The millennial generation occasionally gets flack as being pampered, coddled, and too often awarded “A’s” for churning out mere baseline satisfactory efforts. To be quite frank, I have chided similar social commentaries. My post is not intended as a harsh editorial against my own cohort. To sincerely laud a few of our selected tendencies that I have both personally observed and read about (see Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs”), the millennial adult is seemingly also likely to be more (1) globally aware of current affairs, (2) audaciously committed to ensuring social justices, (3) spurred by high motivations to not settle for low standards, (4) consciously aware of our adverse human impact upon the environment, and (5) exposed to a myriad of rich cross-cultural experiences. All in all, we carry some positive characteristics that are definitely worth taking notice! It is each of our own responsibilities, however, to consider how we want to embody those qualities for ourselves through words and actions. This narrative follows a snapshot of my attempt to meet that challenge for my own sustainable benefit before pursuing graduate studies in audiology.
I’m not going to romanticize how I ended up joining the Peace Corps following my undergraduate years (spoiler alert: the words “existentialist” and “crisis” are forthcoming). I was already an enthusiastic volunteer for most things community-based. Shaped by a number of influences growing up, I simply enjoyed volunteering what skills and time I had available when they were needed. I was also a typical American-born child of immigrants in New York; this made me susceptible to the millennial traps of young adulthood transitions. So yes, I also experienced an existentialist lapse of that “quarter-life crisis” (± a few years) that so many of us nowadays seem go through at some point in varying degrees, wondering what is going to happen after I graduate? Where am I going to work? WHAT DO I REALLY WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE?”
Overwhelmed by seemingly more options today, the pressures of making firm decisions on most major life questions leaves some dumbfounded and unsettled. While mostly avoiding the risk of a deer-in-headlights shutdown, I ultimately found myself wanting to
pursue an alternative trajectory immediately after college. Having never lived nor studied abroad, considerations for Peace Corps service looked appealing for satisfying my
urge for travel. Serendipitously coming upon a specific deaf education program operating in Kenya, east Africa, was oddly affirming for integrating my habit in local volunteerism with the skills developed through my studies in working within signing environments. The opportunity to work closely with deaf children under such contexts cemented my tenacity to proceed with the process of applying for a spot following commencement. So again, no embellishment is necessary for my prompt and motivation. A pairing of volunteerism-momentum with a large, healthy dose of millennial-induced frightening anxiety prompted the call to join the Peace Corps in my particular storybook. Looking back, it will likely rank among the best decisions I’ve ever made. My existentialist crisis oriented and galvanized me well.
Be we millennial representatives or not, those who have completed their service are all referred to as “Returned Peace Corps Volunteers,” or “RPCVs” in short. During our service it is often discussed how we would ever individually meet the demands of adequately answering the question: “So how was the Peace Corps?” We discern how we should honor both the genuineness of the question and our own experiences without cheapening either. Most RPCVs report that sharing a simple synopsis, essentially summarizing an intimate experience to a watered down version, would prove difficult.
The personal stories can widely vary and is as diverse as the amount and types of Peace Corps programs that are operating worldwide (there’s currently 8 different regions globally hosting the federal agency). However, despite the sheer variations of accounts,
one thing is still likely common across all set-ups: it will challenge you in a manner
where you will find yourself making the judgment call at one point or another– Do I sink or swim? The memory of confronting that question may be one experience that most of us share. We were not going to throw in the towel without first putting up a fight against our own visceral temptations to bow out due to one legitimate reason or another. Our competitions were usually set against our own mental volleys, and we were motivated not to settle easily for a previous staminal threshold after getting this far already at testing our own limits.
My own account took me to east Africa, a place I’ve never been. The African continent itself is HUGE! Its geography is larger than Europe, China, India, and the continental USA combined. Needless to say, its people are just as beautifully diverse and multi-faceted as any of the other world regions able to be superimposed within its boundaries. The Republic of Kenya is a nation that is just slightly smaller in area than the state of Texas. The social demographic represents an estimated 42 distinct ethnic communities. If you ask the Deaf community of Kenya, some of them would then say there are 43 to be mentioned. My Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) class and I arrived poised and mentally ready to work as Deaf Educators. Following our pre-service training (PST) within the lower Great Rift Valley on the awe-inspiring foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa, located in neighboring Tanzania), we were to be separately posted to teach at deaf primary or secondary schools across the nation.
