Go East Young Man

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.

— Jordan