By Conor Sanchez
Five years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. Inspired by a candidate, the 2008 election was a call to service for me. I saw his candidacy as a rallying cry for young Millennials like myself not only to use our newly inherited voting power to elect a transformative leader, but to also embody that spirit by pursuing meaningful and service-oriented careers.
I tried to walk the walk. After graduation, I bought a one-way ticket to Washington to intern on Capitol Hill with former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman. In June 2009, I arrived and joined a cadre of self-important and overly idealistic young professionals. After five weeks I landed a position as an assistant in Sen. Bingaman’s office. I even convinced my then-girlfriend, Michaela, to turn down a job offer in Albuquerque to pursue her interests in public policy and human rights in D.C.
Two years flew by, and Michaela and I were engaged. Then, Sen. Bingaman announced he was retiring, and I jumped on an opportunity to work at Peace Corps Headquarters, serving as an appointee in the Obama administration. This was it, I told myself. My chance to serve the candidate who inspired me to be the change I wished to see. At the same time, Michaela got hired at a nonprofit that promotes human rights worldwide.
We were ecstatic. We were two lucky outsiders from a small town in the Southwest who had cracked the inner sanctum. More importantly, we were witnessing remarkable progress. Although there were shortcomings and barriers to what we once considered possible, Obama’s presidency was having an impact. From the unprecedented advancement of gay rights to the expansion of health care insurance, I felt lucky to be playing a small part by serving in an administration that was delivering on many of the things I had voted for back in 2008.
But there was still something missing. Two years in, my impact was intangible, indirect and ancillary to the agency’s mission. Then, I made a work trip to West Africa, saw Peace Corps volunteers serving in remote villages and working hand in hand with their communities to increase literacy rates, reduce malaria casualties and implement a myriad of other development initiatives.
My spirits were lifted, but the trip also confirmed what I secretly knew. If my job in D.C. was my public service, it was pathetically detached.
I can’t remember who suggested it first, perhaps because it initially sounded so absurd, but Michaela and I eventually found ourselves discussing what it would be like to serve as volunteers in the Peace Corps. To be sure, we considered alternatives that would place us in a community working directly with people, but time and time again, we kept returning to volunteer service with the Peace Corps.
As a married couple, we were guaranteed to be placed together with individual assignments. We wouldn’t have to pay our own money and would even receive a readjustment allowance upon our return to the United States.
We applied. One year later, Michaela and I are preparing to depart as teachers in Nicaragua — not as a pair of romantics hoping to change the world, but rather, as two practical idealists who know that, with a little patience and determination, individuals can and often do make a difference. We just need to figure out how our own unique skills and talents can take us there.
Peace Corps service may not be a panacea to our frustrations, but at least it will bring us face to face with the issues we seek to address.
It will challenge us to be innovative and to discover if there is such a thing as “true impact.” It will inform us, perhaps even temper our idealism, but most importantly, it will teach us what is achievable on an individual scale.
And if it sounds as quixotic as when we moved to D.C., so be it. It’s time to turn in the BlackBerry, hang up the suit and embark on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.
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This post also appeared as a contributing letter in the editorial section of The Santa Fe New Mexican.