The Year of Living Dangerously

Today marks one year that I have lived in Kosovo! It is hard, in some ways, to believe that a year ago today, I moved to Kosovo. I met a bunch of strangers at Dulles Airport, boarded a plane with them, and have been with them ever since. Only now, I call them my friends.

Lately, I have noticed a big shift in how I feel about being here. While I still feel like a foreigner, Kosovo no longer feels foreign to me. Does that make sense?

I think having lived here through all four seasons has made Kosovo seem like less unfamiliar. In some ways, it feels like I just arrived here. But then, I remind myself I have sweated through a summer, hiked in the colors of fall, shivered through a snowy winter, and marveled at a long, luxurious spring.

I also feel less like some weird American living among strangers. Living with a host family, day-in and day-out, is less exhausting than it used to be. Boundaries are better set, roles are more clearly defined, and I have grown more used to being a part of life here.

In December, I wrote a post about how I have mentally divided my time here into quarters. By my own counting method, I have now completed two quarters.

My second quarter offered two, distinct parts. The first four months, I was miserable. The last two months were happy, and filled with travel, and friends.

I am thankful to have come out of the blues I dealt with this winter. I suspected my first winter would be tough, and it was. But then the weather changed, and I got to go to Rome an old friend, and my feelings shifted.

As much as I love the friends I have made during the Peace Corps, those relationships are new. It was nice to spend time with someone who has known me for nearly a decade. Thanks for your support, Nicole.

Nicole and April
Nicole and April at the Colosseum

I figure now would be a good time to check in with the Peace Corps “chart of emotions.” (I don’t know what it’s actually called.)

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So right now (months 11-14), I can expect to feel:

  • Impatience with self, program, system (Hmm, I think I actually felt more of this a few months ago.)
  • Place blame on the program (Again, I think I felt this a few months ago.)
  • Constant complaining (A few months ago … )
  • Lethargy (Yes. I definitely have less interest in everything … teaching, blog writing, crochet.)
  • Haughtiness with new trainees (HAHAHA. I haven’t met them yet, but I can see myself feeling this way. These new people, they don’t know what they’re in for!)

At times, the idea of living in Kosovo for another year seems daunting … when do I get to go back to a Western life? But when I think of it as 1/2 of my service being gone, I realize there is still so much more I want to do.

Here are some of my personal and professional goals for my coming service year:

  • Finish the grant for my school and (hopefully) be awarded funds
  • Host workshops this summer (narrative writing and essay writing are the plans for right now)
  • Present to Peace Corps volunteers in Albania about starting a poetry competition there
  • Help my friend organize the national poetry competition in Kosovo this fall
  • Start volunteering at an orphanage in Pristina this fall — I found out last week that my application was approved! I am meeting with one of the orphanage directors this week. I’m hoping this new opportunity fills the social work hole in my life.
  • Possibly do another secondary project for the fall (most likely, teach another English Club at my school)
  • Continue teaching. This is kind of obvious, since teaching is my primary role here, but I suppose I should add it to the list.
  • Get my stuff together and help my friends with their “Faces of Kosovo” project
  • TRAVEL THIS SUMMER! There are so many places I want to go in Europe. It’s hard to narrow them down. But if I had to list everywhere I want to go, they would be: Tirana/southern Albania, Greece, Bratislava, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Prague, Vienna, Croatia, Bruge, England/Paris (again), Florence … SO MANY PLACES!
  • Travel around Kosovo. There are still places in Kosovo I want to see, including Mitrovice (major city), Brezovice (skiing), Dragash/Opoje (conservative mountain villages), Skenderaj (Adem Jashari memorial), Rahovec (wine), Batilava Lake (sounds pretty), the Bear Sanctuary (uh, bears) …
  • Get my face painted like a Kosovar bride … This is an experience I really wanted to have while living in Kosovo. I’ve checked into it, and the price would be 150 Euro. That’s a lot of money for me right now … almost all of my spending money for a month. I need to think about it some more …
  • Continue writing this blog regularly, and enter the Blog It Home contest this fall, assuming Peace Corps still hosts it
  • Learn to speak better Shqip (This is not going to happen. It’s just not. I know I’m going to leave service wishing I could speak fluent Albanian, but I won’t.)
  • Continue to build/strengthen my friendships here. I have made an effort to have a breadth of friendships here, to try to be friendly with my entire cohort. However, I feel like I don’t have a depth of friendship yet. It would be nice to have a “best friend” in the Peace Corps.
  • Think about writing a second grant for my school
  • Continue to consider options when I finish Peace Corps. I’ll likely return to social work, but where/in what capacity remains to be seen …

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program Might Be Going Away …

Last week, I saw something worrying pop up on my Facebook news feed. It was a link to an article about the possible cancellation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

What is that? The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program forgives student loan debt after someone works for a non-profit organization for ten years, and makes qualifying student loan payments in the meantime.

