Reflections from Our EPCV Peer Support Sessions
The Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers (EPCVs) just went through a frenzied worldwide evacuation due to the covid-19 pandemic. Peace Corps sent them home to uncertainty. EPCVs had many questions but Peace Corps did not have many answers.
Where could they safely stay during a pandemic? Would they get any financial assistance from the government? How would they get medical evaluations when doctors’ and dentists’ offices are closed? How can they find jobs when millions of people were being laid off? Would graduate schools still accept applications? Would they be able to return to service when the program reopens?
I am an RPCV (Cameroon 2013-2015) and a therapist based in New York City. I did not have an apartment that evacuees could quarantine in or a car for airport pickups or transports. But I could lead RPCV Health Crusade’s efforts on developing an EPCV peer support initiative.
EPCVs needed a safe space to work through some of the confusion. But it could be frustrating to talk to people who do not understand the nuances of Peace Corps service. But a peer support approach would give them that space where participants were already knowledgeable and supportive about service – its wonders, its challenges, and the situation they were now in.
EPCV Peer Support Program is Launched
It was a confusing time. PCVs fully commit to spending 2-3 years of our lives in service. So unless we were close to the end of service, we do not typically have backup plans in place. Should they make temporary plans? Would EPCVs even be permitted to reinstate or re-enroll as Peace Corps Volunteers? And some were not sure whether they wanted to.
The space we co-created with the EPCVs was many things. Over videocalls each week, we shared our stories and progress. We discussed our most treasured friends in our Peace Corps host country. We chatted about our favorite expressions in the native language where we lived. And we found joy in sharing the most popular songs in our host communities.
We checked in with each other week after week. We cheered each other’s progress on searches for jobs, graduate schools, and local therapists.
A few weeks into our EPCV Peer Support sessions, one member of the group said that she had a fear. Everyone was sad now. But she worried that, over time, everyone else would start to feel better and she wouldn’t. I thought of something I often tell my therapy clients in New York: progress is not linear.
Navigating a Readjustment Journey Is Not Linear
Here’s where the un-linear-ness of their journeys comes in. As time went on, readjustment looked different for each EPCV member of the support group. For some, the first few weeks of readjustment meant sending out scores of resumes and cover letters each week. Some members were contemplating moves across the country, around the world, or to graduate school. For others, any semblance of routine at all felt good.
One group member was accepted to but deferred grad school. She declared that this year she’d focus instead on creative pursuits. A few months later, she announced that she was going to grad school after all. Giving herself the permission not to go was what she needed to make the right choice for her.
The group marveled at the business adventure that another EPCV was starting from scratch. She laughed: “But I haven’t filled out a single job application!”
And, something beautiful happened in that space: true peer support. Group members talked about feeling behind their cohorts and other evacuees. But there was always a sense of comradery within the group itself.
Social worker Brené Brown says, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in”. Now apply that same logic to comparing ourselves with others. It is easy to compare ourselves with other evacuees when we hear their stories from the Peace Corps rumor mill or on social media. But it is much easier to cheer for their successes in tandem with yours when you gather with them.
Reflecting On My Own Peace Corps Readjustment
I remembered the feeling of returning from Peace Corps and being thrown into a spiral of readjustment comparisons well. My friends who hadn’t spent two years abroad seemed “ahead” of me. But quickly, so did my Peace Corps cohort.
I became fixated on keeping tabs on who was moving to new cities, starting new jobs, and dating new people. I scrambled to get my life together, eager to move forward, and make up for lost time.
Now, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I know now that I was never behind at all. My own sadness and uncertainty wasn’t something that set me apart from other RPCVs. Rather it was something that united me with them. I see it now, a few Peace Corps generations later. It became clear as the EPCVs in the peer support group settle into a rhythm that fits them for now. It was this circuitous path that served me best. And it will serve them best, even when it feels like we’re going backward.
It isn’t linear but then again, progress often isn’t.
AUTHOR: Anna Nathanson (she/her/hers) is a licensed psychotherapist based in New York. Anna has a passion for helping others navigate life transitions, explore their relationships, and develop their racial identity. The lessons she learned from her time as a PCV in Cameroon (2013-2015) continue to guide her and her work.