During PST we lived individually with Kenyan host families, where we actively and incidentally learned the intricacies of managing home life in Kenya. PST was also when certified Deaf Kenyans trained us on the fundamentals and dynamic grammar of Kenyan Sign Language (KSL). Colloquial Swahili, the lingua franca of Kenya, was the second language that my colleagues and I keenly practiced to pick up. As it turned out with KSL, it varied regionally in the developing republic so much so that we found ourselves at times questioning the distinction between related dialects and wholly separate languages. Upon arrival at my “site”, a full 2-days’ bus journey from the capital city of Nairobi, I quickly realized that one of my first tasks was to decode the local KSL at our village’s primary school unit. It was a boarding school environment within a rural corner of the country where no native adult signers were around to model a
language framework for the deaf children. Most deaf adults migrate to larger urban centers where opportunities and support services are more readily available. The
linguistic outcome for our school was the legacy of an amalgamation of pidgin home signs shared communally and freely among the pupils. As the visiting outsider, I often wondered when confronted with this task: Do I sink or swim? Upon reflection nowadays, I wish I could re-watch some of those days of my attempts at unraveling their KSL as a series of sitcom scenes. PCVs would also eventually learn that owning an element of humor, especially comfort in laughing at oneself, would be critical for thriving.
I’ve joked before that if ever posed the same question again: “So how was the Peace Corps?” and depending on my mood or interpretation of the moment’s authenticity, I wouldn’t be above quoting the Peace Corps slogan “It was the toughest job [I’ll] ever love!” As it turns out, when the amusement from facetious mockery subsides, the
meaning underlying those words remains accurate. Interwoven throughout my time in
the Peace Corps were opportunities to stretch myself beyond my own inadvertently self-
imposed limitations. The degree of self-awareness and subsequent empowerment that it affords me in return to push past those limits is immeasurable. Additionally, the gradual comfort that one develops and internalizes when exposed to cross-cultural dynamics (domestically or abroad) further lends into strengthened fluency in effectively bridging communication gaps across different people. That task coincidentally, if I may boldly claim, would be at the core of what audiology is dignified to do for service.
There’s a classical Peace Corps public service announcement from 1968 conveying the message ironically with New York City’s Lady Liberty. She stands on her pedestal with her right arm outstretched and pointing towards the open sea. The text reads: “MAKE AMERICA A BETTER PLACE. // LEAVE THE COUNTRY.” With that in mind, I’ll leave you with the following passage:
“We need to travel. If we don’t offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don’t lift to the horizon; our ears don’t hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting. We wake up one day and find that we have lost our dreams in order to protect our days. Don’t let yourself become one of these people. The fear of the unknown and the lure of comfortable will conspire to keep you from taking the chances the traveler has to take. But if you take them, you will never regret your choice. To be sure, there will be moments of doubt when you stand alone on an empty road in an icy rain, or when you are ill with fever in a rented bed. But as the pains of the moment will come, so too will they fall away. In the end, you will be so much richer, so much stronger, so much clearer, so much happier, and so much a better person that all the risk and the hardship will seem like nothing compared to the knowledge and wisdom you have gained.”
–Kent Nerburn, Letters to My Son (1999)
Jonathan (“Jon”) Suen completed his undergraduate studies at Boston University in Massachusetts, where he studied Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and American Sign Language. Following his service with the Peace Corps (2009-2011), Jon is now studying audiology (Au.D.) at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. He is currently in his third year within the four-year program. Through his studies at Gallaudet so far, he has found his budding interests within audiology spanning a wide array: from roots in global development, to clinical research, to aural rehabilitation, from across pediatric to adult populations. Jon is excited to see where the field takes him next. Follow him @SuenJonathan via Twitter.