I have been working toward loan forgiveness for last few years. Once I complete my Peace Corps service, I will have four years of payments completed, and six years to go until I will (potentially) qualify for forgiveness. (Time served in the Peace Corps counts toward loan forgiveness.)

When I returned to graduate school for social work, I was willing to take on debt, with the intention of working toward loan forgiveness. But now forgiveness is being threatened. An attorney was quoted in the article I read (see first link above) as saying that the cancellation of the program probably would not affect people already working toward forgiveness. I hope that’s true. If it is, yay for me. But what about those people entering universities right now? How do we make it viable for future social workers, teachers, and others in the helping professions to obtain the advanced degrees they need to succeed in their fields?

[According to the National Association of Social Workers, “A master’s in social work is the predominant social work degree for licensed social workers.”]

I returned to college at age 30 to earn a Master’s Degree in social work. Prior to that, I had spent years working as a writer and editor. Jobs in the publishing world have been drying up, and after being laid off, I decided I needed a career change. Had I not known about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, I don’t know that I would have made the decision to return to school. It would have been too expensive.

When people ask me “What do you plan to do after Peace Corps?” I kind of smile to myself. Because no matter where I move, I plan to spend the next six years working for a non-profit in the hope and expectation of having my debt forgiven. I just hope the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is still around.

Friday Gratitude: Language In-Service Training (IST)

Hello! I spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday attending an in-service language training with the Peace Corps. I learned a bit more Shqip (Albanian) and got to spend time in my favorite Kosovo city with some of my volunteer friends. It was a good week!

language group kosovo
Language training

Other bonuses: the weather was gorgeous (I was outside without a coat most of the time), I got to visit Sweet Bean Bakery several times, and I spent the night with another volunteer friend who lives closer to the training site. We (well, mostly he) made a delicious chicken stir fry for dinner.

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Christian making stir fry. 🙂

As far as media consumption goes, I finally finished reading Stephen King’s The Stand. I’d seen the mini-series but don’t think I had previously read the book. I also caught up on Girls.

I’ll be writing a post soon about some of what I learned about the Shqip language, and I’ll be posting about a field trip we took to the Peja Ecological Museum. Have a good weekend and stay tuned!

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Field trip: Sarah Jessica, April, and Kushtrim

Q&A: Becoming a Teacher and Secondary Projects in the Peace Corps

 

Hi, everyone! I’m posting another video today. This week’s questions come from James, who will be coming to Kosovo as a volunteer this June. Thanks for your questions, James!

  1. Could you post about your transition from social work to teacher? (0:25)
  2. Are you a licensed social worker? If so, how are you maintaining your license while serving?* (2:21)
  3. What types of secondary projects are you working on or thinking about engaging? (4:05)
  4. Are there opportunities to work with children outside of a classroom setting? (4:58)

*I misspoke. My license will be up for renewal in January 2018. I don’t know my years …

If anyone else has questions for me, please let me know!

 

Q&A Video: Questions About the Peace Corps

I haven’t made a video in a while, so I asked my friends and family if they had any questions I could answer. My friend Dana (thanks, Dana!) asked the following:

  1. What do most Peace Corps folks do once their service is up? (0:15)
  2. Do people tend to go back to their old jobs or fields? (0:50)
  3. Is there a way to carry on another term? (1:15)*
  4. Would there be opportunities to work stateside? (2:15)

*I misspoke. You can extend any length of time up to a year.

As always, if you have questions you would like me to answer about life in Kosovo or the Peace Corps, please contact me. (Keep in mind, I can’t talk about politics — Kosovo, U.S., or otherwise.)

The Story of How I Came to Join the Peace Corps, Also, Happy Anniversary, Peace Corps!

“The Peace Corps gives us a chance to show a side of our country that is too often submerged — our desire to live in peace, our desire to be of help.” — President John F. Kennedy

Apologies for my long blog title.

