In Peace Corps, love often blooms alongside public service

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Jamie and Youssou Diatta, pictured in Senegal, met while she volunteered with the Peace Corps. (Photo by Nina Porzucki.)

 

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Through college my mantra was “Peace Corps, the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

After graduation I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and do the toughest job I’d ever love.

In 2002, I arrived in Washington, D.C., for orientation before going to teach in Romania. I sat, terrified, in a conference room thinking about the next 27 months. The first thing I remember was a guy raising his hand and asking the Peace Corps official if it was true that 80 percent of volunteers come back married, engaged or in love?

I was floored. Here I was trying to imagine what Romania looked like and where I’d be living. I had never even considered love.

Janice Sims was one of my fellow volunteers in Romania. She was just as surprised at the mention of love at her Peace Corps orientation.

“I don’t remember a percentage being put on it but I thought a large majority,” she said. “And I thought, that’s not going to be me.”

Sims joined the Peace Corps to work on environmental projects abroad. She helped develop the first recycling program in Ramnicu Valcea. She was getting over a painful divorce. Love was the furthest thing from her mind.

Then, at her orientation, Sims was handed a slip of paper with the name of a random country. It was one of those icebreaker games. She had to find the volunteer with the capital of that country and introduce them to the group. Someone named Glen Harrison had the corresponding capital.

“Through the skirmish when we were looking around I heard out of my ear someone say Thailand,” said Harrison. “I tapped this person on the shoulder ... and it was Janice.”

For Harrison, if it wasn’t love at first sight, then let’s just say he was really interested.

The meeting broke up and the volunteers scattered to take advantage of their night stateside. Harison asked Sims if she wanted to go see an orchid exhibition at the botanical garden. Sims refused.

“All I could think about was, can’t do it, sorry, and I’m certainly not going to go see any orchid exhibit,” she recalled. “That is way too forward. We are moving way too fast. I know what orchids mean — and no.”

Things do move fast in the Peace Corps. Relationships form quickly. What might take six months to develop under normal conditions might in the Peace Corps happen in six days.

The two became instant friends. But Sims resisted any romantic feelings.

“You don’t know this person, they’re not meeting your family,” she said. “You start to think to yourself, can I trust this person? Should I trust me with this person?”

Eventually, Sims decided she had to trust Harrison because "this is the only person I got.”

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and love researcher is not surprised that people in the Peace Corps fall in love. Not only did Sims and Harrison have to trust each other, Fisher said she was chemically programmed to trust him.

When you leave everything and everyone behind, your brain is hardwired to rebuild a daily life with another human being, Fisher said. 

She said change triggers an increase in dopamine in the brain.

“It’s very easy once the dopamine activity begins to rise to fall madly in love,” she said.

A little adventure doesn’t hurt either. Like nearly falling off the edge of a mountain.

Three weeks after that first day in Washington, Sims and Harrison found themselves descending a snowy mountaintop in Romania, on a day off. They are both experienced mountain climbers but that day the trail was a giant ice luge.

“It must’ve taken us six hours to climb down this thing and we fell about 500 times,” Harrison said.

A couple of times they thought that we were just going to slide right off the mountain. It was “really, really nasty,” they said.

“And really, really tense,” Sims said.

But they made it down. At that stage, they were still just friends. On the train ride home they were extremely tired and stressed.

“I remember I just fell asleep on Glen’s shoulder. I think that was when I fell in love with him," Sims said.

How common is love in the peace corps? Eighty percent sounded like a very high number when I first heard it, but Ken Goodson, an advisor at Peace Corps headquarters, said in his experience, it’s true. He estimated that among the volunteers in the places he’s worked, more than 75 percent find themselves in love at some point during their 27-month commitment.

Surprisingly, in an organization with a policy for nearly every situation, there is no policy on love. Often, when it’s time for Peace Corps staff to assign where volunteers will live and work for two years, couples ask to be placed close to each other.

“As staff you have to struggle with that a bit,” Goodson said. “Do you want to keep them together?”

It might make them happy — assuming that their relationship continues to flourish. Or do you want them apart, “so that they’re more focused on the service commitment and less on the personal commitment?” he said.

But there are no guidelines because no rules apply. Peace Corps is about relationship-building. Sometimes your service commitment gets entangled with your personal commitment.

Jamie Schehl met Youssou Diatta while on assignment in Senegal. Diatta, who is Senegalese, was building a cultural school in his village. Schehl was helping write grants and manage the project. They became good friends, and then they fell in love. After Schehl finished her Peace Corps service and returned to the U.S., Diatta applied for an American visa.

A few weeks before he left, the cultural school burned down. It was a huge blow and it brought into focus an issue that had troubled Schehl.

“I felt a little guilty because he really was the leader,” she said. “The buildings burning down were really bad, but the truth is, what was even worse was Youssou leaving. I think without his leadership — I think that more than the buildings burning down — led to the demise of the group and the project.”

Love was taking Diatta away from his community at a critical time. Romance was getting in the way of the very work that Schehl had joined the Peace Corps to accomplish.

“There was some guilt there,” she said, “but I still feel strongly that in the long run it has helped Youssou’s country and his family by having him here.”

Diatta is close to graduating from college, after arriving with a 6th grade education.

Diatta dreams of one day returning to rebuild the cultural school.

For now, thanks to better mobile and Internet service in Senegal, he still considers himself a leader in his village — remotely. People call him often for advice or financial help. He says a split he feels between the U.S. and Senegal will never go away.

“It’s hard to be just in one place,” he said. “You feel like you’re heart is in the other side but you go in that place and you feel the same way about the other side.”

For better or worse, not everyone falls in love in the Peace Corps. I returned from Romania as single as I left.

Was my timing off? Was the dopamine not firing in my brain?

Or, as the Romanian superstition goes, did I sit at the corner of a table one too many times?

Whatever the case, I was happy to witness many Peace Corps romances.

Sims and Harrison now live in Washington, minutes from that Holiday Inn where they first met.

“Sometimes we walk in the lobby,” Sims said. “The Holiday Inn guy is always like: ‘Can I help you?’ And I’m like: ‘No, we’re just going to stand here next to the elevator bay.’”

“You know, just to get the aura of the day we first met. Because that’s where I sprang the orchid question to her was in the lobby of the hotel,” Harrison said..

“And since then we’ve gone to the orchid exhibit a lot,” Sims added.

A few years ago they were married quickly and quietly by a judge, on their lunch hour. I never got to give them a proper toast. I had the speech all planned out. To the toughest job you’ll ever love: marriage.

 

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