I’ve always been the kind of person that wants to understand not only the world around me but also who am I and the role I play in that world. I’ve always found people and their experiences throughout their lives to be fascinating and incredibly unique to themselves. No matter how similar things may seem, each person is living a completely unique to them human experience and no two people are identical in thoughts, actions or perceptions of the surrounding environment.
Growing up I was involved in a variety of philanthropic and volunteer work from about the age of 12. This mainly started because the high school my brother and I went to required us to have 100 hours of community service in order to graduate at the end of four years. This meant that when he started high school, even though I was still in 7th grade, the community service became a family affair mainly done when we were at our mom’s house.
Over the course of the next 10 years I did everything from working at the Catholic Charities in downtown Vegas at their soup kitchen, to the occasional hours spent at Matthew’s closet either organizing donated clothing and items or helping the teacher and photography students take seasonal Christmas and Easter photos for families who couldn’t afford professional ones. I went on to help support the students in my class who brought Best Buddies to my high school, an organization that pairs high school students with college-aged adults with a variety of special needs and helps create a system of support and friendship.
In college I joined a sorority and through that sorority I was able to find my way to an organization that I believe helped fundamentally shape me into the person I am today. Camp Kesem is a student-run, non-profit children’s camp for kids aged 6-18 who have been affected by a parents cancer. This past summer there were 117 chapters nationwide that were able to help over 8,500 kids. I ended up volunteering with University of Oregon’s chapter for all 5 years of my undergrad. My 4th year senior year I ended up traveling to Michigan for their National leadership summit as an Operations Coordinator.
One of my sessions was a tabling / networking fair that had representatives from 10-15 well known service organizations from across the country. Not surprising, Peace Corps was at one of those tables. I remember talking with the recruiter about joining and given this was a meeting with a bunch of student leaders, his pitch was largely geared towards how to apply your educational background and major into PC service. I remember this conversation mainly because I remember him telling me that architecture and sociology don’t really have a connection or place within the current PC structure and he couldn’t see how my background would fit into service. I guess the joke is on that dude.
Now you see, I’d had a couple of random and fleeting thoughts about joining the Peace Corps starting in my junior year. My favorite aspect of being in Gamma Phi Beta had been the philanthropic work we were required to do on our own and also the work we did to raise money for and support Girls on the Run, an organization that helps teach girls life skills while also incorporating participation in a 5k. Three of the older members from my freshman year had all gone on to join the Peace Corps straight out of college (my freshman and sophomore years). These were all women I’d looked up to and admired for their passion to philanthropy. My fourth year of college, and final year as an active member, a few months after I returned from the summit, another member announced she’d joined the Peace Corps and was set to depart for her service not long after graduation.
I had had a rough 4th and 5th year of college and was feeling really burnt out on architecture. Where I’d once been super inspired by my projects and eager to flesh out my designs, I had started being stressed and frustrated every time I had to make massive revisions and meet new deadlines. Though I ended up passing my terminal studio project, a hypothetical aquarium in New York City, that was one of the hardest projects I’d ever designed. It was a massive property, with so many spaces and functions to design and account for and the complete opposite of the type of design work I’d always wanted to do. I’d been pushed so far outside of my comfort zone and pairing that with the stress and burnout that had been building for the past 2+ years, some days I still wonder how I was able to pull off a Pass on that project.
Now, you may be wondering what’s up with this seemingly disjointed trip down memory lane, right? Well the point for me is that it was a combination of these volunteer experiences growing up, the small yet reoccurring presence of Peace Corps throughout all of my college years, and the massive level of burn out from architecture I was faced with that helped lead me to where I am now.
I knew around the time my 3rd year ended and 4th year began that I wasn’t going to be able to go straight into architecture post college without winding up resenting it by the time I was 30. This wasn’t what I wanted for myself and my future. So instead, I chose to focus on a different interest I had, volunteering and helping people however I could. I met with the University of Oregon PC recruiter to get tips and advice on my application, used my department’s Professional Outreach and Development office to proofread my resume and motivation statement, reached out to the PC recruiter based in Portland and met with her to get advice on how to prepare for my interview and even reached out to one of the girls from my sorority who had served.
I ended up submitting my application when it first opened back in October of 2016 and had secured myself an interview towards the end of November. A few days before Christmas I received my official invitation to serve and had 72 hours to submit my intent to commit to service. For those unfamiliar with how this process works, the invitation does not guarantee you anything. Once you accept, you still need to be legally and medically cleared. I sent in my fingerprints and got the ball rolling and was legally cleared by March of 2017. This was the same month that I received all of my medical tasks I needed to complete for my final clearance.
This is where my story gets stressful. Each task had a specific deadline (all within 60 days) to complete and submit to the medical office for review. Every time I submitted another task the office would send me another one back because they weren’t satisfied with a variety of things. At this time, I had three months left until graduation, five months until camp and slightly less than six months until (what I hoped would be) my departure to start my service.
Everyone in my terminal studio was talking about the firms they were applying to, or the job offers they were receiving. As one of the directors for camp that year, I had a lot of meetings to get everything ready to go with the departments I was in charge of. People from both groups were talking about their plans for after college or asking me what mine were. Every day I would check my email waiting to get that email that confirmed my plans for the next two years of my life. Every day that I still had no clearance and was asked about my future, I would mention that I was waiting to get my final clearance so I still wasn’t sure what my post college plans were for sure.
Whether it was my roommates, my architecture friends and classmates, my fellow camp counselors and volunteers, my relatives, my friends from high school and those from college who graduated the year before, I was never able to say what my plans actually were with any sort of certainty. Instead it was always framed in a “well, if everything works out, I’ll be living in Morocco and serving in the Peace Corps in their Youth Development sector”. The architecture people thought it was a tad bit odd and didn’t really know how to respond, except for those who knew about my work with Kesem. My friends who knew me well and the people I’d been volunteering with were all super supportive and thought (and told me) that this would be the perfect thing for me.
