Insights From A Peace Corps Volunteer

By Sandra O’Neill

It’s March 16, 2006. I’m in the back of a pick-up truck riding down a slick mixture of mud and clay. The truck’s wheels search for traction in places where the road has split into child-sized crevasses. It’s the rainy season in Madagascar, and water has transformed a savannah into a veritable rainforest in the span of one week. This is the road to the village where I will live for two years and it is in very poor condition. But for me, this is the first day of life in a village that promises work in environmental education. I’ve never seen the village before and my Malagasy language competence is equivalent to that of a 3 year old child. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

When I reach the center of my village, I am overwhelmed. The house I will live in is comprised of a styrofoam-like material that neither block views of my neighbors from me or views of me from my neighbors. Nailed tin sheets serve as a roof for my hut and I learn that my water supply for washing dishes, cooking, and cleaning are in a neighbor’s salt-water well. And yet, I am better positioned in this village than the majority of its population.

Over 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have served in countries like Madagascar since 1961. PCVs spend 27 months working with host country nationals on a wide array of issues relating to health, income generation, and the environment. Peace Corps provides an engaging atmosphere where volunteers are challenged to address serious issues in non-conventional contexts. During their two years abroad, PCVs learn to value American government agencies that take their mission’s seriously; they especially learn to value the environmental benefits the EPA provides in a very personal and direct way (appreciation for limits on vehicle emissions goes through the roof!)

This year, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) at EPA are organizing to celebrate the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary with a special celebration on November 29, 2011. We welcome you to join our celebration! RPCVs will share unique insights on global issues based on their Peace Corps experience and be available to discuss how their on-the-ground experiences have informed their careers at the EPA. For me, coordinating environmental projects in Madagascar helped me to realize that I wanted to work to protect human health and the environment. Five years later, I’m working at the EPA.

About the author: Sandra O’Neill joined the EPA in 2009 and works in the Office of Environmental Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia and and enjoys promoting the combined mission statements of both the Peace Corps and the EPA: world peace, friendship, and protection of human health and the environment.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.