Thousands of older Americans have served in the Peace Corps, and each has a story to tell. In this final post of our series, Carla Peterson, 64, of Yuma, Arizona, shares hers. She has been serving in Ungheni, Moldova since mid-2015 and is due to return home next summer. She sent this essay — opinionated, moving and honest— to Not Exactly Retired, which edited it with her approval:
I first looked into Peace Corps back in the 70’s while I was still in college. Then I got married, had children and started my career. So much for the Peace Corps.
Nine years ago, Pete died from melanoma, two years before he was going to retire and three years before I was going to follow. I was 55. I kept working because I had no plan now that The Plan had blown up.
By the time I was 60, I needed a change from my job at a library. I’m not sure why Peace Corps came to mind again. Maybe I saw something online or in the paper. I called and found out their oldest volunteer was 84 — a lot older than me. So I decided to retire and apply to Peace Corps myself.
I applied in June 2014, interviewed in September and was accepted in October. I went ahead and retired in December, then headed for Washington state to begin saying my goodbyes. My mother lives there as do my brothers and sister. My daughter and two granddaughters lived in Oregon then, and I helped them move to Denver. I hoped to go to Japan to see my older son, too, but I ran out of time.
My medical clearance took a lot longer than I expected. I understand they don’t want to send us overseas only to have a stroke or heart attack, but both my doctor and I felt like we had to jump through a lot of hoops.
It turned out to be good preparation for the scrutiny that has followed. As a volunteer, you must check in if you leave your site overnight. You can’t leave the country or change your work partner without permission. I’ve also had some smaller annoyances, such as being told to bring dressy clothes I didn’t need or confronting an excessive number of Peace Corps acronyms.
Some volunteers, especially older ones, arrive in Moldova with impressive work experience. Sometimes it’s under-utilized. Communities may be unsure what to do with their volunteer and don’t really understand what having a volunteer entails. Volunteers who were lawyers back home may end up teaching beginning English rather than working in community development. As a volunteer, you need to be flexible and keep a sense of humor.
Learning Romanian has been difficult for me, as for many older volunteers. I’d always been a good student and was shocked I didn’t pick up the language right away. Even after 19 months, I can’t carry on a conversation beyond the basics.
Before I left, I thought, “Two-plus years. Ha! I can do that in my sleep.” Well, the time has gone fast enough, but 27 months is a long time to be away from your family and friends, and from everything you enjoy back home.
On the other hand, in today’s Peace Corps, and especially in a country such as Moldova, you’re connected constantly through the Internet. Earlier volunteers had to write letters and, if they were lucky, have an occasional phone call. They didn’t have Skype or FaceTime. That must have been rough.
Until recently, the Peace Corps slogan was “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” If I hear that again, I may go screaming from the room. For me, Peace Corps has basically been what I thought it would be. It hasn’t changed my outlook on life. I was a sociology and anthropology major in college, so I have always been fascinated by how different people act together. My time in Moldova has allowed me to compare their customs with our own. As I suspected, we are more alike than different. We work, play, love our families and carry on despite political differences.
Moldova is a lovely country. I love the fields of sunflowers, corn and grapevines, and the grazing animals. There are horse-drawn wagons and people with faces etched with character lines. Flowers decorate every village. People are warm and welcoming but not necessarily interested in changing their lives. Sometimes I think they view us Americans as exotic plants to tend and admire but not necessarily to keep.
I don’t know whether I’ve helped develop my community here while working in the local library. Like a doctor, I’ve tried to at least do no harm. I hope those I’ve met will think kindly of America because of their contact with me.
As I look to the future, I want to spend time with my mother, who will turn 96 in February. I can’t wait to catch up with my children, grandchildren, siblings and friends. I’ll do volunteer work in Yuma, but I’m also going to travel, update my townhouse, attend all of the Triple Crown horse races and play some golf. I want to drive. I want to use a clothes dryer again. I want my independence back.
This is the final story in a Not Exactly Retired series about older volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. Thanks to everyone who participated. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room to include all of Moldova’s current and recent older volunteers. You can learn more on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page and the Peace Corps website for older potential applicants.