A year ago, Jacob Milton ‘16, The Elms ’19 left, on what was supposed to be a three-year mission to Thailand with the Peace Corps as a Youth in Development volunteer to teach life skills. It was early January 2020 and people in the U.S. had hardly heard of the virus that would soon change the world and take so many lives. In late March after only 3 months, the Peace Corps recalled Jacob home along with 6,000 of his fellow volunteers around the globe— with only a couple of days’ notice. As part of an effort to see how GCC alums are coping with our utterly changed circumstances in the U.S., the GCC Foundation spoke to Jacob recently.
There has been so much upheaval in our country since you returned home at the end of March—the pandemic, intensified Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism and the presidential election. How are you doing in the context of it all?
As tragic as the disease is, COVID has given me more time to make sure that I’m doing the things that create happiness for myself. The pandemic may have interrupted my life, but it has not ended my life.
As far as the BLM movement— it is far past time that the country, and frankly the world, had the hard conversations with themselves, their loved ones and their communities about the very real and dangerous racial discriminations that stunt, ruin and end lives. Even in my own life, I’ve had to have uncomfortable conversations educating white family members on the reality of what has been done and continues to be done to keep Black people in different kinds of bondage since 1619.
My response to the recent presidential election is to say: let us as Americans not take our democracy for granted and to work hard to make sure it’s a solid foundation for our country.
What it was like to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand earlier this year?
I learned so much in a small amount of time, such as trying to speak a language I’d never known until a mere weeks before. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer is challenging: you’re in a country you’ve never been in with people you don’t know and with a language you’ve never spoken. On top of that, you’re sweating immensely from biking miles to school, miles to a learning center and you’re really giving your all to learn from and to teach others.
But really, it was beyond rewarding and life enhancing. They call it the land of smiles and that is so correct. Everyone is smiling. I wasn’t in any vacation spots or at the beaches but it was a beautiful, beautiful place.
Training is two to three months. At first, we stayed in a hotel for a week or two where we got culture and language training. Then there was a ceremony where I met my host family. They treated me like a son from day one and I will always see them as my family.
What surprised you the most about your experience in Thailand?
I was nervous to go there as a tall, bi-racial man with dreadlocks. But when I got to the country, my host family treated me as one of them immediately. They would joke about how our skin color wasn’t that different, they would refer to me as, “my son”, and people would say, “When did you have him?” And my host family would laugh. There was a kinship between us that I wasn’t expecting.
What was it like to have to leave Thailand so suddenly?
It happened so fast, it was hard to process. Teachers were crying. Staff were crying. Thai family members were crying. It was so emotional everywhere you went. I was very sluggish my last few days.
My host family was so kind and they just spent as much time as they could with me. We were creating memories so we could all keep going forward. They had a party for me before I left and a birthday party for me because my birthday was the next week. It was really beautiful.
Have you been able to stay in touch with some of the people you met there?
I stay in touch with fellow volunteers online and meet for socially distanced gatherings with some in our region. I talk weekly with Peace Corps staff and my host family from Thailand. Every time there’s something big in the news about the U.S., such as COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement or global anxiety about the presidential election, my host family reaches out to say, “How are you?” It’s heartwarming that they remain so thoughtful about me.
What are your hopes and dreams for yourself in 2021?
My hope for everyone is that we continue to cultivate happiness in our own lives and let go of the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. I hope to continue to feed my mind, to nurture my body and stay in touch with my soul. I hope for continued success in my personal and professional life and that I’ll be able to return to Thailand healthier, wiser and more loving than the first time.
Since his return, Jacob has continued his education in a paralegal program at Boston University and started a new job in November as a refugee case manager at Ascentria Care Alliance in Waltham, a non-profit whose mission is to strengthen communities by empowering people to respond to life’s challenges.
Photo above: Some of the Thai people who hosted and supported Jacob gather with other Peace Corps volunteers for a photo to commemorate their last night together.