Interview with Travis Hellstrom, Author of the “Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook”

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While Monday Night Radio continues to look for alternative publishing platforms, we offered previously-scheduled guests the chance to do a written interview. We would hate to deprive our listeners of their expert advice; after all, we invited them on the show for a reason! Here is the first interview, featuring Travis Hellstrom, Peace Corps Volunteer and author of the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook.

The Internet Patrol’s Anne P. Mitchell, Esq., is the host of Monday Night Radio.

Monday Night Radio: Could you briefly tell us a bit about yourself, with special reference to your Peace Corps work and the book you’ve written as a result, the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook? What compelled you to write the book?


Travis Hellstrom: My name is Travis Hellstrom and I’m currently serving as a third year Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia. I’m originally from Hickory, North Carolina. My first two years in Mongolia as a PCV were spent in the eastern steppe, in a province named Sukhbaatar. As a health volunteer, I worked with the provincial health department and the provincial hospital which serves the 50,000 people who live in our province. I worked on health projects with my Mongolian colleagues ranging from water and sanitation to HIV/AIDS prevention. We spoke Mongolian together every day, when I wasn’t teaching English classes with the doctors, nurses and healthcare staff, and they were two of the best years of my life. Even though I was a health volunteer, I was able to work on community development projects, economic development initiatives, improving summer camps for children, expanding business opportunities for local villagers and much more. Peace Corps really is a job unlike any other and it’s been an honor to serve the Mongolian people, represent our country and share my experiences with my fellow Americans.

The Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook is the culmination of four years of writing which I started when I was still applying to the Peace Corps. The application process is a lengthy one which raises many questions in the minds of applicants: “What is the interview like?”, “What happens if I decline my invitation?” and many others. I kept track of my questions, the good advice I received from others, my own experiences and wrote it all down. After my second year was finished, I decided to publish the first edition of the handbook in August 2010. With the help of a great team of current Peace Corps Volunteers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (who have finished their service), I hope to release a new edition every year so the handbook grows and changes with the Peace Corps agency. We’ve already sold hundreds of copies and I hope it helps a lot of people enjoy happy, healthy and meaningful years of service in Peace Corps for many years to come.

MNR: A few weeks ago, we had Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, on the show. Arun Gandhi spoke a lot about his grandfather’s famous urging to “be the change you want to see in the world.” We know that you listened to that show, as that’s when we first met, so our question for you is this: why is the Peace Corps a good option for those who want to be the change they wish to see in the world? How does it compare to other avenues people may take to do humanitarian work (e.g., volunteering for another charitable organization)? Is there anything that sets the Peace Corps apart as an organization to volunteer for?

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TH: Peace Corps gives Volunteers the time, space and resources to do things they never thought was possible. Personally it allowed me to lose sixty pounds and get into the best shape of my life, do work that I loved and was very rewarding and helpful to my Mongolian community. That’s one of the things that’s really special about the Peace Corps: all Volunteers are specifically requested by the host countries that they are serving in. In my case, the health department and hospital I worked in had been applying for a Peace Corps Volunteer for ten years. We serve at the request of our host community and I have always felt very welcomed and appreciated because of that. Not only that, but as Peace Corps Volunteers were are able to serve in collaboration with incredible colleagues and amazing fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.

Personally, I think that’s one of the things that really sets Peace Corps apart. I can’t speak to a lot of other international charitable organizations or what it’s like to volunteer for them, but I can say without hesitation that Peace Corps Volunteers are some of the most incredible people I have ever met in my life. After meeting a few during my sophomore year in college, I knew I wanted to join. After joining and meeting hundreds of more, I know it was the right decision. Peace Corps Volunteers are amazing people who come from diverse backgrounds with a variety of talents and experiences. Some of my favorite Volunteers are in their sixties, some in their twenties, and a ton more are somewhere in between. If you are interested in Peace Corps, I recommend reaching out to a few Volunteers either in person or through one of the many recruiting events that happen throughout the country (you can find them at peacecorps.gov) or through blogs online (you can find thousands at peacecorpsjournals.org). We have about 9,000 PCVs serving around the world this minute and 200,000 RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) who have served over the last fifty years.

