First Generation Americans in the Peace Corps

Picture 3Special motivations and circumstances can arise when first-generations citizens of the United States aspire to Peace Corps service.

Listen to the recording of the call, May 15th, which shared the insights of guests Sheldon Gen, a returned Volunteer, and Roshan Devaraj, an invitee, about the special role of first generation Americans in the Peace Corps.

“My parents are immigrants from China, and it definitely took time for them to warm up to the idea of Peace Corps, but now it has been a benefit for my whole family,” says Sheldon (Peace Corps Kenya, 1990-1992).

“When I was eight years old, I immigrated to America with my family from Singapore. I grew up in a bi-racial family where three languages are spoken and [I] enjoy exploring different languages and cultures,” explains Roshan (who will leave this year for Peace Corps Kazakhstan). “Being a first-generation American was one of the central issues which affected my Peace Corps decision. Thankfully, it did so in a positive way.”

Many first-gen Americans, like Roshan and Sheldon, have grown up with their ears naturally tuned to international perspectives — not to mention languages other than English. Because of their very unique perspectives, their contributions to Peace Corps and to the communities they serve is enormous.

If you’re a first-generation American, the pull to serve abroad may come from a yearning to educate yourself about the international experience, to try to connect with your parents through a shared knowledge of what it is to be brand new to a place, to be a foreigner. Another motivation may be a natural curiosity about your parent’s homeland. For example, a Peace Corps Volunteer I served with in China is Chinese-American.

Challenges of serving in Peace Corps as a child of immigrants include bucking expectations of family responsibility including moving far away and earning a modest living allowance. While many immigrant parents are ecstatic when their child chooses to serve their country in Peace Corps, some parents may react strongly against your moving to a developing country if they moved here from a developing country so you could have a “better” life and higher salary.

Other challenges are less-directly family related. For some first-generation Americans considering Peace Corps, they must seriously weigh the decision to serve overseas versus sharing their education and skills as a volunteer in their home community.

Finally, many people around the world harbor misperceptions of what it means to be from the United States — how U.S. people look, sound, and act. Assumptions persist about how much money you have and what you eat.

It may be argued that the hardest and most important part of any Peace Corps Volunteer’s service is as a citizen diplomat. Through the friendships you make during your term of service, you’ll have a chance to educate people about your unique story, the story of your parents, and how your story is woven into the larger narrative of the United States.

Prospective Volunteers, family, and loved ones are invited to log on to the online video chat on May 15th, submit questions, and join the panelists and Peace Corps staffer Nathan Hale Sargent for stories of sharing the face of America overseas and promoting world friendship and understanding here at home.

Read more, and register.

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One thought on “First Generation Americans in the Peace Corps

  1. I was born abroad, but I came to the United States as a young child and became a US citizen. At home we spoke a comfortable mix of Spanish, English, and French with a lot of interesting code-switching fun; for the most part, although our family’s experience has been anything but easy, our family acknowledges the many wonderful opportunities America has provided for us, if we were willing to take up the challenges that came along with them.

    My mom had to re-start her education here from nothing, and as an adult and a single mom that was tough. Every step of the way she demonstrated the will that it took to be a productive member of this society. She’s been a public school teacher for over a decade now, and that’s just an additional source of motivation for a first-generation American like me. This is an example of the very particular circumstances that motivate us to give back – going abroad once again, BACK OUT into the world, to share the fruit of our American experience. I wanted to join the Peace Corps in no small part because I really do appreciate being a part of this society, to show the rest of the world that we are much more than what they hear in angry hearsay or news reports or the general grumblings of dissatisfaction with America; there is good and bad in every place, yet it is up to us to choose to “be the change we want to see…”

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