I serve with some of the best volunteers in the world. Every now and again, I like to interview them to learn more about who they are. Today I’m proud to introduce you to my dear friend and Lunda speaker.
Rob Ronci – Age 25
Where are you from?
I am from Fort Collins, CO.
What Peace Corps program are you a part of?
I am part of the Rural Aquaculture Program (RAP) in Zambia. I live in a small village about half-way between Solwezi and Mwinilunga in Zambia’s Northwestern Province.
Tell me a little about yourself. What’s your background like?
Well, I like long walks on the beach and…[laughs]. I love a strange variety of music from death metal to tear-jerky bluegrass. I’ve played in a few bands and have worked all sorts of jobs from Jimmy John’s delivery driver to bar tender to working in a brick manufacturing plant. Before coming here I stayed with my mom for a few months on a 35-acre ranch in northern Colorado. I’ve never been someone too hooked on routine when it comes to how I live my life.
I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Colorado State University, and my previous job before coming here was as a marketing manager for a small marketing firm. My dad was in business, specifically finance. I got into it because it was a good generic degree that could apply to anything, but then my interest in marketing really developed during my college years. I like the ability to be creative, and the socio-psychological aspects of it. I liked that it didn’t feel like a desk job, but that was until I had my first marketing job and realized that it’s exactly a desk job. Ha. I think I first fell in love with it by watching commercials and picking apart why they were good or bad. Which, incidentally, if you go to school for a marketing degree you almost never play with commercials.
How did you hear about Peace Corps?
I had just gotten back from studying abroad in The Hague, Netherlands, and my university had a little career center presentation where they talked about post-graduate programs. There was one slide in the entire presentation that had to do with international opportunities, and one bullet point was Peace Corps. The presenter probably talked about it for one minute, but I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. What was that?” At the time, I had a job with the marketing firm that I would end up staying with after graduation. This was the job I had earned my degree for, which I was lucky to get so young, but it was the worst job I had ever had. I immediately knew it was not what I really wanted to do. I was kind of in a rough spot. What to do with my life? I spent four years trying to achieve THIS, so now what?
When I had been abroad, I knew I loved that experience and that I wanted to spend more time in an international setting. At the same time, I still felt young and so I wanted to do something that felt life changing. I had been looking at the military; I wanted an experience where you come out different on the other side. But, I knew that I was not in any way a military person. So, when the little blip on Peace Corps popped up during that presentation a part of me was looking for it, I just didn’t know what it would be. After that presentation I went home and looked up the Peace Corps and was immediately interested.
As it happened, the next day there was a study abroad alumni dinner which included all the study abroad students and reps from outside organizations, including me. I attended, and it just so happens that I sat next to the Peace Corps Recruiter for Colorado State. I promptly ignored everything and everyone else in the room for the rest of the night and picked his brain about Peace Corps. I went into his office a couple days later just to talk to him about potentially joining. He said I’d be a good fit, and so within a week I had applied. The whole process took about a year and a half from application to departure.
I definitely had particular countries I wanted to serve in, but I loved the idea of being thrown out into the unknown and not knowing where I’d go. There was definitely a side of me that wanted a placement where I could go hang out in coffee shops on the weekend and be close to other volunteers, but the more courageous side of me wanted the “mud hut experience”, and that side of me is pretty happy right now. It got what it wanted, and then some.
Tell me about your experience abroad.
The first and second time I went abroad was to see family in Italy. I spent a few holidays there and it was an incredible experience. Then when I studied abroad in The Netherlands I spent the first four months in school, and then the second four months traveling around Europe, broke as heck, but enjoying it every day. It felt exciting; new; interesting. But I think a big part of it was how at-ease I felt being the foreign guy and not fitting in. I could blend in pretty well visually, but I wasn’t from there. I really liked the international community, too, where everyone is different and weird things are always happening.
