On Our Radar: March 6, 2015

Received a shout-out from the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic region! Thanks for the support!

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How Far I’ve Come

I have not been the best about updating my blog lately, but it is mostly because I have been extremely busy. It’s true that work really does begin to pick up during the second year of Peace Corps. Time feels like it has just been flying by and I can’t believe that Group 16 just finished our Close of Service conference. Is Peace Corps seriously almost over? I don’t know if I’m ready to leave this place yet. Albania has taught me so much about myself and about a culture completely different than my own. I love it here and I’ve made roots and made connections that I know will last a lifetime.

Before the New Year I was applying to graduate schools back in the states to receive my Masters in Social Work. I recently heard back from Washington University in St. Louis, which is the best social work program in the country, and I have been accepted as an advanced standing candidate. I also received the prestigious Peace Corps scholarship to attend the university, which is very exciting. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of the other schools that I applied to, but hopefully I will be able to make my final decision soon! I have never lived in the states outside of Colorado, so I will be embarking on another new adventure, which is also a scary thought. Will I make new friends? Where am I going to live? Which cell phone provider should I have? What about health insurance? The questions keep piling up, with no real concrete answers.

I am so excited about starting a new adventure, but I still have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving the life that I have created for myself here. I have become part of a new friend group and part of a new family. It is sad to think about leaving some of my students and friends. Now that everything is finally together, work is going well, culture shock is over, and I have a solid support network it’s time to leave and uproot myself again to a completely new city to start over again.

I have been avoiding having conversations about the future because it really is hard to imagine that my service is finally coming to a close. I remember how I felt during my first summer in comparison to where I am now and I can’t believe how much my perspective has changed and how much I have changed. Sometimes I really don’t want to leave this place and other times I wish I could start my new life right now. It’s hard to be in this limbo period of not knowing exactly what the future holds.

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Recently, an undergraduate student at the University of Florida contacted me. She is writing a paper for her Imaginative Non-Fiction Writing Class about Peace Corps volunteers and their experiences. I told her I would be happy to help her in whatever way I could. I think her questions will help begin the long process of reflecting on my time here and what it has meant to me, although I don’t know if I will ever be able to truly express it in words, but let’s give it a go.

1. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I chose to apply for the Peace Corps during my senior year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Peace Corps interested me since I first heard a presentation from a returned volunteer when I was in high school. I really wanted to try something different and immerse myself in a completely new friend group and culture. I grew up in Colorado my entire life and I really wanted a change of scenery. My social work undergraduate experience and time working in the schools helped push me towards making the leap to sign up.

2. When and where did you volunteer?

I am a Health Education volunteer in Kavaje, Albania. Kavaje is a medium sized city with a population around 40,000 people (although it feels much smaller to me). The city is predominately Muslim, with an Orthodox following as well. My service began in March 2013 and will end in May 2015.

3. How was your time in the Peace Corps different and similar from what you expected?

Well the number one rule of Peace Corps is not to have expectations, but that is basically impossible. How can one not have some sort of expectation surrounding the 27 months of their service? Here are some of the expectations that I had regarding my service before I began:

  • I would meet new friends. This is totally true. The other volunteers that I serve with here have become my best friends, my confidants, my family. We will now share a strong bond together for the rest of our lives. Besides volunteers, I also have Albanian friends that I consider like family too. I’ve created a strong bond with many of the students in my youth groups and I know that we will keep in touch for the rest of our lives. These bonds with locals did not happen immediately like I originally thought they would, but after intentional relationship building (in Peace Corps lingo we can this IRBing) our friendships grew into daily conversations and coffee dates talking about life, love, and Albania.
  • I would be fluent in Albanian. This sadly is not true. I hoped that I would reach a level in Shqip where I could teach entire classes in the local language. I could teach a class in Albanian, but it probably would not make that much sense. I am able to communicate with people and have basic conversations, but explaining details can still be difficult for me without a little bit of charades. On my final Language-Proficiency Exam I scored Advanced-Low, which was quite the accomplishment for me anyways.
  • I would be busy with work. This was definitely not true, at first. I expected that the day I started at my office that everyone would want to work with me and help me. The relationships at my office were slow and we never really became friends like I originally hoped. Over time we built up an understanding at the office and were able to work together, but it was definitely a rocky relationship. It took me a long time (almost a year) to step outside my comfort zone and finally begin some secondary projects, but the moment I stepped outside my office and looked for work elsewhere was when I really started to feel successful in my service. Now that my service is about to end I am busy every single day with different youth groups and activities surrounding my cervical cancer grant.
  • That I would help someone who knows absolutely no English become fluent. I actually thought that I could help my neighbors and other community members become fluent in English during my time here. I realized that motivation needs to come from both sides though and, even though a lot of people have the desire to learn English, they don’t necessarily have the motivation to continue learning throughout the difficult times. Learning a language is not easy; I learned that here. Motivation and consistency are key. Even though I have not helped the young children do a complete 180 with their English, I take pride in the fact that I have helped many of the students with their conversational English. I can hear the difference in the way my students speak now, in comparison to a year ago. I have also taught one of my Albanian friends a lot of American phrases that she uses in daily conversation. Things like that make me smile.
  • I would start many new hobbies. I could have spent some of my time here more wisely developing hobbies, but honestly I spent a lot of my time soaking up information from the internet: surfing Facebook, reading articles, doing stupid online quizzes, and binge-watching television shows. I do not regret how I used my time because I continued to work on myself as well. I began running, which was something I had never done before and that certainly got me a lot of attention in the community. I learned to cook, kind of. Before Peace Corps I pretty much primarily ate vegetarian TV dinners… not exactly the healthiest of options for the Health Education volunteer. Now I have several different recipes under my belt (some of them with definite Albanian influence).

