Hundreds of older Americans join the Peace Corps every year. David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, were among them, leaving their home in Durham, N.C., to serve for more than two years as volunteers in the small East European nation of Moldova. David worked in the local library and Champa taught English at the school.
Started by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps provides technical assistance to communities in developing countries and promotes understanding between Americans and people around the world.
More than 240,000 Americans have served in 142 countries over the years, including about 7,300 volunteers and trainees now posted in 61 countries. The Peace Corps recently evacuated its volunteers worldwide because of the coronavirus outbreak but expects to restore operations after the pandemic ends.
The following article, published to coincide with National Volunteer Month in April, is excerpted from David’s new book.
Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps
When Champa and I left the conventional workplace to pursue a life of adventure and service, and especially after we joined the Peace Corps, people pointed out all of the things that could go wrong.
- What if something happens to one of your children or grandchildren?
- What if you have a medical emergency?
- What if you can’t learn the language?
- What if you’re robbed?
- What if there’s a terrorist attack?
- What if things just don’t work out?
To be sure, we also heard, “That’s awesome!” And, “I’ve dreamed of that!” The cautionary questions were common, though, and they illustrated why so many people who imagine making a big change in their lives never take action. I generally responded that bad things can happen in our traditional lives, too. Since Champa and I were lucky enough to have our health, finances, and family circumstances in order, we were going to listen to our hearts and take a chance.
It didn’t take long after we arrived in Moldova for us to be reminded of how quickly dreams can end. During our training, an older woman in my group dropped out because of health problems and family issues back home.
One of Champa’s older friends, who had taught school for many years in the United States and other countries, also left before the end of the training. Another of her friends made it past the swearing-in process and taught successfully at her site for several months before dropping out to return to the States, where her daughter had just given birth prematurely. My best friend in my training group worked for nearly a year at his post before returning to the States for what he thought would be a quick medical procedure. He ran into complications and never made it back.
Another older man in our group returned home for several weeks to deal with back problems. He eventually returned, although he was later kicked out because he wanted to attend his daughter’s college graduation.
Still another older volunteer had a heart scare and was “medically separated” just weeks before he was scheduled to finish his service.
Some younger volunteers had medical problems, as well. Other volunteer friends returned home because they were homesick, couldn’t adjust to life in Moldova, had family responsibilities back home, or got into trouble. Several had to leave because the Peace Corps thought there were security threats in their villages. Others encountered sexual harassment, or worse.
Worldwide, more than 300 people had died since 1961 while pursuing the Peace Corps mission, many from motor vehicle accidents, but some were murdered.
The Risks Are Real
The risks were real, in other words, as we knew before we left, and as I remembered from my two bouts with pneumonia while serving decades earlier in Nepal. Yet even though Peace Corps volunteers faced special challenges, their fatality rate was the same or lower than for Americans generally when controlled for age, marital status, and educational attainment, according to one research study.
Even in a place like Moldova, where living conditions were easier than in some other Peace Corps countries, serving as a volunteer was tough. It wasn’t a vacation. The experience challenged us every day, forcing us to examine our lives and beliefs. It changed how we thought about the world and ourselves.
Every Day Was A Gift
We never regretted our decision, even when we were sweltering in airless minibusses in the summer. We viewed every day as a gift. Every time one of our friends left, especially the older ones, we reminded ourselves how lucky we were to have this experience. Something could go wrong for us, too, perhaps the next day. But so long as we had the opportunity, we were staying focused on what could go right.
The path we’d charted for ourselves was not for everyone.
Many Americans in their fifties, sixties, and seventies want to be retired in a traditional sense — playing golf, gardening, or enjoying life in some other way. Others seek to remain connected to their workplace or profession. Some end up watching too much television or getting depressed.
In a book published while we were in Moldova, Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age, sociologist Nancy K. Schlossberg described six common routes for people in the second half of life. She called them “continuers,” “adventurers,” easy gliders,” “involved spectators,” “searchers,” and “retreaters.” Champa and I fit most closely into her “adventurer” category, which she described as “an opportunity to pursue an unrealized dream or try something new.” In my case, there was also an element of “continuer,” since I’d remained active in my field of communications, although in a different way.
I was ready for our transition, but it still took me time to adjust. I had trouble letting go of my professional identity, which I continued to highlight on my LinkedIn profile for many months. Only later did I change it to emphasize my role as a volunteer and blogger. Taking extended trips across the United States and Nepal immediately after I retired helped loosen my grip. Serving in the Peace Corps after that then provided me with a new identity and a well-established mission and structure.
Still, the whole time we were in Moldova, I knew we would eventually return home and again face the challenge of defining “who am I?” for ourselves and others. We’d need to reaffirm our identities within our families and community back home.
The Process Never Ended
Schlossberg’s book reminded me how other members of my generation had retirement dreams very different from our own, yet dreams that were equally valid and compelling. All of us entering this phase of our lives were sharing the challenge of finding a new blend of identity, relationships, and purpose to fit our circumstances.
What I came to understand during our three years away from home, especially while we were in the Peace Corps, is that the most important choice is to actually make a choice, to act instead of drift. We all face life transitions sooner or later. We can either resist them or embrace them, even as our destinations diverge.
Champa and I had a wonderful experience in Moldova.
- We felt fulfilled by our work.
- We formed great friendships.
- We learned about a part of the world we’d known nothing about and shared unforgettable moments with our local partners and fellow volunteers.
Our lives became deeper, richer, and more satisfying. We knew we’d made the right choice.
Every volunteer’s experience is different, even within the same country, and several aspects of our service made things easier for us. Most obviously, we served together, unlike most Peace Corps volunteers.
- We always had our best friend nearby to share the day’s events.
- We were also posted to Eastern Europe, specifically to a small city near Moldova’s capital, where we lived in a nice house and had access to many amenities.
- We weren’t allowed to drive, which I missed, but we did have a good internet connection and items like peanut butter and barbecue sauce in our local store.
For us, the “Peace Corps experience” didn’t include living in a hut.
Moreover, Champa and I came to Moldova with lots of experience outside the United States, so we had little trouble adjusting to a new culture. Nor were we distracted by family emergencies back home, at least until near the end when one of our granddaughters got sick. Thank goodness she recovered, but her illness was a reminder that our work could have ended suddenly. We were also fortunate to remain healthy ourselves, unlike some of our volunteer friends.
What ultimately mattered most was that Champa and I truly wanted to serve as Peace Corps volunteers and were willing to put up with sickness, separation from our family, and almost anything else thrown our way. We had a clear idea of what we were signing up for and were determined to succeed.
The Peace Corps is hard, no matter how old you are or where you serve. If you’re not fully committed, you’re probably not going to make it. We joined for many reasons, but mainly because we felt we had received lots of blessings in our lives and wanted to give back. We challenged ourselves for two years, worked hard, and felt like we made a difference. Like other volunteers before us, we also ended up feeling we received more than we gave.
I would be lying if I said we liked everything about the experience.
Overall, though, we were glad we did it. We were proud of the work we did and proud to ring the ceremonial bell on the day we finished. Champa and I didn’t change the world with our service, but we did help people while changing the path of our own lives, for the better.
Are you or someone you know thinking about joining the Peace Corps? You’ll find helpful information on the agency’s application site (www.peacecorps.gov/apply), which includes a section for older Americans. David Jarmul’s new book, Not Exactly Retired, is available online in paperback and as an e-book. The book website is notexactlyretiredbook.com.