MNR: One of the things we’re aiming for in doing this interview is to give prospective Peace Corps Volunteers a good idea of what being a member of this organization is all about. Could you briefly summarize your experience so far, as well as tell us some of the things you enjoy and don’t enjoy about your work for this organization? In other words, what aspects of your experience have you enjoyed and/or found rewarding, and what aspects have been challenging and/or less-than-pleasant to deal with?

 

TH: That freedom I just mentioned, the time, space and resources that you get when serving in the Peace Corps, is a mixed bag. It’s amazing when things are wide open; work seems to take up every minute of the day, and you are able to engage in meaningful and exciting projects. Then, just like that, it can become frustrating when things don’t work perfectly – everything seems to fall apart and it seems like things will never work out. Peace Corps can be a rollercoaster experience, with long periods of isolation and challenges that go far beyond the climate, geography, culture or lack of pizza and hamburgers. Most Volunteers come face-to-face with the deepest parts of themselves and their definitions of success and purpose, and that can be a lot to take in – even over a two year period.

Speaking to my experience, I was a Health Volunteer with the Peace Corps and I served in a provincial health department and hospital for two years. My days were filled with English lessons for doctors, nurses and hospital staff, grant writing and project development around health issues like alcohol and tobacco abuse, HIV/AIDS and STI prevention, and encouraging healthy lifestyle practices in the community. I also worked with our local children’s center to develop and expand summer camp opportunities for children, improve the local scouting program, and create a free sports complex for children. I also worked with our local business organizations to expand business opportunities for elderly women in a nearby village and local families both in our town and in the countryside. Personally I found my freedom as a Volunteer very empowering and applied my idea of “health” very broadly across our community. After all, there are many social and economic determinants of health which impact the way people live, prevent illness and enjoy all that life has to offer.

All those things considered, my story is also not that unique – I know Peace Corps Volunteers in every field (education, health, business, environment, agriculture, youth, technology) who work across the whole spectrum. As a Peace Corps Volunteer your goal is to help the community you serve in the ways they request. We learn the local language of our area for months in preparation of our two year assignment (Peace Corps teaches over 250 languages to Volunteers around the world) and we take the time to understand the people we live with to see how we can help.

MNR: Presumably, one major hurdle to overcome is the learning of a new language. Could you comment on this process, as well as on some of the preparatory measures you and fellow Volunteers had to take before leaving to your chosen country?

TH: Language learning and technical training within your specific field (mine was health) all takes place during a Volunteer’s first three months of service. Actually, at that point Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t technically Volunteers – they are called Peace Corps Trainees. After satisfactorily completing training, trainees are sworn-in as Peace Corps Volunteers to serve two year assignments in a specific job and location. Our oath is actually very similar to a member of the armed forces or the President of the United States.

MNR: What is the application process like for joining the Peace Corps? It seems like a fairly lengthy and intense process – what makes an attractive application, and do you have any other general advice for future applicants?

TH: The application is detailed, but I found it to be an enjoyable experience. It allowed me to explain who I was, what I had done (especially in the areas community service and leadership) and why I wanted to be a Volunteer. There are a lot of things that make attractive applicants. In general, the more experience you can demonstrate from your field (such as teaching, information technology, health) the better Peace Corps can match you where you are needed. Also leadership experience, dedication to community service, and project design and management look great on an application. As a Peace Corps Volunteer you will be asked to live in a challenging environment, maintain perspective when things get difficult, and basically have a huge heart to carry you through experience after experience. Those aren’t easy to demonstrate, but those are some of the things the application and recruiter are trying to find out. The easier you can make that for them, as an applicant answering questions, the better off you both will be.
What things do you wish someone had told you about the application process, and about life in the Peace Corps in general? Do you make a point of telling others these things now?

I was lucky to have a lot of great advice during the application process and beyond, which is what inspired me to write the Unofficial Handbook. There are dozens of pages detailing the application process, questions they ask you in the interview, and so on. Also it includes advice like “pack light because Peace Corps Volunteers will be waiting to give you high fives when you get off the plane.” Those little pieces of advice are things I never would have thought about if it weren’t for older, wiser Volunteers who helped share their experiences with me. I definitely make a point of sharing as much of that advice with others as I can, especially in the book.