What was hard about this was that I felt like I was stuck in limbo and straddling this line where I had to simultaneously be prepared to leave America, my life, my family, my friends, my culture and everything I’d ever known in just a few months while also having to be thinking about what I would do if I didn’t receive that final clearance and instead needed to think about where I would live, what I would do for work, would I take a chance and hope I wouldn’t be miserable going straight into architecture? would I live with one of my parents for 6 months? a year? would I go to work a minimum wage job while I waited for the universe to drop a different option in my lap?
Time passed and I finished my last term of college while struggling every step on that project, being stressed about passing, being stressed about the uncertainty of my future and in mid-June I had my final pin-up and presentation and graduated a week later with my Bachelor’s of Architecture. I visited friends and family and was visited in turn by friends all in the off-chance I did in fact get on that plane come September.
By the beginning of August I was still in constant communication with the nurse in charge of reviewing my completed tasks and was still receiving new tasks and follow-up assignments. The first two weeks of August were filled with a visit to Vegas to go see my Dad and my grandparents. If everything worked out how I hoped it would with PC, I knew that this could very well be the last time I would see either of them as they are both up there in years and each has their own health problems. I think this was easily one of the hardest parts of my possible PC future and still comes with a fair share of guilt present day.
I learned firsthand that the way PC clearance works is that you are required to have received your final clearance by 5 business days prior to your scheduled flight to Staging. For me, my flight was due to leave Monday, September 11th which meant I had to have my clearance by Monday, September 4th, which really meant I needed to have received it on Friday, September 1st in order to guarantee my ability to come.
The last two weeks of August I was super busy working two back-to-back weeks of my final summer as a student volunteer with Camp Kesem which takes place in Gresham, OR. I ended up having to leave to go to my doctor in Portland 45 min away 3 times over those two weeks. Camp ended on Thursday, August 31st. I will never forget sitting in my friend Blair’s apartment that Friday morning with my co-director from camp, Grace, and the three new director’s, Keegan, Blair and Riley. We were all together so that we could make our transition call and Grace and I could officially transition out of our positions as directors.
At ~12:00pm PST (3:00pm EST – where the PC offices are located) I opened my email and received my final clearance. With just two hours left on the clock that had been counting down for 6 months, it was finally confirmed that I would be getting on a plane to Philadelphia in 10 days where I would start the next chapter of my life. I started crying as I realized what this email meant and Keegan, who was sitting next to me, just looks at me and asks if everything is ok. I couldn’t make my mouth work and just showed him my phone and the email and he immediately grabbed me and hugged me and told me how happy he was for me. Surrounded by a group of people who had been supporting me from the beginning, and to this day are still some of my favorite people and friends, they celebrated and congratulated me.
I now had 10 days to get all of my ducks in a row and make sure I had everything I needed for this next journey (check out my “Packing 101” post if you want to know what that looked like). All I can say is I’m sure damn glad that I live in the age of two-day Amazon shipping and Target. Probably wouldn’t have made it here clothed and with luggage if it weren’t for them. I spent time with my mom and dog, saw my brother, and made phone calls to friends and family and told them my good news and got ready to close (or put on pause) one chapter of my life so I could be free and ready to jump head first into the next.
A year ago today, I wrote and published my first ever blog post. I wrote it at one in the morning in my mom’s basement not long after I’d finished packing (as the last of my stuff had been delivered maybe 12 hours prior) and maybe 2 1/2 hours from when I needed to leave for the airport to catch my flight for Staging. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I managed to pull that off and I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my mom’s help and all the support I had from the people rooting for me from the beginning.
Now, a full 365 days from the moment I stepped foot on the plane that would eventually lead me to where I am now, I can honestly say that I am not the same person that I was the day I flew out of PDX. I’ve learned a lot about myself, my beliefs, how I deal with people and problems, how I view the world and other people in it, and the things I truly value in life. I’ve grown a lot as a person, a friend and as a support to others.
With the good comes the bad though, and through my experiences this past year I’ve also had plenty of time to look back on things I’ve done in the past, interactions with people and decisions I’ve made that I’m not proud of. But you know what? That’s part of life and growing up. People aren’t perfect and sometimes it’s ok to make mistakes, the important thing is that you learn from those mistakes and try your hardest to never repeat the same one twice if you can avoid it.
Though I’ve had a lot of time to grow and reflect, I’d like to take a quick break on that so that I can pass along some of the things I’ve learned and realized in the past year, to you, whoever you are, a friend, a school mate, a family member, a fellow PCV, or just a random person reading this. I’m not here to tell you how I think you should live your life, or to be critical of anyone who doesn’t live in accordance with or even agree with what I’m about to share.
Instead, I just want to share some things that I’ve learned and come to terms with and have found have made me a happier person through accepting and realizing these things. I hope even if you choose to not take any of them to heart or apply them to your own life, that they at least cause you to pause and think. To take a second and reflect on your own experiences and relationships and role within the world you and I both inhabit.
Disclaimer: All things I’m about to say, please understand that yes the words can be misconstrued or argued against to some degree but my intention behind each thought is with the assumption that whatever it is being applied to is not harming other people or causing danger or negative consequences to others.
If you truly want to do something, put in every effort you can to make it a reality even if it’s met with resistance.
Even though I had spent the past 5 years of my life in college studying architecture, I decided to take a less traditional post-grad route. Though I did have support and a good chunk of people understanding that volunteering and philanthropy is as much a part of who I am as my creative and artistic design side is, there was still a chunk of people who didn’t understand why I was making the decision I was and who I didn’t feel supported by. The people who it truly mattered to me having their support throughout the process, I talked to about it. The people whose opinions I didn’t care about as much, I let it go and just chose to not talk to them about the subject because that was what was best for me at that time.
I was so invested in making Peace Corps my future that I put in every possible effort I could. I met with multiple recruiters and got advice left and right about how to tailor my resume to give me the best shot, how to prepare for an interview specifically with this organization, what I could do to increase my chances of getting an invitation including using non-PC connected people like those in the PODS office who were completely objective about the materials I was submitting. One of the recruiters I’d spoken with had served in Morocco back in the early 2000’s and I got a handful of very applicable scenarios from her and was able to reference our discussion in my interview as a form of preparation and showing I at least had some basic understanding of what I was trying to get myself into.
