Jennifer McHugh graduated from Kutztown State University of Pennsylvania around the time Paula Cole's “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was big, so she's not the first candidate you might think of for a profile in our Graduate Edition, or even for her most recent stint as a member of The Peace Corps. But being typical is boring. So in June of 2011 Jenn left her full time administrative position at a fancy Orange County beauty company and successful musical theatre director for Southern California's youth to do something else for awhile. We chatted over Skype recently about the value and the hardship of immersion in another culture, the difficulty of reaching out to a population not yet recovered from the rule of Soviet Union, and how it's never too late to refuse to grow up.
When applying for The Peace Corps in 2009, Jenn had no idea what to expect. She didn't know the preliminary process would take just over two years or where she would go or if she was even chosen. Sometime in the year 2010 she was informed that she had been accepted for candidacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and would most likely be heading to “somewhere in South East Asia.”
“Cut to 10 months later,” she said, “and I find out I'm being sent to Moldova. So I Googled it, and found out I had to learn Russian.”
The application process is thorough, rigorous and time consuming for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the nature of The Peace Corps as an elite organization. This isn't WWOOF, man. They're not taking just anybody. There is also, Jenn explained, the program's policy that you wait a full calendar year after a major life change. Sometime between 2009 and 2010, she went through the death of two family members along with some other really life roadblocks and just decided, through encouragement from friends, to look into the Peace Corps as government-funded-life-enrichment. I asked her, “So they make you wait a full year after these life changes to be sure it's not just a reaction to something? But that's kind of exactly why you joined, right?”
Her response, “Well, yeah.”
It's also exactly why most people join. The Peace Corps is often seen as something to do upon graduating college (and also, no student loans!) A calendar year seems like a bit of an arbitrary safeguard to have in place. She confirmed that, “80% of the people I'm here with are recent college graduates.” Transition is the name of the game. 22 year olds are famously undaunted and unflappable—once given a piece of paper that proves their worth in the world (and their debt in the bank) it is natural they'd embark on a journey to anywhere the United States government sees fit. “How do you maintain that sense of civic duty and adventure almost 2 decades out of college?” I asked. (I am sure she is LOVING how often her, um, years of life experience are brought into focus in this interview. If she weren't 7 times zones away she'd push me down the stairs.)
She described her life and the lives of those around her in 2009 as:
“Time to get married.”
“Time to have babies.”
“Time to get a grown up job.”
“But I didn't want those things. And I knew I didn't want to be a bitter 40 year old yelling at all the kids.”
I suggested that she will now be a bitter 40 year old yelling at all the kids about how good they have it living in America. She agreed, “I wish that more people would move abroad for awhile. I always kind of thought America was cool, but now I'm grateful.” It is hard not to think of the U.S. as the land of the free when you're working for the NGO (non-profits, stateside) she is, AO Perspectiva. Run by native Moldovan Victor Ivanciogolo in the city of Cahul (a 10 minute drive from the Eastern border of Romania) they recently received a grant from the United Nations for $10,000 to run a 10-month awareness campaign on human trafficking. They are in what Jenn calls, “a high victim area.”
She relayed the story of someone she knew personally who was the victim of a trafficking scheme, as well as a lucky escapee, and by lucky I mean his family and friends, Jenn included, essentially had to buy him back.
“He was basically offered a job in construction in Russia. When he got there, the situation just wasn't—there were 12 hour workdays, no days off, and a fraction of the pay. They also held onto all his documents so he couldn't leave. These days, this is happening a lot because Russia is hiring a ton of slave labor to build the Olympic stadiums.”
I asked her if this is the standard route for acquiring sexual and manual labor, and she estimated, “It's about 70% [of] scams like this, sometimes the family sells a member to get money, and sometimes they go willingly because it's better than here.” I balk at that last one.
I, in all my fair-skinned, English speaking, American born privilege, literally think that my friend is kind of lying about any place being so bleak they'd sell themselves into slavery to be somewhere else.
“It's still very Soviet here in terms of, you're on a track at a young age, and from there there's no mobility, no choices. Girls take all the Home Economics classes, boys take all the Math and Science,” she said.
Girls don't take math?!
“They don't go into it as a profession,” she clarified, “it's not an option. They want to go abroad, but the only way to go abroad is to get a damn job, and they end up being trafficked. There are authentic programs, but there are also a lot of scam agencies, so it's hard to tell what's legitimate.” She did inform me that the U.S. Embassy offers many exchange programs for students, sort of like The Peace Corps but they accept people internationally. So that sounds legit. This is, however, exactly why organizations like Ivanciogolo's are hugely important. They work to educate people on the warning signs and to get all documents, promises, and company names verified before agreeing to travel.
Currently, AO Perspectiva is working on The Liberty Festival to get the community engaged in preventing human trafficking. A large part of the organization's goal is to reach out to young people, a forte of Jenn's. It is of serious importance that they reach young voices and teach them how to speak out, because the nature of a Peace Corps volunteer is that they're going to leave soon. For these tools to have staying power, it is vital to leave them in the capable hands of citizens. Luckily, while Jenn's Russian may be shaky, she is fluent in Youth. And Moldovans happen to find her hilarious.
Frequently described as one of the funniest people whomever is describing her knows, I asked her about cultivating a dry wit in an entirely foreign language.
“First of all,” she started, “I've not met one native Moldovan who speaks less than three languages, and thought it was very weird that I only spoke one. I just need to throw that out there. But yeah, one of my main challenges was I had to exist without sarcasm. And that was a personal journey for me.” As I paused to write this down, she gloated, “I was being sarcastic. I just wanted to give you a soundbite.”
The charm and humor she's come to rely on seem to stem from the unshakable differences in culture and upbringing.
“I'll say things [to my host family] like, ‘I only get along with my family because I'm not anywhere near them' and they find that hilarious, so I just try not to censor myself. They tell you in orientation, ‘You have to conform, you have to integrate.' But I'm being extra American because my new friends find it funny and endearing. The thing is, they want to learn about my culture too!”
“Anyway,” continued Jenn, about to state the obvious and the profound, “I hate conformity.”