Susan, a student and teacher of Yoga brought her daughter Robin to our West Concord Yoga class a few weeks back. It was great to see them both, as Robin has been serving in the Peace Corps for three and a half years.
I’d often get updates from her mom after our weekly classes, How Robin’s adventure in service was unfolding, but wanted to hear more of this extraordinary story. I asked her to share the experience with us and she said “Yes, of course.”
It is Mothers like Susan, and young people like Robin DeSantis that give me hope for our future. I hope you enjoy this conversation. Thank you Robin, you inspire us all. -j
j: Welcome back, some of us wondered if you’d decide to stay forever… What do you miss about the Dominican Republic, your chosen family there, and what kept you there for three and a half years?
Robin: I miss the warm, open, generous nature of Dominican people. It could be their only plate of rice and beans for the day, but they would offer it to you as their guest. I miss the “open-door policy” and sense of community that was the nature of my barrio, where if I went unseen for a whole day, at least one of my neighbors would come over to make sure I was alive and well.
I miss going on nature walks with my muchachos and returning home with bags of mangos and cherries and guavas. I miss the rain on my tin roof and the bachata on my neighbor’s radio. And while I hated it at the time, I sometimes miss being the only gringa in town, considered to be a compendium of knowledge with the answer to all of life’s questions. It was like being famous!
As a Youth Development Volunteer, I organized youth groups with children of all ages and taught arts and crafts, literacy, HIV/AIDS prevention, female empowerment, ballet, and even yoga! The typical Peace Corps Volunteer serves for 27 months, or a little over two years, but I enjoyed the work and the people so much that I extended for an additional year and then some.
Needless to say, my transition home after nearly four years immersed in another culture has not been the smoothest ride.
j: Hardly a comparison to your odyssey, but having my share of third world travels, I remember the generosity well, and the often unwelcome ‘fame’ that comes along with being the only caucasian in the village. This one family in India insisted that I sleep in the only bed in the house… while they all slept on the floor. Can you offer your impression as to the accelerating velocity of the culture you came home to?
R: I came home to a closet full of clothes and a bedroom full of knickknacks and felt overwhelmed by the quantity of “stuff” I owned, considering I had gotten used to living with much less. My first time back in a supermarket was equally overwhelming, what with so many different brands and variations of products lining the shelves. It all seemed excessive.
Then, I had to learn how to use a smart phone, because suddenly I was expected to respond to emails without hesitation and understand references to different apps and expressions of a new age of social media.
This has been one of the bigger culture shocks for me, as we have become increasingly more connected to the cyber world, and sometimes I even fear we are forgetting the ways of simple human interaction.
There was something truly refreshing about having minimal access to the internet for over three years. I believe I appreciated the people around me that much more.
Next, I had to come up with a creative answer to the ever-popular question, “What do you do?” Sure, it’s a safe conversation starter, but I hadn’t had to answer that question in a while and wasn’t prepared to answer it in one short sentence.
Generally speaking, Dominicans are more concerned with the health and happiness of one’s family or the condition of one’s garden, while Americans tend to be more curious as to a person’s profession, perhaps because work consumes much (arguably too much) of our time.
Finally, I had to forgive friends and family back home for not fully understanding my experience abroad and newfound perspective. Especially those who never had the opportunity to visit me in the DR or did not know exactly what questions to ask me – it was not fair for me to get frustrated by their unfamiliarity with the foreign culture that I had come to know as my own.
It was only my duty to share those experiences with them to the best of my ability, as I had shared my American culture with my Dominican neighbors.
j: I’ve read about recent immigrants to our country sobbing at their first supermarket experience. They just cannot comprehend all the food. Oh, and I hear you on the smart phone phenomenon along with expected constant connection, and immediate response. I’m still holding out, and love my dumb phone, though I know that eventually I’ll have to get on board, or drop out completely.
I love what you shared about Dominicans being concerned about health and the wellness of their garden. I have that here at the Stow Community Gardens, where the customary greeting is: ‘How’s it growing?’ How about one piece of advice you’d give to a young person considering Peace Corps service?
R: Go for it.
I would recommend the Peace Corps to anyone with an interest in seeing the world through a new lens and leaving a positive impact, whether big or small, on a disadvantaged community. In some ways, I believe I learned more from my Dominican neighbors than they learned from me, but I am most proud of the relationships I formed and the cultural boundaries I overstepped.
My perspective is forever changed as I recognize the value of my education and appreciate even more the small things (hot showers, flushing toilets, and reliable electricity, to name a few) that many people here often take for granted. I am grateful to my family for having supported me throughout – especially as I kept extending my stay!
j: This is quite a story Robin, while your mom would give me updates on your adventure after Yoga classes over the years, I had no idea of the scope of your experience till we started this conversation. Any idea what’s next for you?
R: I am currently working as an Artful Healing Educator with the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, teaching visual arts to patients in local healthcare facilities.
I hope to continue similar youth and community development work in the future with one of many socially conscious non-profit organizations in Boston. And as soon as I figure out logistics (i.e. funding), I hope to realize my idea for a social art project/documentary studying human happiness and culture here in Boston as compared to that of my community in the Dominican Republic.
j: Robin, Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with us. I’m so inspired by your service, your sacrifices, and your families support of your mission in the Dominican Republic. If there’s anything I can do to help your vision of this documentary that I am sure you will manifest, please let me know.
R: For those interested in contributing to transformative education programs for at-risk youth in the Dominican Republic, check out The DREAM Project Volunteer or donate today!”