In case you weren’t following the never-ending medical clearance saga I laid out for you in the first half of this blog post, for me it felt like every time I thought I might be at the end of the tunnel, there’d be another rock slide blocking my entrance out to the other side. I refused to let that stop me and instead put even more effort into it. I kept correspondence with the nurse reviewing my submitted tasks via the message center of the medical portal. When that wasn’t good enough and June / July came around we spoke on the phone a handful of times and I had some very frank conversations with her about what the issues were and what I could do about them.
I was even told at one point that if I damage my bad knee or have too many issues with it while in service it could be grounds for immediate medical separation. Would I love to maybe give hiking some of the literal 30+ mountain peaks I can see from my rooftop a chance? Absolutely. Is one stunning view worth the risk of me getting injured and bringing my service to a premature death unnecessarily? Absolutely not.
Was it a completely smooth road to get to where I am now? No. Would I go back and do it all over again exactly as it happened the first time around knowing what I know now? Yes. I think I am exactly where I am supposed to be and happier than I’ve been in the past decade. Every single day of stress waiting to get an email that took 6 months to receive was worth it, even just for this past year of my life and inshallah these next 15 months are even better.
It’s ok to be afraid of the unknown.
One year ago today, when I stood outside my gate standing next to my mom waiting for my plane to board I was completely ready to start this next adventure. About 10 minutes after we boarded and we were sitting on the tarmac waiting for the green light to take off, I started freaking the fuck out. I think it was about the closest to a panic attack I’ve ever come in my life and honestly, there was a moment or two when I wished I could’ve gotten off the plane and gone with my Plan B instead. Clearly that wasn’t an option at that point.
All of the sudden, sitting on this flight at 7 in the morning, the reality of what I was doing hit me. I was on my way to Philadelphia where I wouldn’t know anyone. I’d never met a single person coming to Morocco with me either in person or online. I’d never felt so terrified and so alone with no one to hold my hand.
My best friend, Maddy, being the phenomenal (and somewhat psychic) human she is, had written me an email titled “Break in Case of Emergency” for when I needed a pep talk handy and she wasn’t available. It was an email full of love and support and basically her hyping me up and reassuring me I could do anything I set my mind to and listed a bunch of reasons she felt that way using examples from things she’d seen me accomplish in my undergrad as proof.
While I sat on the tarmac and questioned all the decisions I’d made that led me to that moment, I pulled out my phone and read through her email. It helped give me the courage to calm myself down and remember that I was fully capable of anything I set my mind to and to not freak out, it would all be ok. By the time I got to my connecting flight in Salt Lake I was back to my normal self and ready to start the show.
Kids aren’t the only people who get scared. Sometimes I actually find that fear can be a sign of strength rather than one of weakness. To be human means to be imperfect. If everyone was confident and felt invincible 100% of the time, then the hard times, the struggles, doubts and fears wouldn’t make us feel as proud of the accomplishments we reach. People often talk about how without sadness we can’t measure and understand happiness. I feel that same way about fear and bravery / pride.
Most people might not lump fear and pride together, but has there ever been a moment in your life you weren’t sure you were going to succeed? Maybe you feared failure? Whether it was a school presentation, running a marathon, getting a promotion at work over someone else as a result of your hard work, getting into your dream program, or asking that special someone out that very first time?
The first time I applied for my architecture program I was rejected. That was one of the worst feelings and I remember crying in my car in the Suncoast parking lot. I worked my ass of the next year to build a stronger portfolio and was petrified that I was going to get rejected a second time and have to figure out a different career path. The day I received my acceptance letter, was one of my proudest moments. I’d been afraid but refused to let that stop me from going for what I wanted. 5 years later, I refused to give up when people told me I should be focusing on my architecture instead of my volunteer work. I didn’t give up even when it was down to the final hours of my ticking time bomb on my clearance.
A year ago, I got off a plane in Philadelphia and had to make my way to my hotel and start all my future relationships from scratch. I went to every one of our three meals with new people. I spoke up in group activities and even had a few moments of public speaking in front of way too many strangers. A handful of people I met back then, I’m still friends with a year later in our service – even a couple of whom have actually left service and returned to America.
Two days after that I got on my first international flight out of North America and stepped off of it in Casablanca, Morocco and did not know a single word in any dialect of Arabic. Over the first 10 days in Morocco I learned enough basic Darija (Moroccan Arabic) to be able to say “Hello, my name is Samantha. I am American. I am a volunteer with Peace Corps. I am from the Northwest and Southwest of America. I am 23 years old. My mother’s name is Donna. My father’s name is Tim. I have one brother. His name is Tanner and he is 25 years old. It’s nice to meet you.”
After those 10 days were up, I got on a train with my LCF and the other 5 members of my CBT and set off to go to my new home for the next 11 weeks. When I met my first host family I could barely remember how to say any of that introduction and was immediately thrust into social activities. By the end of the 11 weeks though I could communicate my most basic needs, buy food and groceries, order at a cafe, and hold simple conversations all in Darija.
On December 1st, I arrived at my final site. My Darija not being all that great compared to native speakers, mainly just good enough to muddle my way through, allowed me to get to my village’s taxi stand in Marrakesh where I was able to get a taxi to take me to my new home. Well, because I am white and look like a foreigner and my Darija needed some serious work, when the taxi driver wanted to charge me 400Dh for a solo taxi (which hold 6) and I was able to negotiate it down to 320Dh I was pretty proud of myself.
That is, until I got to my site where my host dad and the man who would become my counterpart were waiting for me told me it should have cost me 240Dh. Also, because I’d been nice and allowed him to pick up other passengers on the side of the road needing a ride to other villages along the mountain road when he asked me if it was ok and I said yes, it apparently forfeited any chance that Baarab and Mehdi had at being able to get any of my money back.
Present day, I can haggle with the best of them and turn down taxis that aren’t willing to use their meter and insist on charging me the standard tourist fair – which can sometimes be 6x as expensive. I know how to use the bus system, how to navigate the bigger cities in my region both in transportation and on foot and I no longer get ripped off everywhere I go.
When I got to my final site I also learned that only a small portion of the total population can communicate in Darija. I live in an Amazigh village in an Amazigh area and in this portion of the mountains people speak Tashl7it. The same way Darija has borrowed some words from French, Tashl7it has some crossover with Darija. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to actually communicate and hold conversations.
