Peace Corps lesson: No man is an island

January 21, 2014 

Ben Taylor, a 2003 graduate of O'Fallon Township High School, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia, an island country in the western Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia.

Before joining the Peace Corps, Ben, 28, taught a year in Korea and, for two years, was an AmeriCorps English tutor at Belleville's Jefferson Elementary School.

"It was an opportunity for me to develop my abilities as a teacher. I'd had no formal training in education," he said, "and it also gave me a love of service which I'm sure I'll have for the rest of my life."

He applied to the Peace Corps in 2011. His program, Master's International, combines graduate school with the Peace Corps experience. His assignment began in June 2012.

"A year before I came out to Micronesia, I studied for a master's degree in teaching English as a second language at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. After my service ends in August, I'll head back to Arcata to finish my graduate degree, hopefully by summer of 2015."

Via email, we asked him about his experiences.

How did you decide to join the Peace Corps? "I have wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer since I was 15 or 16. - Though I didn't really grasp what service work was at that time, the opportunity to travel and help people at the same time appealed to me. My college decision, Knox College in Galesburg, was partially because Knox historically produces a high number of Peace Corps volunteers."

How long did it take from the time you made your decision to get an assignment? "My application took roughly one year, and this is by no means the longest I have heard of. Medical checks, legal background checks, several interviews on the phone as well as in regional offices in Chicago, the whole thing can be fairly exhausting. In retrospect, I think it was a good time for me to reflect on the two-year commitment. It's also comforting to know that the Peace Corps is being this thorough about the selection process."

Is it what you expected? "This is an interesting question. I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and yet Pohnpei is surrounded by mangroves. Getting to the ocean can be pretty difficult (I haven't been swimming in months, and we have virtually no beaches). Life with my host family is equally surprising. As a judge, my host father is often in Reno, Nevada. Life in my urban environment of Kolonia (at roughly 10,000 people, the biggest city in Micronesia) is far more westernized than you might expect. As I write this, I am eating pancakes and watching the Patriots-Colts game with family members on ESPN.

"Life here is also radically different from anything I knew. We have over 50 different kinds of bananas. I have developed a taste for the local intoxicant, sakau (a mild muscle relaxer, known in the west as kava) as well as an appreciation for a wildly different concept of time and community (my home generally holds somewhere between 7 and 14 people)."

What do you like about it? "I like the stars at night, brighter and clearer than I've ever seen them. I love the brilliant tangerine sunsets. I love my host family, from my parents who consider me a member of their family down to the baby whose first words included my name. I like seeing the look on students' faces when they understand some difficult concept in English for the first time, the relief when they finish a big speech, the gratitude and respect from local teachers I work with. I love mangrove crab and breadfruit mixed with coconut, fresh sashimi (raw fish) with lime and local peppers, and ice pahr (frozen coconut milk, a dessert). - I love my commute to school, a walking path that takes me through coconut trees and past waving and smiling students and families."

What is hard about it? "It's a huge commitment. Volunteers spend 27 months in another country, far from friends and loved ones. The isolation and loneliness that comes with service can take its toll from time to time. In Micronesia, volunteers live with host families for their entire service. (Other sites generally do not do this.) While this can be an incredible experience, it can certainly be challenging. I do not cook my own food or wash my own clothes (traditionally women's roles in Micronesia). It can make me feel very dependent, even helpless, at times. ... Taking time for myself is crucial. I read books or listen to music in my room when I need a break. I know my time here is temporary. (Two years goes faster than you'd think.) It helps to think of the sacrifices others make for us volunteers; letting a stranger from another country live in your home for two years takes quite a lot of trust."

Any advice for others? "You don't have to leave St. Clair County to travel, and you don't have to leave your family to help others. - Donate to a charity you believe in, help with a coat donation drive, join AmeriCorps or some other worthwhile organization and make your part of the world better. Take a new route to work, buy a different blend of coffee at Panera, stop and talk to a neighbor you've never really met.

"Adventure is not an action; it's a state of mind."

-- Maureen Houston

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