You don't have to be an extraordinary person to make an extraordinary difference in the world.
When the opportunity to join the Peace Corps arose, Jessica Drazenovich didn’t think twice. It just felt like the right next step for her.
You see, Jessica was an Army brat. She was used to travel and change — a pro at acclimating to new situations. She’d also taken a keen interest in social justice early in her life, volunteering with various organizations throughout college. After graduating, she wanted the chance to make a difference at a grassroots level, so she applied.
She served in Guatemala for two years, teaching the kids in her community about food security.
The times she spent with them were some of her happiest memories because the kids accepted her completely. They didn’t laugh at her rusty Spanish. They didn’t judge her for any small cultural misunderstandings. They gave her a chance, and together, they learned a lot.
She taught them about recycling and nutrition, and they helped her discover that she loves the bond that comes with working with kids. Their openness and enthusiasm inspired her. And her life wasn’t the only one that changed. Volunteers often have long-lasting influences on their students’ lives.
It’s been almost a year since Jessica’s service ended, but her students still talk to her. They tag her in photos on Facebook, and they send her messages letting her know that they miss her and wish she could be there.
"Guatemala has changed me forever" Jessica said, looking back on her time there. "And it’s not like 'Oh, I traveled here and it was cool.' No, Guatemala is a part of me.”
But it wasn’t easy. Guatemala tested her in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
Many people she met were hesitant about outsiders.
"There’s a huge tourism industry there," Jessica explained. "So a lot of Guatemalans were a little wary of outsiders just because it tends to be [a] relationship of take, take, take. Like 'We’re going to come here and we’re going to take your resources and we’re going to suck up all of the tourist stuff and not give anything back.'"
On top of that, Jessica has a number of tattoos and piercings and is gay. Navigating a culture where these parts of herself aren't as accepted — while gaining enough respect to serve the community effectively — proved to be difficult.
"The Guatemalan culture is very, very, conservative," she said. "Things that we think are harmless — like a tattoo or a piercing or being openly gay — there, that’s just not acceptable," she explained. "Trying to build legitimacy in the community professionally, sometimes I kinda felt like I was covering up part of my personality to integrate."
In spite of these challenges, she didn’t let herself feel isolated; she stepped up.
She accepted almost every invite she received. She talked to members of the community and learned about them. She built relationships, and in the process, she realized that she had to let go of preconceived notions of what the community wanted. Instead, she listened to them when they described their needs and worked with them to find solutions.
In the end, she immersed herself into her new life completely.
To anyone thinking about joining the Peace Corps, Jessica says "do it." But know what you’re getting into.
She warns against romanticizing the experience. It’s service work, so it will be hard. But you don’t have to be a great adventurer or extremely rugged to join. You just have to want to make a difference.
"You’re making a commitment with the community to work with them on the issues that they deemed to be important," she said. "You have made that commitment with them, to them. Don’t take it lightly."