Back in December it took me probably 3 weeks to even be able to recognize when people were speaking in Tash instead of Darija because it all sounded the same to me. I’ve spent the past 8 months getting tutored and studying a lot on my own in my endless amounts of free time and even though I still can’t speak very much Tash at all, I can recognize and understand at the least the gist of what people around me are saying. I still have a long ways to go with both languages but I’m so incredibly proud of all the progress I’ve made and continue to make each day with both, especially since 365 days ago I didn’t know a single word in Darija or that Tashl7it was even a language, let alone that I’d be living in a village where it was the primary one spoken.
Fear is an amazing thing. For some it can be crippling and so all-consuming that a person can’t function. For others, they choose to use their fear as motivation to get, do and be better. Before Peace Corps there were a couple of areas where I fell into that first group. Present day though? I’d like to think I’m exclusively in the latter category.
You don’t need to share DNA with someone in order to be family.
The two families I was lucky enough to be placed with both welcomed me with open arms from the very beginning. Neither had ever worked with Peace Corps or hosted someone in their houses before and I’m so very grateful to both of them for opening their hearts and homes to me.
Back in CBT, I lived with a father in his late-60s (Ahmed), a mother in her late 40s (Malika) and a 19-year-old daughter (Rawya). There was also a brother but he worked and lived in the town over and I didn’t see him often. Malika and Ahmed made sure I was fed before my language classes and one of them always walked me to school to make sure I got their safely like any parent of a small child would (which believe me, I basically was at this point).
The first month I lived there I would go on morning walks around town with Malika and it was just the two of us and Milo, their little dog. During the week we would just walk around the park or over to the center and back to grab some msmn for breakfast. If it was a weekend walk we’d occasionally end at up at her mother’s house over down the hillside. My favorite part of this was it reminded me of my own grandparent’s house growing up – someone fussing over you, making sure you had plenty of food and snacks, overall just being incredibly hospitable and friendly.
I spent a good deal of time with my host dad, Ahmed. The two of us had the biggest language barrier, as most of the time I lived there I could talk about as well as maybe a 2 or 3-year-old child. We often ate lunch together just the two of us and at night would sit in the salon and either watch soccer or an American or French movie. He would try and help correct my grammar but honestly I just didn’t have a good enough grasp on the language at that point to really be able to fix anything. I learned about his family, his job as a teacher (he taught French for 35 years), minimum wage and teacher salaries, technology in the modern age and so much more. Anyone who has heard me talk about CBT and the people I’ve met in general know that he is one of the people I am most fond of.
The day that I really knew I was a part of this family? Back in October I’d been sitting in my language class early one morning when I got the news that there had been a mass shooting at a concert in Vegas. Now, the logical part of me knew that my dad would not have been there because a) it was a concert and that’s not really his cup of tea b) it was late at night and he’s usually in bed by 7pm and c) it was on the strip, also not a place he tends to hang out. Thing is though, when something like that happens all rational thought kind of flies out the window. For all I knew one of his buddies could’ve had an extra ticket and maybe my dad had the day off and said, “what the hell, let’s do it”. Also, there’s an 8 hour time difference between Morocco and the PST states. This meant that it took me 5 hours to get a hold of him to confirm he was safe and sound in his bed.
I was upset most of that morning in class and when I went home for lunch it was still only 4 am back in Vegas. Malika had been out back hanging up laundry and she saw me and asked how I was and I just started crying. As if she were really my own mom, she pulled me down (since I’m about a foot taller than her) and hugged me until I was able to muddle through my bad Darija and try and explain what had happened. I went and sat down and she grabbed Rawya and Ahmed and all three of them just kind of sat with me and supported me, this crazy looking, crying American who could barely communicate in their own language. Fortunately, I was able to tell Rawya in English and she was able to explain what was going on to them.
Thankfully an hour or so later I was able to get a hold of my dad and confirm that he was exactly where he should be, asleep in his bed. I don’t actually think he’d known that anything like that had even happened before he’d gone to bed and I’m sure that my call probably freaked him out a little bit but again, rational thought wasn’t really in the building. I’m just so thankful that I had a house full of people who cared enough about me after only one short month to comfort me when this happened and include me in their lives in general.
The day I left my CBT site, I shared breakfast with the two of them and they helped me load my bags into the car. Ahmed ran back inside and came back with a little to-go bottle of amlu, this delicious peanut butter sauce that is one of my favorite foods. When we got to my LCFs house where we waited for the taxi to pick us all up, I said goodbye to these two amazing people who really had become a second pair of parents to me. We were all a little teary-eyed but only because I think we all agreed, we had become our own little weird family, and they were saying goodbye to a girl who just two months prior couldn’t even make it through a full basic introduction in Darija.
I haven’t had a chance to see them in almost a year, but I still check in every couple of months to hear how they are. Malika and Ahmed tell me my Darija has gotten better, probably because I can now actually conjugate and form sentences, and they say how much they miss me whenever we talk. When I first moved to my final site in with a new family in a different part of the country, I called Malika a couple of times because I was a little homesick for them and just talking to her made me feel better.
In December, I arrived at my final site and moved in with my second host family. This one was made up of five members living in the house (the rest living in other houses in the duar, or neighborhood). I had “host parents” though they’re both roughly my age so I think of them more as friends, Baarab (since Mohammed is a common name most people use his last name) who is 30, and his wife Aicha who is 27. I also lived with their son Brahim, who is 6 and started his first day of big kid school yesterday, and Baarab’s parents, Omar (in his 80s) and Rachida (in her 40s).
Now the thing about living with this family, they all speak Tash, which if you’ll remember I couldn’t even differentiate it from Darija when I first moved here. Baarab and Aicha also speak Darija though which made my life a million times easier than it would have been otherwise. I think Omar also knows it but doesn’t like to speak it, so he doesn’t. With my super basic understanding back then, I mainly just kind of sat and listened and took a lot of verbal cues from people to figure things out.