Anyway, today marks the 56th anniversary of the founding of the United States Peace Corps. I thought today would be a good day to share the story of how I came to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Joining the Peace Corps was never a dream of mine; I had never even considered it before deciding to apply.

I have these three distinct memories where I learned about other people serving in the Peace Corps:

  • When I was a kid, my grandmother worked at a credit union. One of her colleagues quit her job in order to join the Peace Corps. I think this woman was maybe in her 50s at the time? It’s hard to remember — I was only about ten(?). What I do remember is that the adults in my life talked about this as if it were some kind of noteworthy event.
  • In my 20s, my best friend and I were out one night in Chicago. We ran into a guy she knew. He was out celebrating with a group of friends, because he was leaving to join the Peace Corps the next morning. (I think he was going to Costa Rica.) When I heard that, I felt sorry for him. I imagined him living in a hut, in extreme heat, far away from his family.
  • A few years later, I was living in Boston and dating someone whose brother-in-law had served in the Peace Corps. I would overhear him or other family members mention his service, but I don’t think I ever once asked him about it.

Though I can recall those experiences now, not one of them made me consider joining the Peace Corps.

In October 2014, I went on a week long vacation to visit Boston (where I’d previously lived)/New York City. I was staying with my friend Nicole in Boston. She had to work that week, so during the day, I was left on my own. One gloriously beautiful autumn morning, I decided to take the T down to South Boston, to visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library. I’d never been there before. I’m not a history buff, but I’ve always been interested in JFK. He was a fascinating man who had a fascinating life and a fascinating death. At the museum, I learned more about his varied accomplishments, including founding the Peace Corps. Did that cause me to consider joining? No.

view-from-jfk-library-in-boston-massachusetts
The view from JFK Library and Museum.

In March 2015, my best friend and I spent a week in Dallas, visiting some other friends. We visited the Sixth Floor Museum, which used to be the Texas School Book Depository. As you probably know, this is where Lee Harvey Oswald was standing when he shot President Kennedy to death. Like the Boston library, the Sixth Floor Museum celebrates JFK’s life and accomplishments. I remember watching the following video (see below) at the museum with tears in my eyes. Did that prompt me to consider joining the Peace Corps? No.

A short time after I returned from Dallas, a man I’d (only briefly) been dating ended things. Still, it hurt. And it triggered a reaction in me. I’d been a social worker for a few years, after changing careers and going back to graduate school at age 30. While I was happier in my new profession, I still felt dissatisfied. I knew I needed to change my life. I also knew that I needed something more than just a new job or a new apartment. I needed to change the way I was living my life, to make some kind fundamental shift. I told myself I needed to explore new ideas, to come up with something radical to do.

One night, I was skimming through LinkedIn. You know how it gives you a list of people you may know professionally? I came across one man’s profile. I didn’t know him, but I saw that he had served in the Peace Corps. And it clicked for me then. I thought, “That would be something really different.”

So, it took someone breaking up with me + trolling LinkedIn to arrive at my decision to join the Peace Corps. Life is funny sometimes.

At the beginning of April, I went to Michigan to visit my family for Easter. I remember showering at my sister’s house, thinking, “I can’t join the Peace Corps! I won’t be able to shower for two years!” (For the record, I’ve showered every day since joining the Peace Corps.) I knew I was being ridiculous, but I made myself imagine every worst-case scenario. I imagined what it would be like to be away from my family for so long. And that’s really when I put aside my doubts and committed to the idea of applying. I sat on my sister’s couch and called a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) to discuss my options. I also ordered a Groupon to take an online TEFL certification. Things fell into place from that point.

Serving in the Peace Corps continues to take on deeper meaning for me the longer I am in Kosovo. My family and friends have been incredibly supportive. It makes me proud to know my parents are proud of me. My Dad was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War, and this experience makes me feel more connected to him, because we now share the experience of serving our country.

Here is the video of President Kennedy announcing the founding of the Peace Corps. These are great words spoken by a great man. I tear up whenever I watch it.

Today, I am proud to serve in the United States Peace Corps! I want to thank my friends and family for the overwhelming support you’ve all shown me. I’d like to think I’d have the moral fortitude to do this even if everyone else was against it, but the reality is, it’s easier to do hard things in life when those you care about are supporting you. Thank you for all of your emails and phone calls and texts, your postcards and your care packages. XO

Happy Anniversary, Peace Corps!