I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, lately, about life, and choices I’ve made in the course of it. My recent journey to Armenia has caused me to do a lot of pondering and wondering. The Peace Corps is the kind of organization that attracts all sorts of people. It is competitive to join the Peace Corps, and it can look really good on a resume. But while there are some real superstars who spend two years volunteering in austere places around the globe, the truth is, there are a lot of more average people who serve. And some people who seem to be shooting stars burn out quickly and can’t stay the course.
When I’ve written about my time in the Peace Corps, I’ve mentioned that I was never one of those people who had spent my whole life aspiring to be a Volunteer. In fact, I think the only reason I knew about the Peace Corps– beyond what I’d seen in the recruitment ads that aired in the 80s– was because my older sister, Betsy, had been a Volunteer in Morocco from 1984-86.
Betsy is a star. She has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and speaks several languages. When she was a teenager, she was a ballerina, and studied for a year at the Royal Ballet School in London. She finished high school by correspondence, and moved back to Virginia alone to attend the College of William & Mary, while my dad finished his last tour of duty at Mildenhall Air Force Base in England. Later, after she was in the Peace Corps, Betsy got married, and earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. I’m pretty sure Betsy was my parents’ favorite of their four children. I’m certain she was our dad’s favorite. She excelled at everything she did.
By contrast, next to Betsy, I feel pretty mediocre. I did okay in school, but I was not an academic star. I didn’t go to any very prestigious universities, like Betsy did. I’m not what you’d call a “go getter”, and I certainly haven’t turned into anyone important or exciting. I have achieved some pretty good things, and finishing two years in the Peace Corps is one achievement that makes me proud. But for years after my time in Armenia, I felt a little ashamed of what I didn’t do there. I felt like I hadn’t produced enough. I wasn’t a “star”.
I felt even more humbled by what I saw as my “lame” attempts to help the people of Armenia when I’d read about what more current Volunteers were doing. For example, when I was in Armenia last week, I asked Stepan (who I think is a star) about a young woman who had been a Volunteer in 2017. Her name was Hanna Huntley, and at just 23 years old, she died while serving in Armenia. She and her boyfriend were in a car accident.
I didn’t know Hanna Huntley, but I can see that we had a few things in common, besides having served with Peace Corps Armenia. She was the daughter of a Marine Corps officer, and her home of record was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which isn’t so far from where I grew up, in Gloucester, Virginia. My father was an Air Force officer, although he didn’t go as far in his military career as Hanna’s father has.
When I mentioned Hanna to Stepan, I could see a flash of pain and regret on his face. Hanna had been one of “his Volunteers”. She was serving as a Youth in Development Volunteer, which is the program Stepan runs. I could tell that Stepan was devastated that Hanna had died during her service. He clearly thought very highly of her. When I looked her up on the Internet, I could see that many people loved her. In her 23 years of life, she had become fluent in Hungarian, Spanish, and Russian, and she was learning Armenian, to which I can attest is not an easy language to learn. Looking at her resume, I can see that she had spent her young life serving other people. Hanna was already a star, and had her life not been cut short, she probably would have burned even brighter.
I look at Stepan, and what an extraordinary man he’s become. He’s very intelligent and talented, but he’s also kind, generous, and caring. He’s clearly devoted to his work, and committed to setting up his Volunteers for success. We had a couple of good discussions about Peace Corps service, and what the focus should be for Volunteers. Americans are very results oriented, and when I was a Volunteer, I felt pressured to produce results… to teach kids to speak English. And I felt like I failed in that mission, although many of the kids I worked with already spoke English pretty well.
For years after I worked in Armenia, I felt like I hadn’t done a very good job or tried hard enough. That was one of the reasons why I was a bit reluctant to go back there. I felt a little ashamed, and I worried there would be negativity. What if I ran into my former counterpart? I don’t think she liked me very much, even though I really was trying to do good things. There wasn’t much communication, though. I felt like I was expected to do everything on my own, with no collaboration. And there wasn’t much trust. Not that I can blame the Armenians for that. I was just out of college… 22 years old when I arrived, and 23 when I started working at the school. What could I possibly offer anyone?
I felt that students like Stepan deserved a “star” teacher. And I didn’t feel like I was a star, even though I did try. I got negative feedback from a lot of people– Americans and Armenians alike. I wondered if I’d wasted my time, even though I came away from that experience having learned new things and made new friends. By the time I left Armenia, I was angry, depressed, and burned out… and then I came home to a crisis, as my dad went into rehab for his alcoholism the day after my return stateside. He was kind of mean to me when he met me at the airport. I hadn’t been expecting him to be there, and when he met me, he treated me badly. When we got into the car, he told me he was going into rehab. I was relieved to hear that, but the ride home was long and unpleasant, and the dinner my mom had made for me was spoiled by my dad’s anger about going to rehab the next day. Rehab, by the way, didn’t work for him.
As the years passed, I started to realize that Armenia had changed my life on so many levels. My bitterness faded as time went by, and I started to feel nostalgic. I gradually forgot the worst of the bad times, and focused more on the good times. I did have a lot of good times in Armenia. It’s the one place where I’ve had the opportunity to use almost every single talent God gave me. I realized that I did actually have some successes, and I started to feel warm toward Armenia. I started to feel love, respect, and appreciation toward my Peace Corps colleagues. Some of them really were stars.