When I came back from The Hague, I was a lot more comfortable in my own skin and wasn’t so concerned with the petty day-to-day stuff of life. I knew the world was bigger, and in the same way smaller and less intimidating, and I think the travel just opened my eyes and gave me perspective on the world. I felt more a part of the world than just small town Colorado and that was a hard thing to give up when I came home. I wanted to keep experiencing that. Peace Corps gives that experience to me infinitely more than simply traveling around Europe ever did, in a different way, but in a way that feels really fulfilling. Africa turns your life upside down; it’s as far from home you can willingly go and you can’t ever really fit in. But the work we’re doing is more eye-opening in the global perspective than anything I can imagine doing at this age. I’m seeing the depth of foreign governments, NGOs, etc. in my tiny little village of 2000 people. I miss traveling, and frankly would rather be traveling sometimes. But this is so much more satisfying to my soul and to what makes me, me.
Is your service what you expected it to be?
No. But, I worked hard to not have expectations before I came here based on the advice from RPCVs before coming here. The few I did have are demolished. I don’t think there’s any way you can really prepare for this. Maybe if you’ve done it already, but even then, each country of service is so different. Maybe you just can’t.
What’s been the hardest part so far?
The toughest part was definitely the beginning. I was trying to figure out exactly what I was doing here, and if it was what I wanted. Was this right? What was I doing here? I think everyone struggles with those questions at some point in their service, and for me it was right at the beginning. You can know this will be one of the most intense things you’ll ever do before you come, but then you get here and it IS hard and intense and you have to re-examine all those questions all over again. It’s like you didn’t ask them the right way the first time.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your service?
I could say things like seeing myself make an impact or watching projects fulfill themselves or doing my job well, but I think it’s more how the projects affect me: realizing that I am benefiting from this with everything I do, and that this is a life changing experience that changes my life every day. It feels really good to know that it was worth it to leave that marketing job and to ignore all the expectations society had for me and do what made me happy instead. I feel like I’m finding the best parts of myself here, and this service brings them out.
How has Peace Corps service personally changed you?
In lots of ways that I’m aware of, and so I’m sure that means there are many more ways that I haven’t noticed yet [laughs]. I’m way more comfortable with much less. I’ve always been pretty laid back, but now I feel like I’m very mellow and accepting of the hard parts of life. I have a new and different perspective on how “helping the world” actually works in practice.
I think the biggest change is a bit more challenging to describe. Before, when I lived in America, I always thought myself to have a fairly good perspective on the world. To use kind of a silly analogy: if you think of the world and life as a play, there are a few kinds of people watching. There are the people who watch the play, the people who act in the play and want to be the action, the people who wonder what’s happening behind the scenes, etc. But for me, I’ve always wanted to know “why are all these people even in this theater? What’s outside? What city is this theater in? Does it have a good fish taco joint?” [laughs] I feel like coming to Africa and getting out of my own “cage” as an American let me finally actually leave the theater and see things with new eyes . Before I just talked about leaving, now I’ve actually left. Turns out the world has pretty good fish tacos.
What do you miss most about America?
THE FOOD! Unfortunately fish tacos are only metaphorically found in Zambia [laughs]. Food and coffee shops. And good beer. All the wonderful things you can constantly put into your belly that we don’t have here.
Any advice for people considering applying to the Peace Corps, or those about to leave for staging?
It’s good to try to prepare and read blogs and get ready, but there are really only two things you need to prepare for your service:
1. Hope, and the attitude that you are about to embark on a big adventure that will change your life.
2. Accepting that you won’t be prepared enough for that adventure. That you can’t be. And to be okay with that.
Do you think the Peace Corps is still a worthwhile pursuit for the USA?
Yes, absolutely. If it was up to me, the USA would have a miniature version, maybe a year long, that all young people would be required to do. I feel that we would be a much wiser and better nation for it.
It’s still early in your service, but do you have any thoughts or plans for after your COS?
Graduate school, and I hear Alaska is a pretty neat place…