Peace Corps turned 50 on March 1, 2011. During the past 50 years more than 200,000
Volunteers committed to spend 27 months abroad in a place very far from home
that they accepted, but didn’t choose.
Sound scary? It is. Sound adventurous? It is. Sound wonderful? It was.
To celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary and the personal commitment and courage of five of those Volunteers, each Wednesday in March I will share one of their stories.
What makes a successful 29-year-old Creative Director working at a Madison Avenue public relations firm and living in Manhattan decide to change her life by going into the Peace Corps? Dao Tran, who served in the Republic of Macedonia from 2006-2008 recently answered that and other questions about her service.
After climbing the corporate ladder, Dao decided to take a different path, which led her to the mountains of Macedonia.
1. Why did you join Peace Corps?
Joining the Peace Corps was always in the back of my mind, but immediately after college, it just wasn’t possible. After a few years working in a job where each night I was questioning the purpose of my work and what good I had done for society that day, I went to the Peace Corps website and began the application process. It is a decision I will never regret.
As a training project, Dao and another Volunteer orchestrated a village cleanup and Halloween party with the local school children in Chaska, 2006.
Dao created a very hands-on-dental hygiene activity as one of her secondary projects* with Romani children in Skopje.
Dao having fun on a field trip to the ancient ruins at Heraclea with Romani students from Skopje.
2. Favorite memory of living in Macedonia?
I have many great memories of living in Macedonia. One in particular was during training in the village of Chaska when some members of our training group went on an overnight hike with our language instructor, who was close to my age. It was fall and the leaves where changing. The view was spectacular, and we had fun learning and playing a Macedonian card game with the Macedonian hikers in the hostel where we all spent the night.
Hiking the mountains of Jakubitsa with fellow Peace Corps Trainees and our language instructor
3. Funniest memory?
I laughed a lot during my service. One memory that still gives me a chuckle was on another hiking trip when one of my best Peace Corps friends was under the weather, and the higher we climbed the worse she felt. We were taking a break along some rocks, and one of the Macedonians with us was sharing the history of the area. When I turned to look at my sick friend, she said, “You guys, I don’t feel . . .” and suddenly all I could see was projectile vomit. But instead of showing concern like good friends should we all burst out laughing. And we laughed even harder when the Macedonian just continued with his history lesson as if my poor friend hadn’t just recreated a scene from “The Exorcist.” It was one of those moments when the humor of the situation far outweighed the reality.
4. Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)?
The freedom I felt when I left my old life behind for a brief period to do something I had dreamt of doing but didn’t think was possible because of life’s responsibilities.
5. The worst thing?
How much I missed family and friends and New York City. I lived in the capital city of Skopje, which was Macedonia’s largest and busiest city with about 600,000 people, but was much less diverse.
6. Best thing about Macedonia?
The mountains, the amazing landscape. Every time I went running, the view of the snow-capped mountains in the near distance was a constant reminder that I was living in a beautiful foreign country.
The mountains are visible everywhere in Macedonia.
And, where there are mountains, there are sheep.
7. Biggest surprise you experienced about yourself, Peace Corps or Macedonia?
I joined Peace Corps thinking that I would go to a foreign country to help people in need, to teach them . . . I wasn’t sure what? It turned out that Macedonians and my Peace Corps family taught me what school and New York City couldn’t.
When I worked in the corporate world, I was extremely uptight, pretty obsessive-compulsive, and wanted things done now, not later. My approach probably stemmed from my belief that I constantly needed to prove myself to my clients and coworkers. In Macedonia, I learned to chill and to relax a bit. Most importantly, I gained tremendous confidence in my abilities and skills.
Dao teaching a water conservation session at Boy’s Camp in the summer of 2007.
8. Have those changes been lasting?
Most definitely. Since returning from Peace Corps, I stopped worrying about other people’s perception of me, which has reduced my anxiety level by about 99.9 %.
Macedonia taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. After leaving the Peace Corps I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania and became a nanny for my nephew, who was born while I was serving in Macedonia. This past summer his little brother was born, and I now get to spend my days with both of them.
I never imagined I’d enjoy being a nanny as much as I do, and can’t fathom the idea of going back into an office environment. While my days are just as fast-paced and sometimes more stressful than when I was Creative Director, I find my current job more meaningful and rewarding.
9. What did you miss most about the States?
Being anonymous. There are not many Asians in Macedonia so I got lots of stares and unwanted attention.
10. Any memorable readjustment issues upon your return to States? If so, what stood out?
For months, every time I walked into a store in the States, I was in awe of how much we have and how much we believe we need. Whenever I picked up an item for purchase, I asked myself, “is this what I need or is it what I want?” If the answer is that it is what I need, it goes into the basket, otherwise, it goes back on the shelf.
11. Was there a defining moment when you realized you were making a difference by being in the Peace Corps?
Throughout my service, there were a few low periods when I felt I wasn’t making any difference. But looking back, I realize it was mostly my overly ambitious dreams of making the world a happier place. Now I understand that as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the changes I made were gradual and though too small to notice at times, I did, overall, have a positive impact in the community.
As a community development volunteer, my primary job was with Open the Windows, Отворете ги прозорците, a non-profit organization that worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities through accessible and assistive technology. One of the last projects I helped develop and received funding for was creating individual anthologies called “My Life, My Dreams.” The anthology included an autobiography, creative writings, drawings, family pictures and a family tree – all done on adaptive computers. The aims of the project were to help users of our computer center develop their writing skills and, more importantly, to encourage them to envision their life and future beyond the confinement of their disabilities. My organization had a ceremony to present the users and their parents the completed magazine. After the ceremony a parent of a 7-year-old boy with multiple sclerosis approached me and thanked me for writing the grant to fund the project. She said because of the magazine, she learned what made her son feel happy and sad. In that moment, I felt I had made a difference.
Dao often used her graphic and public relations expertise to create press kits and promotional materials for her Macedonian NGO, "Open the Windows".
12. Did you make friendships that lasted beyond Peace Corps?
Absolutely! I never thought I would meet and connect with so many amazing people, both American and Macedonian.
Enjoying a night out with Macedonian and American friends.
Dao with her host mother at Thanksgiving, 2006. Peace Corps Macedonia hosted Thanksgiving dinner for about 200 American and Macedonian folks each year.
The neighbors in Chaska pealing roasted red peppers to make avjar, a national dish.
Dao and I served together in Peace Corps Macedonia. There were six of us living in the rural village of Chaska during our training. We met each morning for four hours of language class. After class we each headed back to our respective Macedonian homes where we were expected for lunch and where we were, for the most part, treated like guests.
Dao lived the furthest from school and each morning and afternoon walked down a long dusty and sometimes muddy road. (It has since been paved.) Both of Dao’s “host parents” worked and her teenage host sisters were at school, so Dao was usually walking into an empty house. Within a few weeks, we were referring to her as a latch-key kid and jokingly as Cinderella because she insisted on doing her own laundry and helping with the housework and cooking. Dao and her family bonded quickly; she loved living with them, “They were the best host family any volunteer could have asked for.”
Since she has been back, Dao’s love of cooking and all things natural led her to create her website, The Dao of Cooking, which includes wonderful recipes and much more.
Her two adorable and interesting bosses make life much more rewarding.
And, her new location is far from the hectic lifestyle she once knew.
Getting your bearings . . .
Macedonia is north of Greece in Southeastern Europe
*All PCVs, who pass their three-month in-country training, are assigned to a primary job. PC also requires PCVs to create a secondary project within their community during their 24-month assignment. Most PCVs develop more than one “secondary” project, and embrace and enjoy the opportunity the projects present.