By Emily Cahn -
For two years, Matt Colvin lived in a rickety wooden shack above chicken and rooster coops in rural Jamaica, working as a Peace Corps volunteer to help semi-literate fishermen create laws regarding overfishing in the region.
Colvin, 27, now a staff assistant to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), says his overseas experience is often hard to describe to others, even though he sees it as beneficial to share in his job on Capitol Hill. If he could organize semi-literate fishermen to help change environmental laws in Jamaica, he said, he could surely help to get legislation drafted and passed in the U.S.
To better connect these two experiences, Colvin and Chris Robinson, a fellow Capitol Hill aide and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), are launching a staff association for their contemporaries who also worked in the Peace Corps. The two hope to help their colleagues translate their Peace Corps service into their daily lives in Congress.
Colvin and Robinson’s efforts could not come at a more appropriate moment for the Peace Corps - the government agency celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The two said it’s a coincidence that they decided to form this group in such a big year for the Peace Corps, but the anniversary has raised the agency’s profile in Congress (which thus far has maintained its funding in spite of the drastic budget cuts being negotiated on Capitol Hill).
Now Congress stands to benefit from its own returned volunteers as they come together to figure out how best to use their past experience in their roles in the legislative process.
“It’s beneficial for us as a group of people looking to organize, because the 50th anniversary will give us a year or so that people are going to be focusing on [the Peace Corps],” said Robinson, 26, a legislative fellow with Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.).
Robinson also served in Jamaica from 2007 to 2009, the same years Colvin was in the country. Although the two served in different areas of the country, they saw each other at least once every other month and would share stories from the areas of Jamaica in which they spent their time.
“Everybody’s got a goat story,” Robinson said jokingly, adding that when groups of RPCVs get together, they often talk about what the goats were like in each volunteer’s respective region of the world.
After completing their commitment to Peace Corps, both Colvin and Robinson ventured to Capitol Hill to fulfill the organization’s third mission: to return home and share what they learned with others. Capitol Hill, they said, was the best place for them to do that.
“I want to make a difference,” Robinson said, adding that his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., “wasn’t doing it for me.”
“I didn’t want to do grad school just yet,” he said. “I wanted to have more experience before I entered grad school, and I saw Congress as a way to bridge a path to that goal.”
Once Colvin and Robinson realized they had both landed on Capitol Hill after returning to the U.S., they reconnected and decided to launch the staff association. They estimate that at least 35 other aides on Capitol Hill are also returned volunteers.
The duo focused “on helping each other advance professionally in a challenging environment, much the same as we did during our Peace Corps service. … Collaborating with others who share your experience is absolutely vital when translating your service into marketable skills,” Robinson said.
Colvin stressed that the association is apolitical and is meant to be a support and networking group for RPCVs, rather than an advocacy group to further the Peace Corps’s legislative agenda.
Aside from holding networking happy hours, Colvin and Robinson said their ultimate goal is to create a Peace Corps fellowship or a standing four- to five-month congressional internship position for an RPCV.
“We really want to build a community of volunteers that want to come to Washington and work on the Hill, and we want to have a group of mentors to help them find jobs here,” Colvin said.
Colvin and Robinson said they plan to get support and guidance from members of Congress who themselves were Peace Corps volunteers, including Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), John Garamendi (D-Calif.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.).
Honda said he understands why Colvin and Robinson want to form a community with their fellow RPCV aides. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1965 to 1967 and has long been a supporter of the program and its mission. Honda said he shares a special bond with the other members of Congress who also served in Peace Corps, even if they are from different sides of the aisle.
“It’s that commitment to service that binds all of us folks together,” Honda said. “The Hill is a collection of networks. People have networks based upon policy, philosophy, party or just personal stuff. A network of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers is good among staff because they can sustain each other, they can help each other and they can be resources for each other.”
Petri said he is “always delighted” to work with his fellow RPCVs in Congress to help push for Peace Corps support. Some of the projects that the other members of Congress who served in the Peace Corps are working on include nominating the Peace Corps for a Nobel Peace Prize, setting up a monument to the Peace Corps on the national Mall, and creating a commemorative stamp for the Peace Corps’s 50th anniversary.
“It’s that Peace Corps spirit that binds us together, working with a group of people to solve problems and help people better their lives,” Petri said.
Overall, Robinson said his immediate experience in the Peace Corps might be different from some of his peers. Robinson helped Jamaicans start small honey-making businesses and said he was stung by bees so many times the stings soon became less painful and more like mosquito bites. But he said the overarching experience of helping others in foreign countries is one that all RPCVs share and can capitalize on upon their return.
“We have shared this experience and it’s changed our lives,” Robinson said of the RPCVs on Capitol Hill. “We naturally want to latch onto those same qualities and skills that helped us get through it and helped us flourish, and achieve things with others on the Hill who are very different from us.”