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Volunteers for Re-Entry: Part 1
When the Peace Corps was formed, there were doubts about the necessity of training the new college graduates that made up the first Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). A combination of history, political situation, and geography were provided, in addition to language training—along with requiring the PCVs to learn the national anthem. With this skimpy background, the Corps expected volunteers to survive, thrive and provide models of modernization for the people they lived among.
As we can now expect, many stressed PCVs were victims of culture shock (first identified and defined in 1964). Some fled home; some went native or hippie; some served as shock troopers for materialist market capitalism, rock’n’roll and individualist ‘democracy’ à la USA, and were untouched by the real life and thought of those around them.
These diversely different responses have been dealt with by almost universal requirements of pre-departure training and counseling for those embarking on a period of living overseas. Scientific socio-psychological research has demonstrated a 60% greater chance of staying full term and equivalently higher success at achieving goals for those who have preparation that includes intercultural communication, conflict resolution and self-awareness components.
The one thing we still have not figured out is how to bring the experience home. Worse yet, we do not know how to bring our volunteers home, to get them “in out of the cold.” “Bringing understanding of the world home” to the USA is one of the primary objectives of the Peace Corps, and ex-PCVs have been concerned with this for some time. In some ways it has been a success, as a large cadre of idealists—who have seen the real world abroad and formed friendships with people in all sorts of Third World countries—talk, share, and become involved in politics here.
Those of us forming the peace army need to be diligent in bringing our volunteers home and making sure that their experience is understood in the First World, that their information and their living knowledge are not forgotten, and that the stress of return does not alienate the returned volunteers.
It was Pierre Casse, in the early days of intercultural communication research of the 1970s, who described the well-known V and W curves of experience that most transplants experience abroad. Once we understand that it is normal, and very similar to the adjustment process described by Dr. Kühbler-Ross in grieving, we begin to be more accepting and able to deal with the changes that provoke cultural shock. What we learned was that a similar effect presents itself when people go back home. Suddenly, their original culture seems alien to them, if they have been away long enough to adapt to their foreign circumstance.
This challenge holds even if one is spiritually centered and mentally rock-solid, because others’ perception of you will be different and they will treat you in a different way. If you have any public exposure, strangers may recognize you and treat you familiarly, leaving you to wonder, “Who was that? Where do I know him from?” Friends may be in awe of you or find your new convictions uncomfortable for them. They may ask bumptious questions about your supposed heroics or make ambulance-chasing requests for more gory details about things you wish you had never experienced and want to forget. Their expectations and your reality do not mesh.
The second time I returned from Peace Brigades International service in Central America, where two dear friends had been tortured to death by death squads, I did quite a lot of organizing and public speaking about the reality of the Central America wars and the United States’ role in them. I remember how my balloon was popped by a woman who had stayed after one discussion with activists who were ready to get their town moving. She inquired about my involvement with people in poverty and whose lives were in jeopardy for telling the truth, as my friends’ had been. Then she asked me for advice: “I have a terrible dilemma: I don’t know whether to buy a new VCR with my VISA or MasterCharge…”
I still do not know how to respond to her, but she was only one of many who confronted me with the unreality of living in affluence after spending time in the opposite conditions.
So how can we best prepare volunteers to have a realistic understanding of what may be ahead for them when they return? Perhaps the most elementary place to begin is with the recruitment and selection process. We need to ask a few queries about the person’s psychological resilience and reality testing in their community: How accurately does this person see the social support system in which s/he lives? Do others perceive her or him to be adaptable and tolerant as well as centered? Do others see themselves similarly? Do they have expectations of what the volunteer will do upon return?
We need to begin sharing the kind of information I have included above before volunteers are committed to leaving for an assignment. They need to be counseled to consider not only the short-term changes and challenges of the work they wish to do; they also need to reflect on what they will do upon re-entry, and whether they have the inner and social resources to cope with it all.
Each peace team organization should develop a comprehensive training plan that includes not only orientation for going abroad and doing work for ahimsa—nonviolence—but also for coming home and bringing the conflict’s concerns to the richest nation in the world.
Different kinds of people have different needs. This seems obvious. Good trainers take into account different learning styles, different personal needs while in training, differerent social support requirements and perceptual channels. Perhaps we also need to consider even more aspects of character and social roles when evaluating the needs the volunteer will have when coming home. Will this volunteer need support in returning to work? How about training for speaking, writing the story? Psychological counseling can be useful in a myriad of situations: should they learn re-evaluation co-counseling or should their support system raise funds for a psychologist? At very least, there should be designated persons to sit and listen as the returned volunteer just talks to debrief. As Victor Frankl points out, one of our most human needs is for someone to hear our story.
How can we evaluate the resources a support group, church or other organization can provide when their volunteer returns. Often this is the point when the group’s fund-raising and other activities are expected to end. They may be surprised that there is more the volunteer needs from his/her community at this point. More than their prayers, now their intimate, loving attention is needed, and it needs to be provided as the volunteer requests, not according to what the support team thinks would be adequate. Since volunteers know themselves best and what their experiences have been, their support teams must listen carefully to what they think they need and make it easy to ask for things that seem unimportant or don’t occur to those who stayed at home. In my own case, despite assurances and offers “to be there for you,” my needs were greater than people had estimated. I was discouraged to discover that even coming to a speech was too much for some individuals on the support team.
Besides this, differing home situations will lead to different learning goals for a return training. Various situations in the country of service may suggest a variety of objectives also. How can we assess what to work on after we begin to debrief the volunteer at the end of service? What do we know that s/he may have forgotten in the intensity of involvement with the peace team? What does others’ past experience of return tell this person to watch out for?
These sorts of queries, as well as trainers’ abilities and resources, will inherently determine what kind of re-orientation or return training an organization offers. Nonetheless, I would recommend that the whole concern be considered before recruitment so that the need does not present itself just as the volunteer is leaving. With foresight, many difficulties can be avoided. With anticipation, we avoid disappointment of unmet expectations. I suggest that training for the volunteer in and with the community to which s/he plans to return is key to achieving a smoother transition. And every peace keeper or satyagrahi can benefit from that.
Pablo Stanfield was the first long-term volunteer with PBI in Guatemala (1983) and worked with peace teams until 1989. He is a Quaker mediator and specialist in intercultural conflict resolution who recently moved to Davis CA and is entering a PsyD program.