my alumni experience

Peace Corps Teaches Lifetime Lessons

Peace Corps Volunteer Beth Burnham '02

For two years, Beth Burnham '02 was a Peace Corps volunteer, serving in Guyana, a tropical country on the northern shoulder of South America. In this interview, she shares some of the highs and lows and the lasting life lessons of her experience.

What led you to the Peace Corps?

My father introduced me to the idea of Peace Corps while I was in college. Then I went to the job fairs and met with Peace Corps representatives and talked with them about their experiences to see if it was really something I wanted to do.

What is your current assignment, and how long have you been serving?

I am currently serving in community development, HIV and AIDS education, and am also a literacy volunteer assigned to Sans Souci Primary School on Wakenaam Island. I have been in the country since June 2005. After receiving instruction in safety and security, cross cultural training, as well as religious, health and educational training.

What was your initial reaction to Guyana and what did you learn about the country and the people since you've been there?

When I got off the airplane and was on the bus on the way to the hotel, I cried the entire time! I was so scared and was saddened by the living conditions that I had seen upon arriving. I had never been exposed to such poverty on this level. Since my arrival I have learned not to feel bad for people who live in such conditions, but to celebrate what they do have. These people have nothing, yet they never complain about their circumstances.

How has your experience been? What sort of contributions do you feel you've made as a volunteer?

My experience here has been very difficult at times. Peace Corps is not a vacation. It is difficult in ways that I never thought possible. Trying to fully integrate into a community as the “white girl” is difficult. Some of the biggest obstacles have been understanding and living a completely different lifestyle, as well as compromising the morals and values that I have lived with my entire life.

My contributions include the work I have done in HIV/AIDS, reading programs, individual tutoring, and a summer camp to promote cultural understanding among youths of Guyana. My greatest accomplishment is tutoring a 33-year-old adult, who did not know how to read or write.

What do you miss most about home?

What I miss most about home are the comforts that we live with. Washing machines (I hand wash all my clothes); electricity (I have electricity from 4 p.m.– 8 a.m.); running water (I have to carry my water from a rain tank, one bucket in each hand, in order to do my dishes or take a bucket bath); transportation (to get off the island means a 3:30 a.m. ferry ride for 11/2 hours to the mainland, and I walk or ride my bike to school).

I miss not having to sleep in a mosquito net or worrying about malaria. I miss being healthy and working out, and not having to worry about being attacked or targeted because of the color of my skin. I miss driving a car. I miss things that work on a consistent basis, like telephones. I miss my family and friends, who all have been extremely instrumental in my experience here. I miss the seasons; it is either really hot or raining here.

When you walk away from this experience, what's the most important lesson you'll take with you?

Life is short, so embrace people and love them with all that you have, regardless of how they treat you. Have confidence in yourself. Be proud of who you are. Admit when you are wrong. Be patient. Care for others who can't take care of themselves. Don't assume. Ask questions. Take notes. Walk often. Enjoy your solitude. Read. Take challenges. Learn from others. After this experience, these are certainly the lessons I'll carry with me every day.

What advice would you give others who are considering the Peace Corps?

Volunteer because you have a genuine interest in the needs of others. Check the Web site (peacecorps.gov) for more information; it is very helpful.

What are your plans when you return to the States?

Peace Corps, international development, teach English as a foreign language...there are so many options; I just haven't decided yet.