Many people dream of moving to a foreign country and spending their days immersed in a new culture.

For those who join the Peace Corps, that dream is a reality.

Veteran Peace Corps volunteers elaborated on that reality during a panel discussion at the International House on Wednesday night, sharing stories about their experiences abroad.

This event was part of a week-long celebration that culminates today, on the Peace Corps’ 52nd anniversary. The celebration started with a networking and volunteering event with the Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED) Project on Saturday and an invitation-only social event on Monday. 

Amanda McRoy, UT’s Peace Corps recruiter and a graduate student pursuing a master’s in speech pathology, hosted Wednesday’s event. McRoy became a Corps volunteer in 2009, returning from Cameroon last April. She said students who are interested in the Peace Corps should utilize their resources to learn about the organization.

“Do some research,” McRoy said. “Peace Corps isn’t for everyone, but I think if it’s something you’re considering, you should definitely look into it because it’ll change your life. Come talk to me. Come to an info session. Set up a meeting.”

McRoy noted that having volunteer experience helps with getting into the Peace Corps, but being sure of the decision to join is more important than building a resumé.

“Think about what they (the students) want their future to look like: learning a new culture, learning new skills … if those are things they want to be a part of, then this is for them,” she explained. “I think more than getting those hardline things, really figuring out why they want to do this (is important).”

Josh Johnson, a junior in logistics, attended the event in order to learn more about the Peace Corps. He was enthusiastic that the Peace Corps helps implement sustainable changes in the communities it works with, as opposed to short term fixes such as those done through missionary trips. He also said the length of the service trips attracted him.

“It’s two years; I think that’s really the most interesting thing because you live in the culture, you live in that area,” he said.

Diana Ray is one of the returned Peace Corps volunteers who spoke at the event; she worked on rural community development through the Peace Corps from 2005 to 2007. She said that the biggest challenge she faced during her service was being accepted by the community she was placed in.

“Until the day we left, the biggest challenge, still, was separating yourself from a tourist,” Ray said. “I finally just came to the realization that that was the way it was going to be … just embrace it. It was always a learning opportunity for me and for them.” 

Johnson said that leaving his family for two years would be the hardest part about joining the Peace Corps.

“Leaving family, that kind of concerns me … going overseas and going to a new country, you’re leaving that support system,” he said.

McRoy acknowledged those challenges, noting that the difficulty does not end once returning stateside -- readjusting to living in the U.S. is also an issue.

“I think you expect the culture shock when you get there … but it is a big change when you come back to the states,” she said.

Ray agreed with this notion, saying that although she was eager to share stories about her service when she returned, people weren’t as eager to listen. Most only wanted a short elevator ride-long summary of the experience.

“One of the biggest things is that you wanted to share your experience with people and people didn’t really care,” she said, adding how she dealt with this issue. “I had my elevator speech ready and I would choose my opportunities of when to share.”

Despite the challenge of adjustments and readjustments and the vulnerability of entering a foreign land, all the veteran volunteers agreed that it was a powerful opportunity. 

“It’s the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my life,” said Ray. “I would say go in with an open mind … you’ll come in with some of your most trying times in Peace Corps, but it’s so worth it.”

The anniversary celebration ends tomorrow with another networking and volunteering event. Anyone interested in the Peace Corps can attend the event at Second Harvest Food Bank from 9 a.m. to noon. 

Students who missed or cannot make it to these events, but are interested in learning about the Peace Corps, have more opportunities to learn about the 52-year-old organization. McRoy hosts a coffee hour in the Hodges Library Starbucks every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. to discuss and answer questions about the Peace Corps.