Now, the first full day I lived here, I woke up had breakfast and was ushered out the door with Baarab without being told what we were doing (or maybe I was but I couldn’t understand him), I didn’t yet know how I was supposed to dress and was therefore wearing a skirt and a sweater and brought my purse with me. We left the front door and immediately started walking up the hill they live on the side of. Turns out we were going for a little hike up to the Casbah (the photo from “A Village with a View” was taken at this time).
Later that afternoon I ended up at a sbo3a and realized I was in dire need of pads. Granted, I’d lived here maybe 24 hours at this point, hadn’t left the duar yet, and had no idea where to get those. This ended up being my first conversation with Aicha which she double checked we were on the same page about what was going on with the use of our handy dandy Google translate. She told me where the hanut was after the party and I went; unfortunately no one was there. I came back and told her this and apparently I didn’t have the password because she went and grabbed me what I needed and brought them back to me and refused to let me pay her back.
Over the next month, I would slowly work my way up to being able to help clear the table, eventually I was allowed to help set the table too, and my last night living there I was even allowed to help in the kitchen. To this day I’m convinced every single person thinks I can’t cook actual food, if people laughing when I tell them what I eat every day (eggs, toast and pasta) and my neighbor constantly bringing me food or inviting me to eat with her is any indication. But I digress, Aicha taught me how to make my favorite one of her desserts, a lemon pudding pie with a lemon wafer crust. It’s super sour and I love it, and on that day, as one of our many New Years treats the whole family got to enjoy something that I helped make.
If these gradual steps around the house weren’t enough. I was constantly hanging out with Baarab and doing things with him and his friends, from playing cards in the man cave, to going to his friends’ houses for dinner and Amazigh music jam sessions, to sharing lunch with all of them at the cafe on the days I went to work with him (which was most of that month), there was one moment that really stood out and told me I’d been brought into this family as well.
Now, I’ve never been a big Christmas person, but for some reason on that particular Christmas I’d been feeling a little down. I couldn’t figure out why, given that I’d never been a particular fan of it, but it could be as simple as I was in a foreign country, in a culture that Christmas isn’t a thing, thousands of miles away from the people I normally got to see during this time. However, that night when we got home I was surprised with a chocolate cake, with the words “Happy Thanksgiving Day Sam” and a giant 6 inch birthday candle at the top for me to blow out, that Aicha had made for me.
I really hate crying in front of people so I kept it together the best I could (by how red my face was in the photo that clearly didn’t work too well), but this had to have been one of the sweetest most thoughtful things anyone had done for me. It was better than any birthday cake or Thanksgiving or Christmas pie I’d ever had because this one was made with love by people who put in effort to help recognize and acknowledge something from my culture as a way to let me celebrate it and feel welcome and like I mattered. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as special as that dessert made me feel, but not being able to communicate with many people and in general being quiet more often than not, the fact that they did this for me, something that has nothing to do with their own culture, meant so much to me (and still does).
I moved out of their home and into my apartment on New Years day. Baarab and one of his friends helped me moved the little I had to my new apartment where all I’d had was a couple of cleaning supplies and a bed my new neighbor (the one who likes to feed me) helped me buy the day after Christmas. Before he went back home, Baarab went to a hanut with me and made sure I had two warm blankets to sleep under. He then left and went home to have dinner with his family. A few hours later, I received a knock on my door and it was Baarab and Aicha and they came to bring me food for a couple days (I didn’t have a stove, dishes, a fridge, or anything to eat in my house) and another blanket. It was then that I knew that it didn’t matter if I lived with them and their family or a mile away alone in my apartment, I was officially a part of the family.
People may come into your life for a specific reason, maybe it was only meant to last a second, maybe it was meant to last a year or even a lifetime. View it on the flip side as well, maybe you were only meant to be a second or a year in someone else’s life, and not the full lifetime, even if that’s what you’d hoped for.
Sometimes you just need someone to help ease you into something new, or to help you meet someone or make an introduction. You don’t necessarily need them as a constant support system for all your ups and downs. Sometimes you just need a little mentoring while you’re still getting your footing but don’t need them to hold your hand after you’ve made it a couple feet off the ground.
People come into our lives for all different reasons, the same as you enter others for your own reasons as well. No one is required to be your best friend, your confidant, your mentor, these are all decisions people make. Over time it’s possible that one of you feels like you’ve fulfilled whatever role you played and that the acquaintanceship, friendship or relationship has run its course. Sometimes it’ll be you feeling that way, other times it’ll be them.
The point to remember is that everyone has the right to make that choice for their own even if it’s a choice you wished they didn’t make. Don’t hold a grudge or resent them for choosing to make the decisions that hopefully help lead them to their own happiness, just be glad for the time you did get to spend with them.
It’s ok to change and to grow. It’s also ok that if during that process you change and grow away from people you were once close with, even if it’s a permanent type of away.
The same way that our taste buds change as we age, so do we as people. The things we like and dislike, our fashion preferences, our hobbies, our interests, our goals, dreams and plans for our futures. If all of these things can change, it stands to reason that the people we are close with can change as well. Life isn’t something that stops and waits for people to catch up just because they want it to.
When I chose to fly halfway across the world and live in Morocco for 27 months, all of my friends and family back home didn’t just stop living their own lives. They’ve gotten new jobs, started relationships, and ended relationships. Some have gotten engaged while others are having their first kids. People have graduated college and moved across the country for their dream job. Another year of camp happened and my former campers continue to get older and make connections and relationships with new counselors I’ve never met. Life goes on. People change and grow.
It stands to reason that if you change and continue your life down a certain path, it’s possible (and highly likely) that the people you know are doing the same. Sometimes the person you were in middle school or high school changes in a way that is still compatible with the friends you had back then, sometimes it doesn’t.
I have one friend that I’ve been best friends with since 3rd grade and we still talk a couple times a year and I always make plans to see him when I visit Vegas. Between high school and college I have 2 best friends, and a handful of people I’m super close with and have actively kept in touch with all of them since I’ve been here.
The rest, maybe someday we’ll reconnect, but honestly I don’t have super high hopes for that. I think that for a lot of them we have already fulfilled the roles we were meant to play in one another’s lives and for some of them, that makes me sad. More than anything though, I’m happy for the paths they’ve chosen and the things they’ve been doing in their lives even if I didn’t make the cut to join them on their own journeys.
