Joining the Peace Corps: Imagination gives way to reality

Can you picture yourself as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in another culture?

Erin Luhmann served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan 2008-10. Currently, Luhmann is a journalism graduate student at UW–Madison, focusing on international media development and human rights. She works both as a resource center coordinator at International Academic Programs and a Peace Corps marketing assistant.

In this post, she talks about receiving her Peace Corps placement:

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When my letter of invitation for the Peace Corp arrived in the mail, I called my mom into the kitchen to share in the revealing of my fate for the next 27 months. My eyes flew across the letter, searching for my assignment location. Would I be learning French to communicate in Guinea or observing Buddhist practices in Cambodia? Maybe I would be eating beans and rice three times a day in some Latin American country. My imagination was running at full speed until it hit “Kyrgyzstan.”

Having never heard this word before, I could hardly wrap my tongue around all of its consonants, much less its food, culture, language, and geographic location. Four years later, I still describe this as one of the most humbling moments of my life. I considered myself internationally minded; yet I had failed to recognize a people’s very existence for 22 years.

Luhmann in Kyrgyzstan
Erin Luhmann with a group of elementary students in Kyrgyzstan.

We pulled out a map and found Kyrgyzstan. Oriented, I called my uncle, who lives in Ukraine, to see what he knew about this post-Soviet neighbor. “I travel to Kazakhstan for business sometimes,” he said, “And Kyrgyzstan is right below. The climate is similar to a Midwestern climate, so you’ll fit right in.” He assured me that it was a safe country and locked in plans to visit me during my service.

Turns out, it didn’t really matter that I had grown up experiencing Minnesota winters because winter living in Kyrgyzstan involves wood-fired stoves for heating, breezy outhouses, and lots of canned vegetables, mutton, and potatoes. I had, however, anticipated one of the most crucial aspects of my service: acting as a cultural liaison. Living in a rural community, teaching English, I was a cultural ambassador for my students, colleagues, neighbors, and anyone else I encountered in my daily routine.

“No, I have never met Eminem,” I assured his Kyrgyz fans on more than one occasion. “And ‘n—-r’ is not an appropriate way to describe the newly elected American president,” I had to inform innocent inquirers.

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If you, like Erin Luhmann, feel ready to step outside of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in another culture, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer might be the perfect route for you.

The Peace Corps mission is built on the idea of promoting world peace and friendship through service and cross-cultural communication. To foster meaningful relationships, Peace Corps Volunteers serve for two full years, in addition to three months of in-country pre-service training.

To learn more about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, stop by a general information session in the Red Gym (Masley Media room) on January 30, February 14, March 5, or April 4, 6-7:30 p.m. UW–Madison campus recruiter Kim Johnson and other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will provide an overview and share stories from their own Peace Corps experiences.

Or contact Johnson by email at or visit the Peace Corps office (Room 156, Red Gym), Monday, 9-11 a.m., or Wednesday, 10 a.m.-noon.

For more information, visit Peace Corps@UW or check out the Facebook page!

Upcoming event: Join the Peace Corps Ambassador club for the spring semester kick off meeting on Thursday, February 21, in Memorial Union’s Rathskeller (by the back windows) 5:30-6:30 p.m.