how differently people look at the meaning and purpose of education around the world, I think that’s a great form of training in and of itself.
I think employees view Peace Corps experience differently than they used to. Do you have any insight into that?
In some ways, the answer to the question varies. I think that also leads to the way the Peace Corps is changing, trying to locate people with more skills. I think an employer will justly look upon someone who helped construct a bridge in a country differently than somebody who taught in an elementary school. It’s not that both of those things aren’t valid and necessary and important. But the bridge engineer has a set of technical aptitudes that the elementary teacher doesn’t have. You can’t take somebody straight out of college and say, “Go make a bridge.” Not if they’re so-called B.A. generalists. And I think employees recognize that.
What was your biggest takeaway from your experience?
I think there were a few. For me one of them was how much insight you get into your own country by enmeshing yourself into another one. Ironically the one really big change that happened to me in the Peace Corps is that A, I discovered how little I knew about America, and B, that I wanted to learn more about its history.
Anything else our readers should know about the Peace Corps?
I can speak to pointers about getting in, which may be useful. Start volunteering early. If what you want to be is a Peace Corps volunteer you should be a volunteer. I think the Peace Corps justly looks askance upon people that haven’t done that. So that’s one thing that I would absolutely recommend. The other thing is foreign language aptitude, as much as you can develop that, I think that’s a great thing. Also at the institution where you are, make contact with your peace corps rep. They’re very important point people.
For whippersnappers like Arielle and I, the future is wide open. If we weren’t so neurotic we might be able to enjoy the possibilities, but that’s a bigger issue for another post.
As people get older, options seem to narrow, and changing life paths might appear impossible. That’s why I’m so interested in Christian Haag, a 30-year-old college junior (and a co-worker of mine) who proves a major exception.
After dropping out of Manhattanville College in 2002, Haag set out for Manhattan to discover himself. By 2010, he was a high-earning broker in the best real estate team in Brooklyn. He had spent the last five years climbing the ladder, and was living a very comfortable lifestyle at the top of the chain.
He was miserable.
Haag hated working on commission and he hated the pressure to sell apartments that he would never choose to live in himself. He felt like a phony.
One day on the way to work he had an epiphany: the time had come to change his life.
“I realized I was almost 30 and I was so unhappy where I was,” he said. “The thought of going one more day let alone decades of being unhappy just for the sake of making money… I couldn’t even fathom that.”
And so he set about the task of seeking happiness and earning less. Naturally, he applied to journalism school.
Affording tuition was easy. Getting accepted presented more of a challenge — at Manhattanville, Haag had been unmotivated and received poor grades. Though his plan for reinvention was far from foolproof, Haag anticipated his last day at work on December 15.
“I literally went full steam ahead without any thought of saving or any thought of being accepted. I thought I had to do it for my own sanity and happiness,” he said.
Not a day too soon — December 14 —he received an acceptance letter from City College. Two years later, he’s the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and has a 4.0 GPA.
Thanks perhaps to his youthful energy, Haag usually slips under the radar of his 20-year-old classmates.
“People are always surprised at my age. I don’t even know what 30 is supposed to look like,” he said. “I don’t usually offer up my age right away. I don’t really care. Whatever. I’m 30.”
With an internship at New York’s 24-hour news station, NY1, he is closer than ever to his goal of becoming a broadcast journalist.
After just a week and a half on the job, Haag realized a lifelong dream. When a reporter couldn’t attend the premier of Jennifer Aniston’s new film, “Five,” Haag took his place. That night, he stood next to reporters from Access Hollywood and E! and interviewed all the stars on the red carpet.
“It’s not just exciting talking to Jennifer Aniston,” he said. “I have the same interest in talking to someone on the side of the street who is a cancer survivor or whatever the case may be. I‘m just generally interested in people.”
It’s that love that makes his second journey up the ladder seems less like a climb and more like a trip.
“Honestly I know it sounds so lame, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m still very young,” he said. “It’s never too late to want to be happy.”
Platitudes about happiness and dreams are corny, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Haag’s story helps me believe that even if I make the wrong choice at the end of my college career, it’s not the end of the world.
And that’s an important lesson, even if, ultimately, I’ll revert to freaking out in about a day or so.
I’ve been in school for 15 years, and I still don’t feel like I know anything. And I definitely don’t know how to do anything useful — I can’t fix a toilet or build a cabinet or even make anything more complex than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
So this week Jordan and I set out to find professionals who make their livings with technical skills. We talked to Hal Ruzal, resident mechanic at the Lafayette Street Bicycle Habitat and New York cycling legend, about growing up in Brooklyn, identity crises and long-distance biking.
Ruzal graduated from Brooklyn College with degrees in music and economics and a pension for playing guitar with his punk band at CBGBs, in a time when the Village was still a grungy artists’ haven. He was a happy camper, but one crucial element was missing: a job.
“I get out of college, and there’s no stupid jobs. It was during a recession, which we’ve had a number of, so I get this gig fixing cars at an automobile collision shop,” he said, blue-gloved hands tapping on the repair counter at Bicycle Habitat, where he’s fixed all sorts of cyclist woes, from standard tire replacements to cockroach-infested bikes.
