Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer: Breaking Down Barriers

A group of Peace Corps Volunteers in training

I quickly realized that getting accepted into the Peace Corps was the easy part. Embodying and living by the virtues of a true Peace Corps volunteer was significantly harder.

Nothing up until this point of my journey had shaken my nerves, not nearly missing my plane, not my luggage issues, and not even getting lost on my way to our hotel in Philadelphia rattled me. What eventually made me question and even fear the upcoming two years of my life came from an unlikely source, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers.

Being raised in Los Angeles, I thought of myself as a very open-minded, culturally awakened, color blind individual who would never let the differences between others and myself get in the way of me getting to know them.

I was wrong.

As I sat among my peers that first night, I quickly realized that I was not understanding all the jokes, I wasn’t catching all the pop culture references, and my heavy handed humor wasn’t received as well as it usually was.

Everyone was nice but even after making some acquaintances, I still felt out of place.

All night I constantly asked myself “Am I the only Latino here?

The answer was a resounding YES.

I called my best friend and panicked, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to speak Spanish to anyone here!”

She calmed me down, told me it was going to be okay and that we could always talk to each other online or on the phone.

I sat in my room alone, in total shock of myself: Why did it matter so much? I reflected. My Latino-ness had never been pushed to the forefront in this manner before. I realized that 95% of all my activities and friends were of Latino origin, and I was not prepared to be in a group where that was reversed. It was a strange and unexpected kind of culture shock.

This frightened me because in the Peace Corps you need your peers. You need to band together for the comfort and friendship; and it needs to happen quickly. But here I was already feeling like no one could relate to me – and I hadn’t even left the country yet!

The next day, orientation day, I told myself to shut up and just go in completely open. I decided to put up a flag and hope someone saw it. As we waited in the lobby I sat with a few PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and told the story of me falling out in the freeway when I was a baby, I told the craziest stories I could think of. Eventually Matt Jones, the son of a Baptist preacher from Oklahoma (someone I would have never had the chance to speak to in my regular life) came over and laughed at my madness. Since then we have been inseparable.

Matt and Marlene, inseparable friends brought together by the Peace Corps.

To be a Peace Corps volunteer you must see everyone as your partners, your friends, people you can do something great with — otherwise you will fail.

In order to do that you must take a spiritual journey within yourself and tear down the barriers that have prevented you from doing so up until this point of your life.

I definitely had many barriers.

But at least now on the journey to Moldova, on our 12 hour flight, I had a friend sitting next to me, reassuring me that everything truly was going to be okay.

This article is part 2 in a series of articles about Marlene Lopez’s experiences with the Peace Corps. You can read the first part here: A Long Road to the Peace Corps. And stay tuned next week for the next chapter in Marlene’s journey!

Marlene Nancy Lopez

About Marlene Nancy Lopez

Nancy Marlene Lopez is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served as a community development adviser in the Republic of Moldova from 2009-2011. She continues to work with humanitarian aid causes through her work with the UNHCR where she helps bring awareness and support to some of the worlds most vulnerable people.