Some of the most valuable lessons we learn in our twenties are when we prove ourselves wrong. You might discover that you really do have a talent for a certain subject you were always afraid of, you enjoy an activity you were convinced you hated, or you are not as well-suited for a particular career as you expected. The lesson we cover in today’s post is: Don’t be afraid of making these types of realizations since they’ll help you to narrow your focus and pursue what really matters to you.
We caught up with Katy Davis, a Mathematics major from Reed College. Her scientific approach to life—thinking of things as a big experiment with some sort of central hypothesis or question—helped her to make the most out of time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). After spending two years teaching math and English in Namibia, Katy ultimately discovered that a career in education wasn’t for her. She shares what she learned from her time in the Peace Corps—and how it’s continued to affect her life ever since.
Where and when did you participate in the Peace Corps?
Namibia from 2003–2005.
What do you remember about the Peace Corps application process? How long did it take and were there any unexpected surprises along the way?
It took several months. The most unexpected element was how long the medical screening took—several trips to the doctor, lengthy forms, etc.
What were the details of your assignment? What was a typical day on the job like?
I was an education volunteer, so I had a fairly structured day consisting of teaching math and English classes to grades 9, 10, and 11. After school was an opportunity I took to work on secondary projects such as creating a computer lab for the school and teaching computer classes.
How do you think spending time volunteering with the Peace Corps compares to going abroad as a student or tourist?
Being a PCV is completely different from being a student or tourist. It is a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in a community, as a member of that community. You live in roughly the same conditions as the community members around you—you eat traditional food, stay in typical lodgings, interact with your colleagues as a peer. Most importantly, you do not necessarily have the “safety net” of a study abroad program or group vacation, which forces you to develop meaningful connections and friendships with other community members.
How did you handle logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?
Depending on the country and assignment, the Peace Corps handles your visa and housing details for you. Airfare is also provided by the Peace Corps (you fly with your training group). Transportation in-country is generally up to you, and you will likely take whatever form of transport is used in your area.
What were your favorite aspects of your Peace Corps experience? What were some challenges you faced?
My favorite aspect of the Peace Corps, AND the biggest challenge simultaneously, is that your experience is what you make of it. This means that you will often have no idea where to begin and no idea whether you have succeeded or failed. It will be frustrating, and you will constantly be asking yourself, “Why am I here? What have I accomplished?” Going through this process forces you to structure your own experience. If you are strategic about how you spend your time, and realize that the friendships and connections you make while you’re there are often just as important as formal projects, you will learn more about the world and about yourself than you ever thought possible within a two-year period. But, it will be painful.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for the Peace Corps?
Make sure you know why you are going. I joined the Peace Corps specifically to see if I wanted to be a teacher as a full-time profession, and to see if education alone can save the world. These may sound like naive questions, but having them in the back of my mind meant that I actually found out a lot more (notice that I’m not a teacher today!). Life is a big experiment, and if we aren’t sure what we are testing, or what questions we are asking, we won’t know when we find an answer of any kind. We may find ourselves going in a completely different direction than initially expected (I ended up investing most of my time and energy in setting up a computer lab and fundraising for the lab), but you do need to start off with some initial questions going in. Make some questions personal and some of them about the world at large. Keep track of your answers along the way.
What were some resources that were helpful to you either before or while you were living abroad?
To be honest, I didn’t find any particular websites or blogs useful for this. I would have conversations—reach out to as many RPCVs as possible and talk to them about their experiences. Keep in mind that this varies a lot depending on country and assignment. Take their stories with a grain of salt.
Homework time! Katy talks about the importance of treating your experiences like experiments and asking yourself questions before you embark upon them. Try to frame the next stage of your career this way. For example, you might say, “I know I like to write creatively, but would I enjoy writing in a professional setting?” or “I think I’d like to be a teacher, but I’d like to see what it’s like before committing to a graduate degree. How can I make that happen?” Keep track of these questions and the observations you make as you test them out.
Katy Davis is a Senior Associate at ideas42, a New York-based think tank that uses behavioral economics to address issues such as consumer finance, energy efficiency, and health in the US and in developing countries. She graduated from Reed College in 2002 with a B.A. in Mathematics and from the Yale School of Management in 2012 with an M.B.A.