If someone truly matters to you, you’ll make an effort to be in their life even if it seems like something small, but remember, relationships are plural because it takes more than one person to maintain it, there needs to be effort on their side as well.
I have spoken to less than 25 people I knew from various points in my life pre-PC since I’ve moved to Morocco including both friends and family members (depending on who you are this will either seem like a small number or a large one). Sometimes it’s them reaching out to me, other times it’s me reaching out to them. The main point for me though, is that for all of these people it has never been exclusively one-sided.
Long distance relationships of any kind aren’t easy, especially when they cross multiple time zones. In 2017-2018 though, the technology exists and that it is both easily accessible and user friendly really negates any excuse to not connect with people even if it’s just to check in every few months for a couple of minutes.
Honestly, I think people just tend to avoid confrontation when possible and I think for a chunk of people who the time on our friendship clock had run out on, me moving across the world was a perfect way to end that relationship. I personally don’t have any hard feelings because I get it, I do. They’ve made their own decisions and chosen their own paths, and I wasn’t a part of it and that’s a decision I’ve chosen to respect.
Other people’s happiness and mental health should never come at the expense of your own, regardless of who they are.
Whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker, neighbor, or even a stranger, if it doesn’t have any positive results for you maybe take a step back and sit it out. Just because someone wants to you go somewhere or do something doesn’t mean your obligated to do so if it’s detrimental to your own well-being. This also includes favors, loaning money, traveling with them, visiting them, and even sometimes being a support system to them in general.
I have found myself in a handful of relationships throughout my life that looking back I realize just how toxic those relationships were for me to be involved in. If you find that spending time with someone else always seems to make them happier and feel better, but you always leave feeling down, depressed or worse off than if the interaction hadn’t occurred, you may be at the point that you should consider my last two bolded thoughts.
Never feel guilty over not doing something for other people when doing that thing causes a negative impact to your own well-being. You are not selfish for taking care of your own mental and emotional needs before others. That whole disclaimer I made at the top, just so we’re clear, if someone is emotionally manipulating you by saying that they will do something bad to someone else or themselves if you aren’t in their life, that is not on you. That is on them.
I know this is a really hard thing to accept and it can often times feel like if you do walk away and something happens it could’ve been prevented if you’d stayed in whatever role they’d put you in. It wouldn’t. Instead of them or someone else being the victim, it is now you who has taken that spot. I know this is so hard to do and it is something I’ve been working through a good half of my life. I still have more progress to make on this, but I promise, with time, comes understanding and acceptance that we’re all just human and one life isn’t worth the cost of another.
Mental health is just as important as physical health.
I think this is something that was hard to understand when I lived in America. I grew up being told you have vacation days and sick days and sick days really only counted if you were visibly or audibly ill. People never really talked about mental health much in my life. This is something that I’ve come to accept more and more the longer I’ve been here.
Peace Corps is really tough. It is physically, emotionally and mentally taxing. There have been times that I’ve felt guilty that I needed to take a day off because I wasn’t actually sick but needed a day to just be alone and spend time in my own company. This might sound weird, especially to those of you who have heard about just how much free time and general alone time I have, especially in the summer. The thing you might not think about though is that your brain never actually shuts off.
Every time I hear voices in the garden below my back windows, or hear kids and adults in the alley outside my front door, it isn’t English they’re speaking. Every time I answer my door, go to my neighbor’s or friends’ houses to share a meal or celebrate something, I not only have to be actively using my mental dictionary and translator to understand what I’m hearing and how to repsond, but I also have to look through a different lense than the American one I was raised in.
The culture is different here. Family members interact differently than what I’ve experienced back home, people talk about different things, houses and rooms function in ways that align with this culture, people like to tell me I’m quiet or shy even though I’m just normally listening and trying to follow the conversation. I’m also usually paying attention to the grammar structure and pronunciation. When people in my village speak directly to me they speak in Darija (those that know how to), the second anyone talks to anyone but me, it’s automatically Tash. This means that I am constantly trying to follow two languages at the drop of a hat. All of these things add up and take a toll after a while.
The first 5 months I lived in Morocco I slept more than I had in years, and just felt tired all of the time. Even when you aren’t actively engaging with people or your surroundings, your brain is still processing the background noise. Occasionally it reaches full capacity and you just need a break to drain and recharge. If you don’t take those moments, whether it’s spending a day (or two, or a week.. or month..) alone in your house when you need it, or physically going somewhere (outside in nature, or to visit a friend for a few days) you will eventually reach a breaking point and be of no use to anyone.
Mental health is just as important as physical health because if you don’t take care of yourself in all the ways that you can, you won’t be able to perform at your best and do your job or interact with others the way you want to be able to.
Just because someone lives differently than you do, or has more or less money than you, doesn’t mean either of you is any better or worse than the other.
I think a common misconception about the human experience is that you’ll be happy if you have enough money or material possessions. One of the things I am most happy about with my service is that I not only left America’s capitalism on the other side of the ocean, but I was placed in a ~1,000 person Amazigh village. Some might say that life is pretty simple up here.
People seem content with their day to day life and spending time in their home with their kids and family, or going to see friends at the cafe while watching the latest soccer match. People look after one another’s kids and help each other out financially when someone needs it. Days typically run from somewhere between 8-10am until around 6pm with a two hour break for lunch from 12-2pm.
A lot of people up here have at least one role relating to agriculture, usually either planting, collecting, separating or selling crops. Other than that the jobs are pretty simple and tend to be related to education or the dormitories, working or owning a hanut or cafe, or some sort of construction or transportation work.
Though it’s mainly the men who work, there are exceptions. I know women who teach at both schools, a couple who help out at two of the cafes, and some work with the different associations across the valley. Though there are some pretty specific gender roles in my community, for the most part people seem pretty happy.
The houses are simple concrete brick, square and rectangular networks of rooms. Houses and apartments are often connected to one another, whether in a row like mine, or staggered up and down the mountainsides. Some people have personal cars, others have donkeys, and some walk many kilometers every day to get to where they need to be. Taxis or personal cars often stop to pick up people sitting and walking all along the mountain road, when they have room that is.
