The True Impact of the Peace Corps

Returning from the Dominican Republic ’03-’05

by | Dec 13, 2009

A photo of the street that ran in front of Molly Coeling’s house in el Peje de Guerra in the Dominican Republic., where she was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s

A photo of the street that ran in front of Molly Coeling’s house in el Peje de Guerra in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Molly Coeling

I am an RPCV: a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. For me the Peace Corps was an intense life experience, above anything else. As I continue to reflect on it, I am struck with the many and varied ways in which it continues to affect my life.

As a PCV in the Dominican Republic from September 2003 to November 2005, I lived, worked, and learned in a small sugar cane-dependent community two hours outside of Santo Domingo, the capital city. As a health volunteer, I focused primarily on nutrition education and a vegetable-gardening project.

By the time I returned to the United States, I could speak Spanish fluently and understood Dominican culture, concrete skills that helped me secure the position and succeed as a Health Educator in low-income housing developments in Boston. From the first interview, I realized that success in this job with Harvard School of Public Health faculty at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute would be the result of my experience as a PCV, building upon my formal education, which included a Master’s in Public Health.

I continue to work in the same department at Dana-Farber today, having moved into project management roles over the past three years. I now rarely use the language and cultural skills that I was hired for but have come to recognize that I learned so much more than Spanish and the basics of grassroots development. I also learned how to work within a community setting and how to see a project through from an idea to its completion. I know that actively engaging participants and maintaining morale and getting [ed:word missing here]at all levels is crucial for any project, whether it be introducing Dominican women to new ways of cooking, or continuing to reach out to groups of Americans who are marginalized by our society and at higher risk for cancer.

From the Peace Corps, I know I can not only survive but thrive anywhere, whether as an American woman in a small Dominican village or as a Midwesterner living in the Northeast. I know how to adapt, how to put things into perspective, how to take a risk, and how to maintain a sense of humor through it all. I can help a woman on the subway who doesn’t understand how to pay and can’t speak enough English to ask, and I can do so with empathy and respect. I can respond to a Dominican neighbor who insists that all Americans are rich, just as I can respond to an American neighbor who insists that immigrants should not be welcomed here. I can understand ignorance and intolerance not only as American shortcomings but as human phenomena. I can understand that people are the same; it is the circumstances that vary.

In these ways and countless others, the Peace Corps has a lasting and widespread impact on all RPCVs in their work and in their lives.

Winter 2009Volume VIII, Number 2

Molly Coeling, originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor in 2003. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and works with Harvard School of Public Health faculty at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She loves to surprise Dominicans with her Spanish skills and knowledge of the rural areas of their country.

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