A couple of years ago, we lost Matt Jensen, a Volunteer who had served in Senegal and Armenia. I wasn’t one of Matt’s best friends, but we did spend a lot of time together during our second year in Armenia. I got to know him pretty well, and although we’d lost touch, I was genuinely heartbroken when I heard about how he was hit by a car in Brooklyn, New York, and left for dead. I was outraged when I heard about the criminally short prison sentence his killer got. I’ve written a bit about Matt in this blog, so I won’t go on about his premature death. But I do want to mention something that really struck me when fellow RPCVs held a memorial for him on Zoom. There were people from around the world who joined that Zoom call to honor Matt– Bill and I in Germany, several people in Russia, a person in Sweden, someone in Belize, people in Armenia, and of course, people all across the United States.
One of the people who had joined the call was a man named Hoveek, who lived in Vanadzor. Matt had worked in Vanadzor, and he’d had a profoundly positive effect on Hoveek. I sat amazed as I listened to how much Hoveek had admired Matt, and how much Matt had helped him. Tears were streaming down his face… and I realized that Matt had changed this man’s life for the better. Matt was so beloved in Vanadzor, that locals have created a memorial for him there. I wish I’d had the chance to see it in person. I did mention Matt to the Peace Corps staff, and was a little surprised that they hadn’t heard of him. Matt had not only been a Volunteer, but he was also the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) trainer for at least one group. Matt was, in my opinion, a star.
Which brings me back to Stepan and Hanna… Stepan was Hanna’s Peace Corps “boss”. But 27 years ago, Stepan was my student. Even though I didn’t feel like a “star” Peace Corps Volunteer, I must have done something right. Because Stepan later decided to work for the Peace Corps. Obviously, his interactions with me when he was a teenager weren’t a total turn off. Stepan is a star employee of the Peace Corps, working with today’s Volunteers. I can tell he loves what he does, and his Volunteers love him. Stepan is another link I share with Hanna, an extraordinary young woman I never knew, and will never meet.
Now that I’ve been back to Armenia and received such an overwhelmingly warm welcome, I realize that you really don’t have to be a “star” in the Peace Corps. You can do great things just by going there and talking to the locals, especially if you manage to do it in Armenian— at least at first. Stepan’s daughter, Susi, said it was “beautiful” when she heard Americans speaking Armenian. It’s not a language that gets spoken in many places, even though there are many Armenians in the diaspora. I’m sure it does sound beautiful to Armenians when someone tries to learn their language and doesn’t deem it “worthless”, as I recently saw it described in a scathing negative review of an Armenian restaurant.
As an American living abroad, I’ve seen how English is everywhere. It’s everywhere in Germany, and many people speak it fluently, even though they’re German. I’ve seen it all over Europe, and now it’s very common in Armenia. When I lived there, Armenian, or at least Russian, language skills were essential for success. Today, so many people speak English in Yerevan that not knowing Armenian isn’t a huge problem. But I made so many people smile as I gamely tried to speak my rusty Eastern Armenian. It opened doors for us during our visit, especially since so many people seemed to think I was Russian (one thing that hasn’t changed since the 90s).
Stepan said that he wants Volunteers to be happy, and he wants them to connect with the people. That’s more important than achieving “results” and doing a “good” job… whatever that means. Have I done a “good” job if my students can speak fluent English by the time I leave Armenia? Or have I done a “good” job if I’ve touched their hearts, put a human face on American people, and helped build trust? Or must I do both things to be considered successful? I guess it depends on whom you ask. However, last week, I found evidence that at least a couple of people who received my efforts at service in Armenia appreciated what I was trying to accomplish.
I think of all the people I’ve known who were Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of them were pretty amazing people with talents they could share. Not every Volunteer was a superstar who impressed everyone, but most of the PCVs I’ve known have been good, well-meaning people who genuinely wanted to make a positive difference. I think the focus of the Peace Corps should be less on producing tangible results and more on building relationships and trust. That’s how change ultimately happens.
Anyway… maybe I wasn’t a “star” like Hanna or Matt, or my big sister, Betsy. Or, at least I don’t see myself in that way. However, now I know that I did make a difference. In fact, I think I might have even made a difference last week, by going back to Armenia, speaking crappy Armenian, spending money, and showing them that not every blonde woman is a Russian. 😉
It must have been meant to be that I taught Stepan. I don’t know why he wound up as my student. If my country director had had her way, I would have become a business Volunteer during my second year, and Stepan and I never would have met! She wanted me to leave Yerevan. But that wasn’t in the big plan. For some reason, I was supposed to teach Stepan, even though I wasn’t a “star” teacher.
Now Stepan is influencing people in the way I might have influenced him, so many years ago. And even if I wasn’t a superstar Peace Corps Volunteer, he sure made me feel like one last week. We got one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever experienced anywhere… and sadly, that includes the times when I’ve come home to my own family. I hope we can go back sometime, and I can show Bill more of the country. I think it’s touched his heart and mind, like it’s been touching my heart and mind for years, now.
Anyway… so ends today’s deep thoughts. I think I’ll get back to the travel blog. I’ve still got stories to write about last week’s Armenian adventure.