Taking one step back and two steps forward

By Matthew Boddie | The Daily Tar Heel

Updated: 12/01/10 12:29am

I graduated with a philosophy and psychology major two years prior. During exam time, I was much more devoted to the construction of the moat in my fraternity than to the tests which would ultimately result in the underwhelming grade point average with which I left UNC.

Now I find myself amidst 33,000 villagers who are convinced, after hearing me speak a paragraph in their language, I am going to completely change their lives. I guess it is a fair assumption, though; they have already changed mine. I joined the Peace Corps in August 2010 in Uganda, just four weeks after receiving a formal invitation to be a water and sanitation engineer in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Over the past three months, I have devoted myself to a crash course in life skills and one of the most intense language courses offered anywhere in the world.

After swearing in at the Ambassador’s house, I headed out to eastern Uganda where I work with Health Center II inside of a Catholic diocese.

Overall, there is nothing exceptional about my abilities or talents. I came with a new perspective. No different than if a Ugandan came to America, I am bringing a new perspective from what is, in essence, a completely different world. I have seen now the amazing spark which a new perspective can give a village.

While graduating college, I had trouble with how few redeemable qualities I seemed to have gained in my time. At graduation, I was receiving degrees in fields where no direct future followed, besides maybe more schooling and further delay from what some might call “the real world.”

Lack of direction made me think my life, while plentiful in opportunities, was lacking in real prospects for success. Coming to Uganda completely changed my perspective; even in the relatively small amount of time I have been here (this is month four of 27).

In college, I figured out how to think logically, communicate effectively and mobilize people in my community.

I also learned how important a strong network of connections can be — in pretty much every aspect of life.

In college, how you get to the stadium, from where you get your notes and which party you know about depend on it. In Uganda — and I imagine all over the world outside of the university setting — the relevance of these social skills is amplified.

I also changed fundamentally in what I consider success to be, and as a result, what I could consider myself happily doing changed. I used to tell my friends I would be content as a bartender for the rest of my life, if the first thing people asked while talking to me wasn’t “So, what are you doing next? What’s your next step?”

I did not know how to answer the question.

I realize now just how lucky I was to have a job to which I loved going and which also happened to be making me plenty of money to live comfortably. Seeing people here in Uganda with neither of these two luxuries really knocked me on my ass.

The moral of this convoluted story is to say if you feel like you are lacking perspective, then go and grab it.

If you feel like you have not learned anything, go to a place where you realize you are wrong. Also, do not let college get in the way of your college experience. Building Chi Psi’s moat made me a much more vital volunteer in Uganda than reading and discussing the myth of Sisyphus.

For me, my “next step” after college was a step back, in order to see what was really in front of me.

In the process, I am changing lives in a Third World country and gaining a new perspective on life.

I realize now I can be American without being in America, and as long as I define success and do not worry about how everybody else perceives it, I am confident that I will be living happily.

Matthew Boddie is a guest columnist for the DTH. He is a UNC graduate currently working for the Peace Corps in Uganda. E-mail him at m.h.boddie@gmail.com.

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