Erin Capina, 127
When we arrive at staging we find ourselves amongst a group of strangers and are told these are the people who are traveling to your Peace Corps country with you. Yet, there is little to distinguish them from the other strangers we would meet at our boarding gate. Who are these people? Will they ever stop being strangers? Will we be friends? Will we be enemies? Will we be frenemies?
All Peace Corp groups start essentially the same—people from all walks of life and all places in America who, usually, have never met each other before the first day of staging. Yet somehow these groups go from groups of individuals to groups of Peace Corps Volunteers. How does this happen? Is it instantaneous? Does it take time? Is there one moment that can be determined as the moment when a cohesive group formed, or is it so gradual that one day Volunteers realize that along the way they’ve stopped being individuals and are now that cohesive group? Past Peace Corps groups can give a glimpse of how groups stopped being strangers and started becoming friends.
Clicking From the Start
Some of us have been lucky enough to be a part of groups that seemed to coalesce instantly; people quickly discover their niche in the group, inside jokes appear overnight, and you find that person or persons who would help you hide a dead body, no questions asked. In other words, everyone clicks from the very beginning. Often these groups are helped along by having members that are similar in age and background in addition to having a common purpose. Thailand has had 127 groups and at least some of those groups seemed to be ones where camaraderie was apparent almost from the very beginning. Thailand groups 1 and 3 are two groups that seemed to have hit it off from the beginning. Pictures from parties Thailand group 3 had during training show individuals who’ve clearly bonded as a group.
When We Weren’t Looking
Some groups transform so subtly that members only realize the shift long after it occurred. Often there is no singular moment that people could pinpoint as to when the change in group dynamic happened. Carolyn Nickels from Thailand 34 recounted that when she met some of the Thailand 34 members for the first time she wasn’t sure what to make of them. The group at the boarding gate was filled with the kind of people she avoided befriending in college because they seemed so weird. Could they really have anything in common or become friends? Still wondering, Carolyn and her fellow trainees headed off to training in Hawaii where things started to, ever so subtly, shift. Shared experiences such as hiding when they saw Ajaan Surapha coming to avoid questions in Thai, nights spent singing along to guitar songs, and creating training mementos before moving to Thailand helped create the sense of camaraderie that was present throughout service and persisted long after Thailand 34 left Thailand and went on with their lives. Thailand 126 Volunteers Ryan Stannard and Michelle Swanston agree with the gradual route to camaraderie and friendship. They both say that they personally felt those bonds really strengthened after mid service.
So, if you are a trainee wondering what common ground you have with these new strangers or a newly minted Volunteer wondering if your group will ever be as close as the groups before you take heart, there is still time. Perhaps you were not part of a group that became friends from the beginning but that does not mean that your group is not moving, ever so subtly, towards friendship. As Swanston put it, “It’s easy to make friends when we’re all broke and so far away from our families and living in a place where we (as a group) are the only ones that we can really relate to.”