The houses, buildings and vehicles for that matter aren’t very flashy. The hanuts and cafes don’t have anywhere near as large of a range as you’d find in a bigger grocery store. We have very few imported foods and goods up here and our souk (weekly market) is pretty much the same selections week after week with only a few exceptions.
Parents send their children to the elementary and middle school when they’re of age from up to maybe 20 km away from my village (hence the dormitories). Construction only just began on the high school this summer and it will still be at least a year before it’s complete and has enough materials and teachers to make it usable. As of now the nearest high school is 60 km away and a lot of times parents choose to not send their kids, especially their daughters, that far away for fear of the trouble they’ll find themselves in.
Though the people living here might not always have western toilets, but instead squat over a Turk. Though they may not always have the ability (be it timing, finances or gender in some instances) to travel to the city very often, but instead have a friend bring back what they need. Though they may not always finish their education to the same degree that many Americans do, but instead drop out to work, help at home or get married. Though they may not always have their own bedroom or car, but instead share with their family or neighbors.
Though they may not necessarily live the same way that a lot of people reading my blog do, I’ve found a greater sense of community and family than I ever once experienced in all the 12 residences and neighborhoods I lived in over the span of 23 years across three states.
I find that even though some people are disgruntled and frustrated, I think more people are happy and content than aren’t. I have friends who lived, worked and went to school in the city and chose to move back to the village because they wanted to be close to their families and friends. At least for my village, with what I’ve witnessed and experienced, people here seem to be very content with the life they’ve been given and continue to live.
You don’t have to like everyone you meet or work with, and it’s also ok to not be liked by everyone who meets or works with you.
There will always be people you gravitate towards and relate to more so than others. I think the important thing I’ve learned with this one is that yes, you may need to work with some of these people directly, but no one is making you have a relationship outside of those interactions. If you don’t like someone, don’t interact with them more than necessary. If you don’t agree with how someone does their job or chooses to live their life, remember, no one is forcing you to do either, in the same way as they’ve chosen to do so.
Also, remember that they are still a human, a person with feelings and their own experiences in life. You can’t have any idea what has led them to being the person in front of you and it’s not your place to judge and persecute them and their decisions. If you don’t like them, great keep your thoughts to yourself and let them live their life and do their job their way. It’ll either be accepted by the people around them and their bosses or it won’t. It’s not your job to inject yourself into their life or to intervene in any way. Let them do their thing and instead, surround yourself with people you actually enjoy.
Don’t let the boxes people (and the world) try to put you in dictate the path your life takes or define you.
In America, I was often told I was tall, intimidating, talkative, smart, stupid, nerdy, a leader, loyal, sarcastic, organized, creative, too chubby, fun, not fun enough, and a whole bunch of other things both positive and negative. Here in Morocco, I’m often told I’m tall, white, French, timid, quiet, small, funny, studious, not Muslim, a good drawer, helpful, a teacher, that it would be better if I was married, and a hard worker. Though there is some overlap between the descriptors I was given in America vs Morocco, there were also a lot of opposites. Even within the American list alone.
People will always try to put labels on you because for some reason they think it will make you easier to understand and for them to understand who you are and what you do. The thing is though, no two people in the world have the exact same perception of you. Every single person you meet views you through their own eyes and experiences. It’s just not possible for you to be the exact same person to any two people. Not your parents, your siblings, your closest friends, your significant others, your coworkers, people you teach, your bosses. No one.
Once I realized this, I realized that if no two people were ever going to see me the same, I might as well stop trying to be who they thought or wished I was. Who I am and who I want to be is so much more important than who anyone else thinks I should be. Maybe with some people I am more timid or quiet and with others I’m a lot more outgoing and talkative. Maybe some people think I’m fat and others think I should gain a few pounds. Everyone will never agree on what they think I should do, how I should act, how I should look, how I should talk or who would be the best person for me to date and what age I should be married by.
I wish I would’ve realized this so much sooner in life because I think I would’ve been a lot happier growing up. When I was getting bullied for my weight, or told to lighten up when I didn’t think things being said were funny, or told that I was throwing away all the years I’d put into my degree and education by choosing to volunteer instead. It took me doing a little soul searching to realize that in the end, the only person whose opinion of me that matters is my own.
No two people live the same life or have identical experiences. No two people will ever view one person in the exact same way. What does that mean to me? That each person should be whoever it is they want to be and live their life in the way that’s best for them. There will always be someone judging you for who you are and what you do and if that’s the case, why not just do you?
It’s ok to say no.
It’s true, saying yes can open the door to so many adventures. At the same time though, it’s also ok to bow out from time to time. I think a lot of people, PCVs and not, find themselves wanting to do everything they can to get their new neighbors, friends, coworkers, that boy/girl they have a crush on (or are already dating), etc. to like them and so they say yes to everything even when it isn’t what they want to do.
I made the decision when I came to my final site that I would do my best to be an active member of my community and not avoid situations just because they may be uncomfortable for me. I also decided that I would still be myself and I didn’t need to have everything in common with everyone in order to fulfill my prior statement.
When I first moved here, I would get asked to hike what felt like was every other day. I would say thank you for the invite but no. For a few months people would continue to ask me and I continued to thank them and decline. People might have tried to get me to participate in this particular activity towards the beginning but they came to realize it wasn’t something I was interested in or honestly, capable of doing (remember the section about my knee and the whole medical clearance?).
I’m actually really happy that I do have something I have chosen to not do. I am the first PCV ever in my village and sometimes I think we can get a little crazy in how much people pleasing we do and it sets us up as the person who says yes 100% of the time rather than being a normal human who has likes and dislikes, social days and days they want to be a hermit.
Saying no, not only helps you take control over your own time and experiences but it also helps at setting boundaries and making people understand where your boundaries are. It’s also ok to change your mind. Maybe you said yes to something nine times in a row and on the tenth you said no or vice versa. Realize that you’re never in a locked room with no way out and you always have the ability to do, or not do something. If you exercise this right, people will realize that you are capable of making your own decisions and being autonomous.
You can never have too big of a support system.
