Reflections on the end: 20 lessons learned

My Peace Corps Peru service is rapidly coming to an end. These two years were tough, but I found out I was tougher. It was everything and more. There were many friendships formed, wonderful moments, rock-bottom moments, long laughs, many tears shed, successful projects, failed projects, and everything in between. There were times when the extreme simplicity put me at ease and drove me crazy at the same time, while the overwhelming fishbowl attention made me want to pull my hair out and also relish in my fame in my small community. The everything in between made it all worth it, and I somehow created a beautiful life down here with wonderful people who are making it very hard to say goodbye. I don’t know if I will ever know how much change I did or did not bring to the community, but I do know that these past two years have changed me and I have learned some lessons. Many of them, I had already learned throughout my 24 years of life, but in someway or another they were reaffirmed throughout my time here.

So here are some lessons learned from one of craziest, weirdest, and most unexplainable experiences I have thus far accomplished in my life:

1. Smile: Even on your worst day, you don’t own all the problems in the world. Our most powerful tool as humans is our smiles, because it is the only universal language. This is crucial when you do NOT speak the local language. My smile helped me through many awkward situations, asking for many favors and saying thank you when my words didn’t suffice for the overwhelming generosity constantly shed on me. Smile to show kindness, and you will receive kindness.

                       “Let your smile change the world but don’t let the world change your smile”

2. Instead of asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ begin asking ‘How can I help?’. What benefits others, will benefit you. When you start asking this the little seeds of help you are planting will grow and come back to help you in the end when you undoubtedly will need help.

3. Don’t practice judgment. Do practice empathy. Everyone has his or her own story and issues that we cannot see on the outside. Instead of judging someone’s attitude, behavior, etc. try with all your might to empathize with them, and you may be able to help them.

                         “The greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others”

4. Wake up with a new pair of eyes. When you catch yourself taking things for granted, take a step back, blink and see everything for the first time all over again to appreciate it from a new perspective. This helped me numerous times during service when I would get extremely frustrated with numerous things. It’s a step beyond the ‘take a breath’ method.

                      “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscape, but in having new eyes.”- Marcel Proust

5. Surround yourself with people you want to emulate. And hopefully some of their best qualities may rub off on you. Broaden your arms to a wide ray of people of different ages, races, languages, social classes and backgrounds. Through these relationships you will see more, grow more and have more fun. I was lucky to encounter numerous different people both in my community and the peace corps community who are some of the best people I have ever met and have already taught me so much, and embody a characteristic that I would like to imitate.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a say a commonplace thing….but burn, burn burn like fabulous yellow candles exploding like spiders across the sky.” – Jack Keruouc, On the Road

6. Immerse yourself. Don’t be afraid to jump in there, make mistakes, and ask a ton of questions – this is how you get to know a place fast and become a part of it as well. My Peace Corps experience changed the way I travel to go beyond the touristy sites and the top layer to understand how the locals live and their culture and why they did so and so. I now enjoy speaking the local language, having conversation with strangers on buses, wandering through both the good and bad neighborhoods and taking a breath. I still love tourist sites, but the immersion adds so much more. Immerse yourself in life.

7.  Do not wait for the moment, take the moment and make it perfect.There comes a point where you can’t wait for other people, and you need to make things happen. Don’t wait, just do it. And most likely great things will happen. If not, at least you got the ball rolling. This goes for all areas of life. 

In any given moment you have two options, step forward into growth or step backward into safety

8. Be an example for others. Your example is a secondary way of teaching. You can talk the talk all you want, but it is how you walk what you talk that people will note. This was a constant challenge for me during my service, as I had to remember every little thing I did was being watched meticulously and I had to try to be my best self, which on some days (or many) is not that great. There were definitely moments I was not a great example, and moments I like to think that I was. Always room for self-improvement.

“El mundo cambia con tu ejemplo, no con tu opinion”- Paolo Coelho

“The world changes with your example, not with your opinion”

9. In the end we all become stories, make them good. Going off being an example for others, make special moments and relationships with people that will become a story for the both of you.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

10. Listen to your mother. She knows best. Both genetic and host mothers have been confidants these past two years. My mother back home has been a life-line helping me through any struggle or running any annoying errand I asked her her to do. She is my everything and always will be. My host mother is my mentor and genie about everything and anything in my community. Whenever I had a doubt or question about anything whether it be from being a godmother to a child, starting a new project or what pilgrimage group to go with – her opinion meant the most to be because I admire her values very much. Both of my relationships with my mothers have allowed us to learn from one another, listen, talk and grow together.

11. Make Mistakes. Screw up. Fail. You will try not to, but you will. These failures will lead to your successes. You are allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.

