When you meet your new classmates at Fuqua, the usual first question you get is, “where did you move here from?” Although most of my classmates had fairly straightforward answers—Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Buenos Aires, Beijing—it was always a bit of a convoluted answer for me: Madagascar, by way of New York City and Vermont.
You see, I’d spent the previous two years serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, and had returned home to the U.S. less than three months before I was due to start at Fuqua. My time in Madagascar was close enough in the rearview mirror that it truly did feel like the home I had left behind for Durham.
Although I’d spent a couple months at my parents’ house in Vermont to readjust and collect all the belongings I’d stored there after leaving my job in New York, having been away for two years put me in a funny limbo between feeling like a domestic student and an international student. After all, I had been living on a tropical island for two years, and I felt very disconnected from American life upon my return.
I had no idea what Snapchat or Venmo were, most Internet memes and hashtags puzzled me, and I still wasn’t able to go into a grocery store without experiencing a mild anxiety attack. Why is there so much food? Why are there so many fluorescent lights? Why is all the meat wrapped in plastic on foam trays? How is there an entire aisle devoted just to ice cream?
Fortunately however, Fuqua’s community of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) provided me with just the resource that I needed to help smooth my transition from a flip flop-clad volunteer in rural Madagascar to an MBA student at Fuqua. I felt incredibly welcomed by the RPCV community at Fuqua, right from the very moment that my Fuqua buddy Julie reached out to me after my Round 3 acceptance.
Julie (and her husband James, a fellow student blogger) had served in Burkina Faso before coming to Fuqua. Talking to her provided exactly the guidance I needed as I was deciding whether to take the leap and attend Fuqua versus a different school. One of my main questions to her was if I would feel like an outcast among a sea of students with backgrounds in finance or consulting. She reassured me that I wouldn’t, and that aside from the 20 RPCVs at Fuqua, there are tons of other Fuquans with unique backgrounds ranging from Teach for America to military service to acting.
Now when people ask me what my favorite thing is about Fuqua, I say that it’s this diversity of student body experience. Indeed, what first attracted me here was its appreciation of students with Peace Corps service, and I first learned about Fuqua through the grad school database on the Peace Corps site.
One of the best things about the RPCV presence at Fuqua is having a group of classmates who know firsthand what you’ve been through. Peace Corps service is unlike any other experience on earth. It gives you a very specific worldview based on living and working with a community for two years—learning their language, persevering through setbacks and hardships, and rejoicing in the fact that thousands of miles away from home, you’ve become part of a community. This tends to give us RPCV MBAs a different perspective on some discussion topics that come up in class, and knowing you’re not the only person looking at an issue from the Peace Corps angle helps immensely.
This shared perspective also helps when tragedy strikes your country of service and it’s hard for other friends to quite comprehend exactly what you’re feeling. One of my most gratifying experiences at Fuqua is having an RPCV social gathering and being there to support my classmate Mary, who was dealing with the heartbreak of seeing Vanuatu, the country where she’d served, get ravaged by Cyclone Pam. She later told us how much it meant to be with a group of people who really understood the situation she was in.
Above all else, though, it has provided me with a great group of people to socialize and reminisce with, even though nearly all of us served in different countries. We have get-togethers about once a quarter, including our traditional Duke Basketball Campout team-up, and often do potlucks where we bring dishes and wear traditional clothing from our countries of service. My recent contribution: traditional doughnuts made using the recipe from my adoptive Malagasy “grandmother,” dusted with Madagascar cinnamon that I’d brought back as a souvenir. At our most recent gathering, dancing to West African pop music and swapping stories with friends brought me back to Madagascar for an evening, and that brief moment of recollection was exactly what I needed when I was missing the island so very much.
There are also ways the Peace Corps experience has benefited me academically and in job recruiting. I explore them in this blog post.