The difference between being a good journalist and a good volunteer

This was published in the Capital Journal.

Journalism is a career that seems to fit my character. I was always a curious child and reveled in being the first to know something and the one to share it with others.

Until I joined the Peace Corps, I made a living trying to understand people and situations and explain them to others. I took pride in being able to crack stone-cold personalities and describe city zoning regulations with everyday language. It was my job to know.

One of the toughest and most repetitive lessons I’ve learned while working in a Third World country is that not only do I not know or understand why things happen, it is often better if I don’t try to seek the answer

Many of my daily frustrations with my students, colleagues and community members come from not knowing. Because of culture differences and the language barrier, I often find out about community deaths or meetings at the last minute. It’s not that people don’t want to tell me these things, as I have to constantly remind myself, but they forget that I don’t overhear the information as they discuss it in the staff room or in a taxi, almost as if I am deaf when the conversation is conducted in Sesotho.

Despite the year and a half I’ve been teaching them, my students and I still don’t completely understand each other. When they don’t respond to my questions and seemed bored with the lesson, I think they are not paying attention. They nod their heads when I ask for comprehensions, but later, at test time, I learn they didn’t grasp the material. I realized that they didn’t ask questions because they are embarrassed and don’t want to bother me. Also, many times I think they are dodging class and leaving school grounds, only to find out that a teacher has sent them to get snacks from a local shop.

I also can’t read Basotho the way I’ve learned to Americans. I can sit in meetings and think the ideas being put forth are not being accepted but, with some translation, discover that the group is actually very eager to begin work.

Not constantly knowing or completely understanding what is going on makes me feel out of control and I don’t like it. Many times my emotions will get the best of me and then I feel guilty for anger once I know the reality of the situation.

To cope, I am learning to let go of being at the center of information. If I come to school and realize there is a meeting I didn’t know about, I try to shrug my shoulders instead of immediately feeling disrespected. When my students are arguing with the teachers about an issue, I don’t seek reasons for the disagreement or a solution rather I look for ways to move forward.

This is not easy for me, but when I can do it I am much happier.

This two-year stint is more than the experience of living abroad. It’s also about diving deep inside of myself and finding ways to be a better human. I am a good journalist when I understand things, but when I accept that I don’t need to, then I am a good volunteer.

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One thought on “The difference between being a good journalist and a good volunteer

  1. Heather – this also applies to life in the states. One of my biggest frustrations is lack of communication. With so much technology geared to keep us connected to friends and family 24/7 we have become a society that really does not connect. We feel disrespected when we are the last to hear of an event. Life moves so quickly there are missed opportunities to include everyone. I am learning to go with the flow. I am trying as well to accept that I don’t need to understand everything in order to be effective. Trying to trust God to understand it for me. Thanks for being so open in your writing. It is a journey.

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