A group of youth in my site volunteering to pick up trash during an event I held to get neighbors more proactive in cleaning up our community
Youth at my site volunteer to pick up trash during an event I held to get neighbors to be more proactive in cleaning up our community. Credit: Courtesy / Alexander Barrera

Hello San Antonio – mi ciudad y mi amor! I have been away from my hometown for more than a year and a half, serving our country through the Peace Corps in a small village in the Dominican Republic, close to the Haitian border.

The landscape here is beautiful: lush mountains peak behind the foliage of mango, orange, and coconut trees. I wake up to the smell of coffee and the sounds of cows, roosters, and merengue. When I go for my daily run around the village I feel the warmth of the tropical sun and the coolness of the Caribbean breeze – a potent combination that reminds me every day to appreciate this opportunity.

The Peace Corps was founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. The federal service program was born from the bold idea that through public service, Americans could directly engage with communities all over the world to share cross-cultural experiences and learn from one another through mutually beneficial relationships. The program helps strengthen bonds among participating nations and provides a greater understanding of who we are as Americans to people in distant parts of the world.

Volunteers can choose to serve in one of 67 nations around the world in sectors ranging from community and economic development, health, environment, education, agriculture, and youth in development. The program requires considerable commitment as volunteers are asked to serve in their host nation for 27 months, living and working within a local community.

What separates the Peace Corps from other international development programs is its drive to integrate volunteers into the local communities they serve. This creates mutual exchanges as volunteers teach townspeople about the United States and its various cultures while learning about their host country and its customs.

The people I meet rarely assume I am American until I tell them – Many of them think that all Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes. Being Hispanic, I’ve been pegged as Venezuelan, Peruvian, Japanese, and everything in between. I see this as an opportunity to educate people on the diversity of our nation and on San Antonio’s unique Mexicano-Tejano culture.

Me sitting in front of a waterfall.
Me in front of a waterfall during my time in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Courtesy / Alexander Barrera

Peace Corps volunteers are given a broad range of goals and a great amount of autonomy to pursue them. When they first begin their service, much of their work lies in building bonds with community members – specifically by listening to what they have to say. We can learn so much by listening to one another. Fostering those connections and learning about their communities better prepares volunteers to serve the people within them.

I’ve already completed half my time here in the Dominican Republic – It’s been both a tough and rewarding opportunity. My main project is a recycling and organic compost pilot program to more efficiently manage waste production. I’ve found that when it comes to development, there tend to be countless amazing ideas, but many fail in their implementation. I hope to continue win my community’s trust by listening to them while drinking coffee and dancing to bachata, so we can adapt to the various challenges we encounter together. I can only imagine what experiences I’ll run into in the second half of my service.

That brings me back to San Antonio. In April 2016, the Peace Corps posted a statement commending the top Hispanic-serving institutions who produced Peace Corps volunteers that year. Not one San Antonio school made the list, and that speaks to me on a personal level. How can schools from a city that prides itself on service and duty not make that list? We as a city should not only promote the Peace Corps as a means to serve our country, but also as an opportunity to experience life in a different culture while creating lasting change.

The Peace Corps provides its volunteers with experiences that endure long after their service time ends. It gives them a chance to learn about people and how similar they can be. It allows them to create bridges of goodwill and hope around the world, despite the doom and gloom that is often broadcast on the news.

Of course, the Peace Corps is not for everyone. Volunteers will tell you: “This is the toughest job you will ever love,” speaking to the many challenges they have encountered.

This service is for the kind of person who sees the fire and runs toward it; who when faced with adversity looks to find the solution; who is not afraid of change, but embraces it.

It is for visionaries, innovators, and entrepreneurs who crave more than the average 9-5 job. While that may seem like a tough description to live up to, you would be surprised how easily people adapt and grow once they take the plunge.

The Peace Corps volunteers who have served before me have already created significant goodwill around the world, inspiring people in their communities to become presidents, Supreme Court Justices, or work in nonprofits in their respective nations.

My question for you, therefore, is: Are you ready to take the plunge?

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Alexander Barrera

Alexander Barrera is a San Antonio native serving in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.