Or, in plain English, “What do I want to be?” Through the generations, this simple question has prompted contemplative reflection, chain-smoking, and habitual procrastination. As a Youth Development Facilitator, I have been assigned to work with adolescents on vocational orientation and career education, in addition to promoting healthy lifestyles, leadership skills, and community service.
Although my job does not involve hard, physical labor, (umm... is that really a surprise?) the task at hand remains challenging, primarily due to structural differences within the Peruvian educational system: Kids finish high school at age 16. There are no “guidance counselors.” And higher education opportunities are determined mostly by how well you perform on an entrance exam.
If you hope to advance to the next level, a university education, then you better have your shit together. Prior to matriculation, students apply for admission to a specific major or course of study. “Liberal Arts” and “Undeclared” are not options. Pre-professional education is the norm, which means that by age 16 you should know if you want to be a dentist or a teacher, a lawyer or an accountant.
As I think back on some of my undergraduate electives---Reality and Utopia, Liberation Theology, and Radicalism of the 1960’s---I consider how irrelevant these courses might seem to my Peruvian counterparts. Why would I take a class on political philosophy? Is that going to help me get a job in my chosen discipline? And what the heck is my “chosen discipline” anymore??
Working with students on vocational orientation has, indeed, triggered some restless nights spent thinking about my post- Peace Corps career aspirations. After having the experience of a lifetime, which allows me to develop and implement creative projects, set my own work schedule, and collaborate with respected community leaders, the idea of returning to a regular “job” seems rather unappealing and unfulfilling.
Peace Corps invites you to think big and to act boldly. During my initial weeks at site, I printed business cards, presented myself to elected officials, and engaged in shameless self-promotion. I know how to market my program in a compact 90-second sound bite and I can do it in a foreign language!
Back home I rarely exercised that level of initiative. I was frustrated by a perceived lack of opportunities for professional growth, but maybe my world seemed small because I made it that way, limited by my own fears and insecurities. As Tolstoy articulated, “I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”---“Family Happiness”
Sure, I would apply to jobs that were of interest to me, but the idea of creating my own opportunities seemed too challenging, too risky. Now I live in a perpetual state of slight discomfort: cold showers, intestinal distress, wandering llamas. Bring it on.
Although my future remains uncertain, I take comfort in knowing that my 15- and 16- year old Peruvian students are with me on this wild ride. Each day they arrive with important questions, such as “How much does a psychologist earn?,” “Why are you single?,” and, most importantly, “Do you like Justin Bieber?.” Perhaps we’ll find the answers together, poco a poco.