Interview with volunteer Manuel Colón
Manuel Colón was born in Chicago, Illinois. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received his B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. He served in the Peace Corps as an Environmental Education Volunteer in Paraguay from 2010 to 2012. Manuel currently serves as the New Volunteer Coordinator the LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group. Professionally, Manuel works full-time as an Undergraduate Recruiter at his alma mater in addition to being a part-time graduate student, getting an Ed.M in Human Resources Development. In his free time, he can be found listening to music, dancing to a beat, or playing volleyball. If you’d like to contact him you may do so by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adelante: what is the Peace Corps and what is its mission?
Manuel: Peace Corps has a couple of different missions, in my mind. There is the obvious that comes to mind of sending skilled Americans to other countries and help with their development. That’s what comes to mind first – the images evoked are people helping in schools or building wells – the hands-on, technical aspect. The other side, which I think is just as important is the social-cultural side. The very act of just having Americans interact with different people of the world is revolutionary in that it really opens up both people’s perspectives and preconceptions of one another. In our highly digital and interconnected world, it may seem trivial that such interaction is important. But, the friendships and connections that are made between Peace Corps Volunteers and their community are super important.
Adelante: Why it’s so important to help as a volunteer, and what are the areas that need them the most?
Manuel: There was a poster in my high school that really resonated with me. It stated “Service is the rent we pay for being” and I really believe in that. For me, joining the Peace Corps was about taking the skills and knowledge I had (through formal education or just life experiences) and putting them to use in a way that might benefit others. I truly think that if each person put their talents to use in a selfless manner, just once, the world would be a great place. I’m not sure what areas need Volunteers the most. One thing I did realize upon my service was that, how I defined “need” really was myopic. It’s easy to understand that no access to running water or being shoeless is something “in need.” But, there is organizational need, structural need, other more highly complex need that will really challenge you in service – and beyond.
Adelante: What moved you to be a volunteer for Peace Corps?
Manuel: I always had a propensity for (community) service since I was younger, doing work in my church and with Habitat for Humanity. Additionally, I really loved to travel – studying abroad and personal vacations. And with my background in environmental science, Peace Corps was a good marriage between my wants, skills, and desire to do good in the world. In about my Junior year in college I set my mind on Peace Corps after talking with our campus recruiter and had my eye on the prize since then. I graduated in May and left for service by September.
Adelante: Describe your experience as a volunteer with Peace Corps.
Manuel: I really enjoyed my time in Peace Corps. The motto of “toughest job you’ll ever love” really rings true with me. My Peace Corps service was a time that pushed me, challenged me, and allowed me to grow personally and professionally. As an Environmental Education Volunteer, I got to put my undergraduate studies in action and work on some protected area management projects in my community and youth group development with the entire environmental sector. I had a really great community that was really receptive to working with Peace Corps and provided a very welcoming environment for me to productive in my work.
Adelante: How was the support and orientation you received from Peace Corps to help you do your work as a volunteer?
Manuel: Peace Corps has a really interesting training system in place for the Volunteers to be productive. Before I was assigned to my community, there was about three months of language, cultural, and technical training that I received. It was very active and hands-on that mixed “classroom” like learning but also visiting other Volunteers and working with local people. And even once I was placed in my community there was a variety of quarterly training sessions were open to me around different topics like project design, HIV-AID prevention, biodigesters, etc.
Adelante: Are you able to apply in your life what you learned from this experience?
Manuel: Of course! I think one of the biggest lessons that I learned from my Peace Corps service was the importance of involving stakeholders in decision making process. Far too often in community work, development, outreach, etc. the population that we are trying to help doesn’t have a strong enough voice in their advancement. My service has really taught me to be an advocate for disenfranchised people and empowering them to be their own change agents.
Adelante: Would you volunteer again?
Manuel: I think I might. I actually have applied for a Peace Corps Response (a short-term high-impact Peace Corps program) position in Mozambique last year. In the near future, I think that a strong sense of wanderlust might take over and get me to volunteer again. If not, I would definitely consider it later in life, like around retirement.
Adelante: In what way does your Latino and Gay identity inform your Peace Corps experience?
Manuel: I was cautious about joining the Peace Corps as a Gay man, I’m not going to lie. It’s very difficult for Queer People of Color to navigate the United States in terms of understanding their value and worth to society, so to even think about jumping into a different country and their culture just seems almost bizarre. I was lucky enough to have a supportive group of family, friends, and loved ones during my formative years, who I never questioned my abilities and contributions to society based on my sexual orientation. But, not knowing much about the historical context of how homosexuality is treated in my host country was definitely in the back burner of my mind as I accepted my offer. Coming from a Mexican-Puerto Rican background, I was pretty lucky to have been placed in a South American country. Language was not a big barrier (Paraguay is a bilingual country) with very similar religious and cultural traditions that I could connect with. And that was kind of my strategy for creating a productive and positive Volunteer experience – really tapping into the similarities of the persons that I encountered while acknowledge and celebrating where were different too.
Adelante: How did Peace Corps launch your career?
Manuel: It’s interesting to me that many people view Peace Corps service as a “pause” to their life. As if, somehow their 27 months abroad, away from home will somehow serve to impede their development and growth. I really found my service to be a purposeful stepping stone in my career path with lots of meaning. As an undergraduate, I had taken many classes and training with our student affairs units on diversity, multiculturalism, social justice, etc. that really helped provide a great framework for me to an effective Volunteer. On the academic side as well, lots of my studies had focused on community-driven decision making and project design. So, it was a great experience to get that opportunity in its most raw form as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And then you throw in foreign language(s) and cultural differences, just to keep things interesting.
Adelante: What are the requirements to become a volunteer with Peace Corps?
Manuel: The types of work Peace Corps volunteers do is determined by the needs of our host countries. Applicants must be a U.S. Citizen and at least 18 years old. They must also meet the minimum education and experience qualifications for our work assignments. In addition, we always look for a demonstrated commitment to service. To see the qualifications for Peace Corps countries and positions, visit peacecorps.gov/openings.
Adelante: How our readers can contact Peace Corps?
Manuel: Visit peacecorps.gov to learn more about life as a volunteer, work assignments and Peace Corps countries. See a list of Peace Corps event near you by visiting peacecorps.gov/events or connect with your local Peace Corps Recruiter, but contacting the nearest Recruitment Office.