Peace Corps in Morocco: An Interview with NMU Alum Johanna Boyle
Johanna Boyle graduated from NMU in 2008 with degrees in Journalism, History, and French. In 2007, she spent a year abroad in Rennes, France. After graduation, Johanna spent four years working a full-time job before applying for the Peace Corps. She was accepted in 2012.
What were the key influences in your decision to join the Peace Corps? Peace Corps was always something my parents encouraged me to think about. Studying abroad in France got me more comfortable with the idea of living abroad. After working a full time job in Marquette for four years, I decided it was time to try for the Peace Corps before it became too late and I regretted not doing it.
When did you find out that you had been accepted, and when did you actually leave? I was first invited to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in June of 2012 for a new program opening in Tunisia as a primary/secondary English education volunteer. Due to political unrest, however, the new program was canceled, and I was re-invited to serve as a youth development volunteer in Morocco in September of 2012. I arrived in Morocco on January 16, 2013.
How long will you serve as a Corps volunteer? Everyone serves for 27 months, so I will be returning to the U.S. in April of 2015. Your first 2-3 months are reserved for training, so you aren't officially a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) until you get through training. Your actual service time is two years.
What does your position of "youth development volunteer" entail? We are assigned to work in youth centers across the country, where we do everything from teaching English to running club activities to organizing spring and summer camps. Depending on your site, you can work with everyone from preschoolers up to 30-year-olds, as anyone who isn't married is considered to be “youth” here. Some volunteers also work in women's clubs. Depending on your interests, you can focus on language teaching, volunteerism, health, life/communication/decision making skills, or just about anything else.
Can you describe your work with the Peace Corps in more detail?
I arrived to my site, a city in southern Morocco, in April of 2013; since my site mate and I are the first volunteers to arrive to our site, a lot of our work so far has been networking and trying to find out what work is most needed. If you are replacing a volunteer who is leaving, their work is already established and to some extent you can continue a lot of what they have started. If you are volunteering at a new site, however, a lot of groundwork has to be laid first.
The youth center I am assigned to has no attendance, so my work so far has been to start a few classes to build up enrollment. I teach beginning and advanced English, and will soon be starting up a game club and a girls' club. Eventually, I want to see my center with a stable population, and hopefully will have a number of different clubs going on.
In addition to the work at the youth center, I work with a supplementary English program at one of the local high schools, volunteer at a local AIDS prevention association, and will hopefully soon be starting work at a local orphanage teaching communication and decision-making skills.
What is a typical day like for you? Is there a typical day? One of the first things you are told in Peace Corps is to not compare yourself with other volunteers. Each country is different. Each community within the same country is different. Even site mates end up having drastically different services. It all depends on what your circumstances are and how you address them. Since I am a youth development volunteer, most of my work happens in the evening hours after school or on the weekends. I have a regular schedule at my youth center with at least one or two classes each night. During the day, I do my planning and attend various meetings and appointments. I also have to buy food from the local market, visit my host family for couscous on Fridays, exercise, and run errands – kind of normal stuff for the United States.
What do you like most about your Peace Corps assignment? What are some of the challenges? One of the things I like best about Peace Corps so far is working with kids. This was the perfect assignment for me, and although I was really disappointed to not be going to Tunisia, I think the youth development aspect of my work is a much better fit than just straight English teaching. I love spending time with my host family and getting to see a completely different country and culture from what I'm used to. Morocco is a beautiful country.
One of the biggest challenges I've come up against so far here is the culture, particularly where women are concerned. Although not as conservative as some Muslim countries, Morocco is still a place where women are not encouraged to be outside the house. While that is starting to change in some of the bigger cities, most volunteers serve in places where women must be covered from neck to ankles, even in the hottest weather. Sexual harassment is also a part of my daily life, with men yelling things at me on the street whenever I go outside. Some days it's easier to handle than others, but it does make me realize how lucky I am to have been born in the United States.
Another aspect that is both a challenge and something I've enjoyed is learning to speak Darija, which is the version of Arabic spoken in Morocco. Darija, from what I can tell, is mostly unintelligible to other Arabic speakers, and is mostly a mix of Arabic, French, and the indigenous Amazigh languages. I've been here 9 months so far, and my language abilities are still barely conversational, but each time I have a successful interaction with someone, I have a bit more hope that I will eventually be able to communicate better.
What skills, qualities, or characteristics do you find most important to becoming a successful PCV?
You get a list of these during training, but let me rattle off a handful:
Flexibility – you hear this one the most during training. Time and plans are very fluid here in Morocco and things rarely end up the way you planned or expected them to be.
Patience – with yourself, with other Americans, with Moroccans, and with your family back home when they don't understand why you're upset that you weren't able to successfully purchase a simple item at the market.
Openness – nothing challenges your world view like being put in a different culture, and no matter how open-minded you are, it's still going to be difficult.
Willingness to learn – about yourself, about the new culture you live in, about American culture and how it is viewed in other countries; to relearn things you thought you already knew how to do.
Is there anything else you would like to share with students about the Peace Corps?
I would say if you're interested in Peace Corps, definitely start the application process early. I think for most people it takes at least a year, sometimes longer than that. And don't get discouraged during that process.
Don't get attached to the idea that you'll be serving somewhere rural, somewhere without running water or electricity, somewhere with zero access to Internet. When I was applying for Peace Corps and throughout training, we were told to not have any expectations. I took that to mean “Don't be disappointed when you're living in the mountains by yourself and freezing.” Instead, I'm living in a city that's bigger than Marquette. I have a site mate (another American volunteer). I have WIFI internet in my apartment. The kids I work with all have cell phones and Facebook accounts. But none of those things mean that my work here isn't worthwhile.
Do you have a blog students can follow? Yes! jbpeacecorps.wordpress.com
You can also listen to an interview between Johanna and a fellow PCV here.