The last one I want to share with you (I know, I know, I talk too much), is that you can never have too many people lifting you up and rooting for you to succeed in all you choose to do. Talk to people, be social, be willing to be uncomfortable if that’s what it takes to approach someone new and strike up a conversation. Put effort into relationships with people from your past and new people you’re trying to build something with.
From the PCV perspective I have layers of people supporting me in my service.
I have family back home and talk to my mom every week, or every other week if one of us is busy. I talk to my dad and brother once or twice a month depending on if they’re free that weekend or not. My grandma sends me emails keeping me in the loop about her life while also telling me how proud of me she is, and when my dad is at home he usually let’s the two of us talk for a little bit. My dad also sends me weekly emails telling me about work, his golf game, the weather and the bomb food he cooked that week.
My best friend from college, Maddy, sends me weekly emails that are broken down by day and keep me in the loop with what she’s doing in her physics lab, her classes, her boyfriend and her family. We text almost every day and send each other dumb snapchats. We also video chat most weekends that we’re both free. Maybe once every other month we have a three-way video call with one of our other best friends, Karissa, where we all catch each other up on what’s going on in school, work, and life in general. Outside of those we send a bunch of comedy posts and motivational articles to our group chat as we find them.
I talk to my best friend from high school, Leah, once or twice a month and we check-in and see how everything is going with our families, our work, and just kind of shoot the shit. I have Snapchat convos minimum every other day with one of my roommates from my 5th year of college and also with one of the camp advisers I met two weeks before leaving for Philadelphia.
My co-director and three successors who I’ve known for 2-5 years respectively hit me up in our group chat, group snapchat and individually and keep me in the loop of their life, and with camp. Blair even sent me a photo of her with my favorite camper last month and made sure I knew how good she was doing.
In country I have people I met throughout my entire service supporting me. Whether it’s my host sister from CBT Rawya who I met up with a few times while she was living in Marrakesh, or her mom and dad who I check in with every few months. My host dad, Baarab, who just this morning helped make sure the water was back on in my house and came by after his brother (AKA my landlord) got it fixed to walk me downstairs and show me where the water line is for my house so I can fix it myself in the future. My host mom, Aicha, who came and delivered me cookies when I was sick and couldn’t go to their house to celebrate 3id Kbir last month, and always bakes for me for special days (Christmas and my birthday).
My counterpart and friend, Mehdi, who has helped me from the literal beginning by telling me which taxi stand I needed to go to before I’d ever been here (or even met him), because he speaks English and could make sure I understood the information I needed. He’s helped me with my classes at the Dar Chebab and helps translate both for the people who can’t understand my English or Darija explanations and also for me. He explains cultural things both pertaining to Morocco and to my village specifically when I don’t understand and makes sure I know I have him as a resource if I need it, which I definitely have.
The women at the Dar Omama have been nothing but helpful listening to me for 8 months of weekly tutoring trying to learn Tashl7it and for the most part give me a break that I still can’t speak it because the sounds are just so hard for me to combine in those ways.
The PCVs, Nikki, Emma, Tanya, Nate, Sam, Luke, Megan, Victoria and back at the very beginning at Staging and Orientation, Bryce. Each of them has sat with me, talked with me, laughed with me, opened their hearts and homes to me and made me feel welcome from the get go. For letting me become one with their ponjes when I’ve needed to get off the mountain. For cooking for me and letting me be me in all my weirdness. For listening to my frustrations, my successes, my fears, my dreams and most of all for just supporting me without any judgement (at least not to my face).
Though there are other people unnamed on my list, I’d like to think I’ve made my point. You can never have too many people supporting you, mainly because no two people will support you in the same exact way. The bigger your network, the bigger the chance of all the ways you need support being met, even the ways that you never could’ve predicted to begin with.
Probably an hour ago, when you first started reading this, I started with a comment about how I’ve always wanted to understand the world I live in and my role within it. I just showed you a condensed version of the past year of my life, my first completed year of my Peace Corps service, and the things that led me here.
I still might not have everything figured out yet (and that’s A-OK), but I have figured out a few things about myself. I know that volunteering and helping people in whatever ways I’m able to really are a huge part of me. I know that I made the right decision to take a step back from architecture and in doing so, I’ve finally reached a place with it where I plan on putting the effort in to get my license and actually become an architect when I get back to the states – for all of those who have been calling me an architect the past 5 years, sorry to tell you you’ve actually been incorrect this entire time, but someday It’ll be true.
I’ve even had a thought or two about how to combine two of my biggest passions: housing design and helping people. Though I still have a lot to figure out, I’m confident enough in my idea that I’ve even seriously considered applying to grad school to get help figuring out some of the logistics of the designs when I get back, which is something I never in a million years ever wanted to do. I actually chose University of Oregon over Montana State Bozeman because UO offered a 5-year professional degree program that would mean I would never need to go to grad school.
I still have a lot more to learn about the world and myself in it, but I can say that I’m super proud of myself for all I’ve learned this past year and the person I’m growing into. If this is where I’m at after only twelve months, I can’t even begin to imagine who I’ll be when I get off the plane in America fifteen months from now.
I’d say I’m sorry for not writing and updating my blog in the past 6 months, but honestly, I’m not. Sometimes sitting here and writing these and looking back and dwelling on all of these experiences isn’t what’s best for my mental health at the time. Though I’d say I’m really integrated and life here feels normal the majority of the time, it still takes a lot for me to process what I’ve been doing. I’d also much rather live in the moment and enjoy the limited amount of time I have during this experience and sometimes that means going off the blogging grid for months at a time.
For those of you that read through this entire post and have been supporting me from the sidelines, I appreciate you. I’ve always loved stories but never thought I was the best writer, and honestly my inability to condense this post down further might be proof of that. Again though, I don’t know if I’d be me if I did that and the same way no one forced me to write a blog, no one forced you to read it.
Whether this is the first of my posts you’ve ever read, or just the next one you’ve been waiting for, I sincerely hope it made you think about your own life and the role you’ve chosen to play in the world. I also hope you not only found it thought-provoking but also informative and entertaining and that you learned at least one thing that you didn’t know before.
Thanks for reading my story and joining me in my not-so-average journey