Your best teacher is your last mistake

12. Be your own home. No one is in charge of your happiness, except you. You need to be your own fortress of peace when no one can else help you through tough times. There were moments during my service, no matter how integrated I was, when I felt alone. When I received bad news or even good news from home – I felt far away and unable to share it with the people I wanted to be with at the time. I DO rely on people a lot (i.e. host family, real family, best friend in site, best friend out of site, etc.). But in the end, in certain situations you will find yourself alone and need to know how to make yourself comfortable when no one understands where you are coming from

13. If nobody notices your wonderful work, do not be sad, glory in your greatness – Honestly, this was a tough part of my service because I am used to being recognized for a ‘job well done’. But after putting tons of effort into a project and many times going unnoticed as the main leader or even a thank you or a recognition from anyone I would find myself frustrated. This is the first time in my life I am not walking out with an award in my hand for my efforts. But I am walking out more rewarded in this than any other experience, and I am glorying in my greatness.

“When you do something beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle yet most the audience still sleeps.” – John Lennon

14. Be proud of yourself. And your insecurities. Being the foreigner in my town, I had numerous odd comments made towards me about my looks, background, education, etc. – both good and bad – and had to proudly own who I was. Here in Peru, people are not afraid to tell you have gained weight, don’t look your best, etc. and at first it threw me off guard – but now I just own up to it – “Yes Senora, I gained 5 pounds in a week because I ate like an animal the past week.” Be proud. You are great.

15. Do what makes you happy, and if you can share it with others. Fall in love with taking care of your wellbeing, and spreading the wealth. One of my best experiences was sharing my love for yoga with my community, and having a couple other people fall in love with it as well.

16. Always be reading something. In the Peace Corps, I had a lot of free time to read and reaffirmed the importance of constantly reading for both pleasure and work. Rather it is always having a book on hand, reading news or publications– reading is a great way to actively rest while learning something and escaping from your real world into the pages for a moment each day.

17. Chase your dreams, not someone else’s dreams. This specifically applies to my next steps after the Peace Corps. I can already predict the repetitive question coming from everyone ‘So what are you going to do now’?’ The answer is ‘I do not know’, and I am very confident in that answer. I know what I would ideally like to work in and where (cough cough: international development in Denver, hire me!) . I have many personal goals and dreams I still want to reach in the coming years, and I hope to keep this clear in my mind whenever social pressure starts to boggle my decision-making process . But for now, I am going to go on one of my dream trips to Patagonia, Chile and Argentina for a month or so.

                      ‘Can you remember who you were before the world told you who to be?’

“I cannot fathom how tall your trees could grow if you stopped chopping the tops in fear of someone else cutting you down” – Tyler Knott Gregson

18. Make time to watch the sunset (or sunrise) and start every day. My favorite color is orange because my favorite moment of the day is the firey sunset. Taking this time coincides to taking a break when you need it. Allow yourself the freedom to rest, think and dream about yourself in whatever form that may be for you. And don’t forget to look up at night to count the stars.

19. Never settle. My biggest fear in life is settling for something lesser than what I can obtain. This has been confirmed during my time here on far and wide scale. Define your needs and wants, and don’t accept anything that falls short to fulfilling them – rather it be within your career, hobbies, friends or significant other – never settle for less.

20. All wildness is finer than tameness. Be weird. Be you. This stems from the infamous Big Jimmy Hackbarth’s quote he would tell me everytime he dropped me off at school:

 “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be bad.”

That being said, I will be coming back from this two year experience not quite the same self that I left with.  It was a struggle but without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength and everything I learned from so many people. It is easy to say I have learned these things, but I need to challenge myself to put them into practice. So I will be testing myself, self-correcting, failing and hopefully succeeding – as is life.

See you all soon, but not to soon!



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Peace Corps Volunteer Peru

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the end: 20 lessons learned”

  1. Jamie,

    You’re incredible. Truly.

    I’m so very happy for you and the amazing journey you’ve been on. This post and site (which I was directed to by Ashley’s last instagram) is such a lovely affirmation of the woman you are and continue to evolve into. Your mom and dad must be bursting with pride.

    Kudos to you, love, and all my best.
    – Katie (Butler) Burnett


  2. This is so beautifully written, and I am not surprised one bit. By keeping up with your amazing, tough and rewarding adventure over these past 2 years, I have seen the layers peel away and bring out an even more spectacular human being that I am blessed to have in my life. This experience has helped you grow in so many ways, I am so happy that you had the courage to move forward into the Peace Corp and made the most of your time in Peru.
    Your Peruvian family was blessed to have you and I’m sure you are leaving a big hole for them.
    Your family and friends here are ready to welcome you home safe and sound.
    So proud of you James, always have been and always will be. Enjoy this month of traveling, can’t wait to see you, and I promise not to ask “what’s next” 😘😘😘😘love you


  3. My Jamie – I am so proud of all that you accomplished and I am overwhelmed by your true understanding of your peace corps life. You have truly learned more life lessons in these past 2 years than many in a lifetime. Most importantly, you recognize the relevance and importance of these life lessons. I am so looking forward to watching you blossom as you bring these life lessons and this knowledge into your next venture. My arms and heart are wide open waiting to have you back in our home!!! Travel safe my littliest! Love, hugs and oils… Mama


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