The bug-ridden bicycle is only one of Ruzal’s most bizarre repair stories; another time, a customer unwittingly brought in a large bag of marijuana with his newly purchased bike – Ruzal discovered the stowed pot only after he removed the seat, to the customer’s shock.
But long before his tenure at the Lafayette Street store Ruzal was a kid growing up poor in Brooklyn. When an appliance broke in his childhood home there wasn’t any money to take it to the shop and pay someone else to take a look.
“We had to fix things ourselves, or else it didn’t get fixed,” he said.
Ruzal’s grandfather, a machinist, taught him the tricks of the trade from a young age.
Ruzal is a long-time friend of Bicycle Habitat owner Charlie McCorkell, and once he tired of the stink and stress of repairing automobiles, moving on to McCorkell’s bike shop was an easy transition. Today, 33 years later, Ruzal still enjoys the work.
“It’s easy, it’s fun,” he said. “I get to meet generally happy people. Bicyclists have gotten some exercise, they have some endorphins going through them, and they’re not pissed off at the world, like say a car driver.”
Most of Ruzal’s repairs are simple: He sees a steady stream of flat tires and brake pad replacements a day. New York City is tough on brake pads, as cyclists who weave in and out of traffic usually spend almost as much time hitting the brakes as they do accelerating, Ruzal said.
Standing behind the shop counter, Ruzal is on his feet continuously, but he doesn’t seem to mind. When there’s a steady stream of customers, he makes small talk and yells an emphatic “Next victim!” when he’s ready to take a look at the following bike.
On Fridays and Saturdays, his days off, Ruzal does long rides to clear his head — 75 miles today, 100 tomorrow — it all adds up to about 10,000 miles a year. He’s been across the country on his bike four times — New York to California in 40 days, sleeping in small town cemeteries on the way to save money.
At the end of our interview, Ruzal asked me what I’m doing after I graduate. I took a deep breath, told him I have no idea, and he laughed, waist-length dreads swinging against his black T-shirt.
The key, I think, from his perspective, is simplification, the exact opposite of the overwhelming complexities college liberal arts curriculums weave into young brains.
“Bikes are very simple objects. That’s why I like them,” he said. “Find something you like, and figure out a way to make money doing what you like.”
Sounds easy enough.
And on making enough to get by — Ruzal said he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about rolling in the green.
“I’m not starving. I have a simple lifestyle. A lot of people are brainwashed into thinking they need to make a lot of money. If you have a roof over your head and you’re happy, you made enough money.”
When I’m freaking out about work, I tend to be terrible about returning phone calls. What happened today is a standard Sunday phenomenon: I’m in my apartment, reading some ungodly book about human rights and collective memory, and my parents call me. And text me. 10 times. They’re very supportive people. Not sure exactly what happened here, but I don’t hate it.
Just in case you were feeling good about your future, Dale McFeatters writing for Scripps Howard News Service (and distributed to the New York Post) has an important message for anyone in their 20s: sucks to be you!
These are some of the most important points:
- 5.9 million Americans ages 25 to 34 are living with their parents, a jump of 25 percent from before the recession.
- Homeownership is down for the fourth straight year.
- The share of young adults making lost-distance moves last year fell to a post-World War II low.
- Only 55.3 percent of young adults 16 to 29 were employed, according to the Census, down from 67.3 percent in 2000.
- More and more Americans 65 and older are electing to stay in their jobs.
So in a nutshell, here’s McFeatters prediction of your future: While looking for jobs that don’t exist, you will live with your parents instead of moving elsewhere for opportunities. Most likely, you will stay unemployed. And in the long run, you won’t be owning your own house any time soon, and you will continue to work long past the the age that your parents did.
And his solution? Well, he didn’t have one, really. Instead, McFeatters chose to focus on what might be the best name for this sad, sad generation. Here’s the conclusion of McFeatters’ feel-good article:
Until a better name for this hard-luck cohort comes along, the Shortchanged Generation will do as well as any.
Well guys, what do we think? I think it lacks a punch. How about the Doomed Generation? Or the Hard Knock Life Generation? Or the Fucked Generation?
If you’re here, you’ve come to the right place. The world is big and confusing. Just ask us — we’re 20-something year old college students at a private four-year liberal arts university, about to graduate. Gulp.
We’re Jordan and Arielle — good kids with good grades and good intentions. When we’re not freaking out about the choices ahead, we’re having good clean fun in New York City and studying some kind of journalism … hybrid … thing …
It’s not the best time to be confused. Jobs are hard to come by and dream jobs are even scarcer. Meanwhile, college tuition hikes seem to have no end, and neither does student debt. As members of Generation Y we have opportunities our parents didn’t have, but with the world wide open, it’s harder than ever to pick the right path.
We don’t have the answers. But we hope to spark some thoughtful discussions. If you do have all the answers, then why not write with us? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to get you on board.
This won’t be possible without you. Your experiences are the life-blood of this site. Don’t be shy in the comments, and if you are freaking out about something let us know at email@example.com. We’ll see what we can do.
—Arielle and Jordan