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A Peace Corps volunteer reflects on the rewards and challenges of the experience

By Mark HayAugust 27, 2015

Ger in Mongolia
Ger in Mongolia Mark Hay

We all know in the abstract that joining the Peace Corps is a big personal challenge. Catapulting yourself into a foreign culture for over two years, often with little contact with friends and family back home, you’re setting yourself up for some serious struggles and personal growth. But most of us don’t have a great sense of the true nature of those challenges for people actually doing it, especially when they’re working in what we would consider the back of beyond.

Here, Nicole Pawloski shares her thoughts on the challenges and rewards of serving in the Corps from 2013 to 2015 in the rural Mongolian town of Bat-Ölzii, a cluster of just over 6,000 people deep in the heart of the steppe.

In her own words: 

All I could think when I first heard ‘Mongolia’ was that it was close to Russia and that it was very remote. I didn’t go in with many expectations. But I knew I was in for an adventure. 

My first memory of the place is meeting my host family, who we spent three months with in training. It’s intimidating because there’s no English. You’re sitting there and you’re allowing them to teach you the language. My first few days were just taking it in. 

It’s a blurry line between cultural differences and what’s right and wrong. 

I was in a ger [a nomadic felt tent]. No running water. I used an outhouse, hand washed clothes. Electricity was out a lot. I adapted within the first month. It always remained a challenge, fetching water for my clothes. But that wasn’t the big challenge. 

It took me seven or eight months to establish my role. I had to figure out what [the locals] saw [me] there for through the language barrier. That was a continuous process.  

I had to find where to place my boundaries and say no. There’s a lot of vodka. That’s how you socialize there. I had to ask: How do I get close to my community members? Because I don’t want to drink like this. It’s a blurry line between cultural differences and what’s right and wrong. 

Mongolian girl drawing on a solar panel
A Mongolian girl drawing on a solar panel. Mark Hay

I started getting close to people through going to the countryside together. I would babysit their kids, [cook] dinner together. Those events made me so much closer to my friends than the big parties. [That was my] largest challenge: finding a way to integrate into my community and build trust. I couldn’t be there without friendship for two years. I would go crazy. 

My first year, I had an American site-mate who had been there for a year by himself. Even if we were only getting together once a week, just having that fluent English connection was really important. Then my second year when I was alone, I started reaching out to my Mongolian friends. I would sit and drink tea and even if we didn’t talk, just being around people makes you feel better than being alone. But it definitely did feel isolating. Even if I have a lot of Mongolians next to me in my ger, I’m still not fluent in the language, even now. I’m in this culture and I have all of these different perspectives and views and I can’t even speak them. 

My mom called me once a week and it kept me going. I didn’t have Internet until my second year. I kept a blog. I didn’t care if anyone was reading it, but it felt like I was sharing my experience with somebody. It was a way for me to keep my core values. 

I’m in this culture and I have all of these different perspectives and views and I can’t even speak them. 

One of my best friends left after a year. It’s not always that the person can’t adapt. There are a lot of safety and security issues. It depends on the connections you make. I felt secure in my community. But some people are just unlucky. 

[Back in America,] I just feel so grateful for everything. The moment hot water’s on my head, I’m like, Jesus, this is amazing! I came out of Peace Corps with a much better idea of who I am and what I believe in through challenging my boundaries. 

I was really close to the herding families in the area. One of the things I noticed is the way they adapt to the landscape. It’s just so incredible. Living in the ger, having to fetch my water and build my fires, cooking took so much longer. And I saw my food killed in front of me so many times. It made me think about my choices and how they’re affecting my natural environment. I think that’s the main change I found in how I’m going to try to live my life. —Nicole Pawloski

Yaks in Mongolian countryside
Yak in Mongolian countryside.Mark Hay