MNR: You’ve already introduced us to your book – the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook – at the start of the interview, but is there anything else you would like us to know about the book? Will the book mainly benefit those already in the Peace Corps, or will it also help people who are considering joining the Peace Corps, but haven’t yet? Just by glancing at a few of the endorsement blurbs in your book, it’s clear that this handbook is really helpful, but who will it be most helpful for?

TH: The book is designed specifically for people who are interested in applying to the Peace Corps. It begins with a brief introduction to the organization and things to do before you even apply to be a Volunteer. Things, like you mentioned, that will make you a great applicant. Then it steps through the application, interview, medical clearance, invitation, preparing to leave, training, your first year, second year and returning home to America. The idea was to provide a handbook that is half advice (sharing other people’s thoughts) and half journal (where you can write your own). It’s the book I wish someone would have given me when I started thinking about applying to Peace Corps four years ago.

MNR: In addition to your Peace Corps work, you’re involved with a new project called Life is Volunteer, the website of which can be found here at http://www.lifeisvolunteer.org/. What is this project, and why are you involved? How does this new project compliment the work you’ve been doing for the Peace Corps?

TH: This is a project I started that is for everyone: people who might enjoy the kinds of lessons I’ve learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer during their service. It’s for people like my grandmother, my brother and sister, my best friends and people I have met who ask, “Nice, Peace Corps, so what was that like?”

The plan is to create a book with accessible and practical ideas that everyone can use in their everyday life, no matter where they are. Peace Corps has really taught me that helping others isn’t a profession, it’s a choice. Together I think we can each do incredible things that change ourselves and change the world. I’m very excited to share those ideas with others and create a lifelong dedication to the ideals that Peace Corps embodies. As former Peace Corps Director Lorett Ruppe said, “Peace Corps begins with two years of service and ends with the rest of our lives.” This is a project for that second part of the journey.

MNR: On the site http://www.advancehumanity.com/, which is a social movement that helps people change themselves and the world, there are lots of projects listed that you were apart of – a very impressive amount, we might add. What have been some of your favorite projects to work on, and why did you enjoy them so much? Do Peace Corps Volunteers get to work on these types of projects a lot, or do they spend most of their time doing a set job, and then work on projects during their spare time?

TH: Advance Humanity is an idea that I started working on about ten years ago, when I was in high school. I thought it might become a non-profit, and it still might, but I’ve found over the last few years that it really doesn’t take much money to help people. In most cases it’s free. Most of our projects have just required time and energy from dozens of volunteers, some of whom are serving in the Peace Corps but most of whom are just helping a little here and there when they can. I’ve loved working on these projects because they require that the people involved take a close look at what they do everyday, what they believe our world should look like, and then take steps toward that vision starting today. That might involve making cards for the elderly, improving summer camp programs for disadvantaged children, writing a book or building a sports complex. I think the important thing is to change yourself first: what you do everyday, how you think, and then start becoming part of the solution and change the world. It’s simple but not easy.

I have really enjoyed working on the Unofficial Handbook for the past four years and getting feedback from hundreds of readers who have found it exciting and helpful. Even the one negative review on Amazon.com, after the reviewer and I started emailing each other, has turned into a great positive experience for us both. The book is designed to help make Peace Corps better from the inside out and it’s really exciting to watch that happen as applicants use it, Volunteers learn from it and add to it, and the proceeds go back into Peace Corps to help projects that are changing the world. It’s a neat thing to be a part of and all it required was writing a few sentences a week.

MNR: To conclude, and possibly to urge Monday Night Radio followers to act, what are the top three reasons people should join the Peace Corps?

TH:
(1) Because some deep part of you is telling you that you should.
(2) Because you want to help others and become a better person yourself.
(3) Because you believe in working for world peace, developing friendships with incredible people and helping in the great common cause of world development.

Travis Hellstrom’s website.

Travis Hellstrom’s book.

No Paywall Here!
The Internet Patrol is and always has been free. We don't hide our articles behind a paywall, or restrict the number of articles you can read in a month if you don't give us money. That said, it does cost us money to run the site, so if something you read here was helpful or useful, won't you consider donating something to help keep the Internet Patrol free?
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