Guest Post: Are Volunteers Over-Connected?

Are too many of today’s Peace Corps volunteers spending their time texting friends back home and downloading American television programs instead of interacting with people in their villages? Do their parents hover from afar, like the “helicopter parents” of U.S. university students?

Those provocative questions were raised by a reader of my recent post, on how the Peace Corps experience has changed over the years. Rob Carr was among several returned volunteers who commented on the post after it appeared on a Facebook site for that community. Rob served in Liberia and now lives in Tanzania, where he works with a large development agency. With his permission, I am sharing a slightly edited version of his comments here, hoping they may spark a lively conversation.

Personally, I treasured being off the grid in Nepal and think it helped me integrate with my community. Yet I now enjoy and benefit from being online — not only to stay connected but also to help me do my job and to pursue the Peace Corps “third goal” of helping Americans learn about other countries. Since Rob is referring mainly to younger volunteers, I also must note that those serving with me in Moldova are generally smart, engaged and committed to their service.

What do you think? Please share your comments!

***

mepalavahut.
Rob Carr, then 21, in Liberia during his Peace Corps training in 1985

I was a PCV in Liberia over three decades ago. During the past 15 years, I have worked in countries where PCVs are posted and have gotten to know them and the staff … Many parents of PCVs these days hover too much. I know staff at PC that get calls from parents if they do not get FaceTime or chat for a few days. A week is a 3-alarm panic.

Being a bit disconnected is rather difficult and unpopular these days, and it’s no different in PC life. I think this has created some space for PCVs to interact less with their hosts and more with people back home in some cases.

In Liberia, would I have sat under a palm tree with my local buddies drinking palm wine and chewing on kola nuts for hours if I had Facebook and chat going with my friends back home, or if I was streaming movies?

It is not always an easy debate between old RPCVs and recent ones. It always comes down to “we had it TOUGH because …” Social media and the need to be connected is a sword with two blades. One keeps us more in touch with family and global events. The other may keep us from socializing with our hosts and performing the MAIN goal of PC service. That is to interact with people in host countries so THEY get to know more about average Americans and WE get to know more about normal people in a far-off land and bring that back home.

When THAT interaction is achieved (forget about PC small projects that may or may not have worked), then the real purpose of PC service has been achieved. I think this is still going strong, but social media has added the risk that if a PCV is not outgoing or is too reclusive, he or she could spend two years on Facebook and never make an impact on this goal. I am not sure if PC is taking this into account in their selection of PCVs or how they orient and support them in their sites.

On the other hand, there is a positive spinoff from our new connectedness. Once PC service is over, it is possible for RPCVs to keep in touch with some of their counterparts and buddies back in their site as lifelong Facebook friends. I have discovered this joy even three decades later. This kind of takes the goals of PC to a new level too.

So it is a double bladed sword – to be handled with care.

***

Rob, thanks again for letting me share your thoughts on Not Exactly Retired. Readers, what do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Are Volunteers Over-Connected?”

  1. Although I have never lived outside the US for more than a few weeks, it seems to me that the benefits of social media outweigh the disadvantages. I can see that it would take a concerted effort to put down the devices and be present with those around you. But the ability to stay connected with distant friends and relatives is a great joy to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was in the first Peace Corps group in Kazakhstan that had cell phones, and the PCVS and RPCVs before us griped about how that was not the “real” Peace Corps. Ironically one benefit that I think occurred is that our group was in a lot of contact with each other, which really helped to strengthen bonds and helped us to support one another and share ideas. Only a few of us had blogs (which was all the rage at the time), and the in-country staff tried to control the types of things PCVs were writing, which I’m assuming has been given up as a lost cause in this day and age of social media.

    Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that we live in a connected world. We can’t have Peace Corps with volunteers “off the grid” like in the 1970s, because the world as a whole, especially the developing world, is simply not like that any more. Even ten years ago, it would have put me at a serious disadvantage in interacting with local peers if I did not have a cell phone. Nowadays, I’m using Facebook to stay in touch with friends from Kazakhstan. Social media and cell phones are pretty much everywhere and being used by people of all ages the world over.

    Interacting with locals and helping them learn about Americans is one of three goals of Peace Corps service, but so is teaching Americans about other countries. Quite frankly current events show that Americans cannot wait for someone to come back from abroad for that goal, it needs to start now.

    There is also a safety issue, and this was ultimately the deciding factor for Peace Corps staff in Kazakhstan in their move from discouraging cell phones, to tolerating them, to requiring them. While I’m sure helicopter parents are an issue in Peace Corps, as they are pretty much anywhere else (although haven’t overly-involved parents with means always had the ability to pay for long distance phone calls and care packages?), the ability to connect to someone in an emergency, and the ability to connect with people locally, at home, and on the country’s staff seems like a hard argument to beat. Peace Corps isn’t a camping trip or a spiritual retreat, after all. Anything that helps PCVs to deal with the world as it is should be encouraged, with thought put in to proper guidelines for use.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Contrary to what a lot of people might claim about social media connecting them to the rest of the world, it does exactly the opposite. Social media takes you out of the moment; it takes you out of the here and now and connects you somewhere else into an artificial online community which is not where you need to be or where you’re supposed to be as a PCV. And thus I’d say being on Facebook is a distinct disadvantage to a Peace Corps Volunteer whose primary job is to integrate into his real community and make those essential new connections with the people in his village or town, not spend his precious few hours talking online to Facebook friends in a virtual community.

    Then again, I’m about Rob’s age and spent 1987-89 in Nepal with few connections to the world at large beyond those light blue aerograms I mailed out to friends and family. I spoke with my parents on the phone four or five times over the course of those two years, usually from a fancy hotel lobby in Kathmandu that had a phone capable of making international calls. I couldn’t afford to stay in a place like that, but at Christmas and in the summer I sprang for the phone call. To think that helicopter parents in the U.S. are trying to hover abroad via the Interwebs over their PCV children is humorous to say the least. And if PCVs are talking daily with their folks back in America on Facebook, that’s just kind of sad.

    In the summer of 1988, we had a 6.7 earthquake in eastern Nepal. The epicenter was in a district one over from mine, and there was a lot of property damage and many lives lost. The U.S. media reported me and a couple of other volunteers as “missing.” I wasn’t missing; I was just in my bazaar, teaching at my village school. A couple of days later, Bhim Rai showed up from Kathmandu to see if everything was okay. It was, so he turned around and walked back to the roadhead. Later, after I COS’ed in 1989, I saw a videotape of the local news report. When the reporter asked my parents about me, they shrugged and said they supposed I was okay. They’d find out one way or another eventually. Helicopter parents they were not…

    Liked by 1 person

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