4. How do you think joining Peace Corps changed you?

Joining Peace Corps changed me in so many ways, and many of those ways are hard to put into words. My entire life here is completely unalike anything I experienced in the states. Being put into a totally different environment by yourself truly humbled me. I learned how to communicate in smiles and hand gestures, and that kindness really goes a long way. I have gained more patience here and don’t think that many things will phase me when I return to the states. I am a better person because I joined the Peace Corps.

5. How did you find the application process to be?

I applied when Peace Corps had the old application process. Prospective volunteers are much luckier now because the application process is a lot easier. Just filling out the application took me over a month to complete. Then I had to wait for several months before my interview with a recruiter on campus at my university. After that I waited for several more months to hear back about my nomination. I was frustrated because two other girls from my social work program heard back a lot quicker than I did and I was worried that I would not get accepted. Finally, I heard back in the spring of my senior year that I was nominated for a world-wide nomination as a Health Education volunteer in September 2012. This meant that Peace Corps essentially had not picked the region where I would serve, but that they would just place me in whatever program fit. In July of 2012 I was still waiting to hear back about my placement and then I received a call saying that my nomination was being pushed back to March 2013. I was devastated because I did not have a plan of what I would do until March. I was still living in my apartment in Fort Collins, but my lease ended in mid-August. I was not happy about the prospect of moving back in with my parents, but I decided that would be the best fit. I could not look for a job in social work because of the short time-frame, so I began working at as a teacher’s assistant in the Special Education program at an inner-city middle school. Peace Corps has an extension process to actually serve and the medical process was a big hurdle for me. I continued having to do medical appointments almost up until my departure. I had to visit a variety of doctors at least ten times and Peace Corps required my entire medical history, which was difficult to find at first.I received my letter of acceptance in August 2012 saying that I would be serving in Albania. I honestly had no idea where Albania was and had to look it up immediately. I was pretty excited with the country and accepted the invitation that same day. I wanted to serve in Eastern Europe and the idea of traveling around Europe was very alluring to me as well. I think that Peace Corps purposefully makes the application process difficult because if you can jump through all those hurdles then you are a good candidate to continue jumping through various hurdles throughout service.

6. What is your most memorable moment in your time with the Peace Corps?

I have so many memorable moments from my service, but I was honored when I won the Blog It Home competition. Peace Corps provided me with a return trip ticket to Washington D.C. to talk about my experience abroad and about Albanian culture. I was so happy to be recognized for the blog that I have been keeping throughout service. It was a treat to talk with students at local schools and other people in the capital. We also got to meet with many different organizations and got a tour of the White House. It was a fantastic experience and definitely a highlight for me.

7. Do you feel like you made a difference in someone’s life? If yes, how?

People tell me that I have helped changed their lives for the better. One of my students told me that before she met me that her life was boring, but now her life is full of excitement. Creating the youth center with my site-mate definitely will leave a lasting impression on my community and gives the students a place to grow into the future leaders of Kavaje. Having activities and clubs that the students can participate in outside of school has definitely helped make a difference here. They have celebrated holidays at the nursing home, cleaned up their community garbage on several different occasions, and educated people about important health concerns such as skin-cancer and hygiene. They continue to amaze me and I know that they will continue to do community projects in the future. All they needed was a little push and motivation to get them started. I was that push, not only for my students, but for my friends and counterparts too. They did most of the work. I was just here to help guide them along the way.

8. What type of service projects were you involved in?

I was involved in a variety of different activities and projects while I was here. Here are a few:

  • Assisted with health education classes at the schools
  • Taught English and dance classes at the cultural center
  • Aided with health education seminars for nurses and doctors through an USAID small project assistant grant to combat cervical cancer
  • Held a local GLOW camp in Kavaje to promote gender equality, self-esteem, and the importance of girls education
  • Facilitated large garbage cleanups
  • Coordinated a national summer camp for 80 participants
  • Worked on a committee of other Peace Corps volunteers and a local NGO to plan and implement a training of trainers for professionals regarding anti-trafficking
  • Participated in Special Olympics
  • Facilitated several after-school clubs: Model United Nations, Outdoor Ambassadors, GLOW
  • Helped students plan fundraisers which gained over $500 for our community
  • Held a community health fair with my counterparts
  • Assisted with community wide health education awareness marches regarding road safety, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDs
  • Participated in several Peace Corps committees: Volunteer Advisory Committee, Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee, Outdoor Ambassadors
  • Created a community youth center equipped with two computers, a printer, internet, craft supplies for summer camps, a meeting room, and over 500 books in English
  • Went on bike rides with the students to explore the villages surrounding Kavaje

Going through these questions was just the beginning of my reflection process on the past two years here. I am happy with how far I’ve come and how much I’ve been able to do with my time here. Here is a video that I created for my group’s Close of Service conference. This highlights our time in Albania.