By Michaela Sanchez • June 12, 2020•Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest
“The toughest job you’ll ever love.” That is the unofficial slogan of the U.S. Peace Corps. Peace Corps volunteers are expected to serve where they are placed, to accept the unknown about their communities before arriving in-country, and to do this all with flexibility, grace, and without a single complaint. Luckily for me, my husband and I were serving together. The support we were able to provide to each other during the application process and throughout service was something that single volunteers did not have, so I often tried my best to offer support to other volunteers throughout my service.
Adjusting to a different culture, language, and foods comes with its own unique challenges. Most Peace Corps volunteers accepted all these changes with a smile and seldom spoke up about something that potentially could have endangered their safety or health for fear of being labeled a “complainer.” As a volunteer, there is a sense of normalcy when one contracts a mosquito-borne illness, becomes sick after trying new foods, and constantly sweats. But some changes take more time to understand and navigate, especially feeling safe in a new community. One of the schools I taught at was located three miles away from where I lived, often requiring me to wait for the bus to return home well into the evening. These incidents left me feeling extremely anxious about getting home. After sharing my fears with other volunteers, who were located in different parts of Nicaragua, I realized that many of them were also often left waiting alone in the dark for a bus that never came to take them home. I became very concerned.
When I spoke to my associate Peace Corps director about my fear, she promptly told me that I should never feel afraid to speak up for my own safety and I was given an extra travel stipend to pay a reliable taxi driver (which, in Nicaragua, was the cost of about $5 a week extra to my monthly allowance) to take me home each week instead of waiting for the bus. After realizing we had access to such recourse, I reached out to other volunteers I knew were facing the same situation, encouraging them to voice their concerns. Slowly, I began to receive calls from other volunteers, not just placed close to me, but from all over Nicaragua, asking for advice. I helped volunteers think through their dilemmas to determine whether their concerns were simply a matter of discomfort or a real issue of safety. Afterwards, I learned that many volunteers changed their schedules to avoid waiting for the bus at night, or the volunteers told their co-teachers about their fears, who then offered to walk with the volunteers through a different part of town so that they could arrive together at the school to teach. A few volunteers received travel stipends (as I did) after deciding their own safety was at risk and could not change their teaching schedules.
There are many ways to demonstrate leadership. The most inspiring leaders I have encountered tend to be those who give others a sense of agency to initiate meaningful change on their own. Through my experience serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, I found that by listening to others and disseminating information, many volunteers were empowered to make changes or use my experience as an example when requesting the same remedy. Stepping into a leadership role during my time as a volunteer was a natural transition from the work I had done previous to joining the Peace Corps, advocating for refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. My experience motivated me in my subsequent post-Peace Corps positions to recognize leadership “gaps” and use my skills and knowledge to help others by encouraging them to advocate for themselves. Cumulatively, these experiences prepared me to approach my time in law school with a different perspective and actively seek opportunities that allow me to step into the ultimate leadership and advocacy challenge: being a lawyer.
Since entering law school, I have committed my time to furthering the legal interests of indigent immigrant communities and aspire to continue pursuing this path. During my first year, I was permitted to observe an upper-division Immigration Policy course. Next year, I plan to participate in the Immigration Clinic at University of San Francisco School of Law, where I have been accepted as a student clinician to assist individuals seeking asylum. My previous public interest experience has left me feeling fortunate to have played a small role in the lives of those who have come to the United States and I look forward to representing and advocating for more individuals who seek protection from persecution and harm.