For years I had studied Spanish
By Gamal Dillard, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (left on picture), Ecuador, Latin America, 1998-2001
For years I had studied Spanish, and to be frank, I was an average student, though at times I showed promise. I have always preferred to learn by doing. And since I had never been out of the country, nor was of Latino heritage, I just figured that I would just settle for knowing basic Spanish. In college, several of my friends had gone to Spain or Latin America, and came back not only armed with handfuls of pictures, but an unforgettable experience. A few times, I ventured over to the Study Abroad office, but after being handed a bunch of thick books, and hardly any way to pay for my trip, I left discouraged.
People always told me, “Gamal, there’s scholarship and assistance for you if you look hard enough.” Well, apparently I never looked hard enough. After my third year at the University of Pittsburgh, I got a job working at an inner city YMCA tutoring and serving as a summer camp counselor. I had never done anything as tough and demanding as being in charge of so many kids whose breakfast and lunch consisted of candy. Needless to say these kids were a challenge, as I had to take them swimming, roller-skating, etc. I worked 10-hour days, and the pay was average, but the experience was invaluable. I realized that I would love to go overseas, but where, and who would pay for it.
One fall evening of 1995, I was walking along the campus and saw a sign that read: “Peace Corps Meeting, 7PM, Student Union.” I walked over, and the first person that I saw speaking was a very excited former Peace Corps Volunteer named Melissa, who served in Chad. I was attracted to her energy. I could tell that she had a great experience, as she smiled from ear to ear! I even saw a Peace Corps Video, and received a copy of Peace Corps’ Great Adventure, a compilation of Peace Corps stories from volunteers who served in such distinct places as Brazil, Guinea Bissau, Niger, etc. That book became my bible for the next couple of years!
Attending that Peace Corps function gave me a sense of hope that I could finish college and live overseas. Even before I applied I told everybody that I was going to join the Peace Corps after college. Being a Black person only made me more determined to join the Peace Corps, since I had met so few minority returned Peace Corps Volunteers. But this is what I wanted to do, and come hell or high water, I was going to do it!
I applied in the fall of 1997, and remember being nervous when I was interviewed by Doug, my recruiter. The interview lasted about an hour, and I remember being asked questions about how I would handle being offered food that I had never eaten, or being away from friends and family for a long time. The application went very smoothly, and I remember after getting my stateside examination, the doctor wrote: “;The applicant (me) was a bit overweight, but very friendly.” I wondered what this had to do with my ability to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer as if being heavyset means that you aren’t supposed to be friendly.)
Well, anyway, I was invited to go to Ecuador, and remembered getting lots of information about Ecuador from the Peace Corps. Looking back, I laugh at how eager I was, and how wet behind the ears I was. My dad took me to O’Hare Airport, and I remember thinking, “Are you crazy. What am I doing? Two years of living mundanely overseas?” But I did it. As a matter of fact, I spent almost three years, working with Latino Youth throughout the schools and local neighborhood organizations.
Being Black afforded me an insight that I would never have gotten had I been of another race. I had a chance to see just how far Blacks here in the states have come, as I compared Latino Blacks to those living in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Mississippi. I was humbled for three years as I saw subtle racism so subtle it seemed blatant. Whereas “Colored Not Allowed” signs were not used, Latino Blacks deal with a racism that makes Jim Crow seem very passive. The blacks there simply have no chance of moving on up. Banks and other public institutions simply do not hire dark skinned people unless they need security guards. I was often treated better than most of the Blacks there. I was the exception. I hated that feeling, that because I was an American, they saw me as being better than them.
I began to understand the sacrifices and struggles that my ancestors experienced. Better yet, I often lived it during my three years there as I caught buses and ate the food that everyone else ate while occasionally being a victim of prejudice. Those three years were the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I tell people, “If you want an unforgettable experience and want to see the reality of the world, join the Peace Corps. Your life will never be the same!”