My Thoughts About “the Posh Corps”

The newest cohort of Kosovo Peace Corps volunteers recently swore in. I’ve slowly been getting to know them. Over dinner, someone asked me what I think of the term “the posh corps.” It was a thought-provoking question.

“Posh corps” is a term that’s been used to describe what serving in the Peace Corps is like today. I have mixed feelings about the term.

Several members of my best friend’s family served in the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, when Peace Corps had just begun. The stories they’ve shared with me are pretty hardcore. My BFF’s aunt served in the Philippines, and was only able to call home on Christmas, because phone calls were expensive. My BFF’s uncle used to walk 25 miles to work every day. I compare those experiences with my service in the Peace Corps now — I live in a house with wifi, which allows me to post regular blog posts. Thanks to modern technology, I am able to call, email, and message my friends and family whenever I want to. Letters and postcards are novelties, rather than sole means of communication. And I don’t have to walk 25 miles to get anywhere.

I don’t know what service is like in every Peace Corps host country, but as technology continues to evolve, I would imagine life in all PC countries continues to evolve, too. As a result, I would imagine that today, even volunteers serving in locations more remote than Kosovo are having much different experiences than volunteers who served in those same places fifty years ago.

So yes, I will say, life in the Peace Corps is more posh now than it has ever been. Add to this that I chose to serve in Eastern Europe. I live in a house with wifi, running water, and central heating (though, central heating is a rare luxury in Kosovo).

But on the flip side of things, I think referring to the Peace Corps as “the posh corps” dismisses the service of volunteers. No matter how evolved technology becomes, serving in the Peace Corps will be difficult. Leaving behind a familiar life experience to move to a foreign country, learn a new language, and live in a new place is stressful. Constantly having to adapt behavior is tiresome. Being seen as an “other,” even if it is a positive other (Americans are typically highly regarded in Kosovo), can be anxiety provoking on a daily basis.

Unless technology advances to the point where Peace Corps volunteers can spend the day working in their host country and then “beam home” at night, it will never totally eradicate the psychological difficulties of service.

I had a good life back home, one I did not have to leave. I chose to leave it, because I thought it was the right thing to do. Joining the Peace Corps was not a decision I made lightly. Based on research, I chose the experience I thought I could best handle. I didn’t sign up to serve in an African country (hot weather = no) because I knew I would likely quit. I couldn’t see the point in setting myself up for failure.

For me, the purpose of my service really hits home whenever I walk into one of my schools. My classrooms are equipped with only chairs and tables and a chalkboard, nothing else. Some of those chairs and tables are badly broken, yet students still use them because there is nothing else to use. Half of my students didn’t have textbooks last year. (Forget about studying or doing homework … how could they, without a textbook?) Rooms are poorly heated in the winter, and teachers and students alike stay bundled in winter coats and boots all day. The school day is divided in half (mornings for older students, afternoons for younger students), because there isn’t enough money to expand schools or pay teachers for longer days. That means students in Kosovo receive half as much education as students in Western Europe or the United States. In fact, Kosovo has been assessed as having one of the world’s worst education systems.

Every time I walk into one of my schools, I know why I am in Kosovo. I may have more “creature comforts” than Peace Corps volunteers in the past, or Peace Corps volunteers serving in more remote locations. But that does not mean Peace Corps service is not needed in Kosovo.

If you think serving in the Peace Corps sounds easy, I would offer you a smile and say, “Try it.”

A Boring Adventure

I once heard Peace Corps described as “a boring adventure.” I can’t think of a more apt description. That’s exactly what it’s like.

When I was preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, I was thinking of how many tedious things have to happen before embarking on any adventure. If you’re an adult ensconced in a real, adult life, there is a lot that must be undone if you choose to leave that life.

I had to quit my twos jobs, pack and move my belongings, cancel my utilities, find someone to adopt my chinchillas, and move my cat into my parents’ house.

And there was the paperwork. So much paperwork. Medical and legal clearance and a slew of other stuff to prepare and track and submit.

Now that I am serving in the Peace Corps, I have to submit a quarterly report about my activities. It’s not like Peace Corps turned us loose in Kosovo and said: “Have fun in Kosovo! See you in two years!”

I have no idea what happens to this report once staff reads it … I don’t know if it gets filed away somewhere in D.C. I’ve had to submit so much paperwork at this point (like all of my medical records) that it is a little scary.

[When my group first arrived in Kosovo, we were given (surprise!) more paperwork to complete. One form was about our recent medical history. They actually asked the question, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” I was temped to be a jerk and write, “SIX HUNDRED.” (Who in their right mind would answer that question?) But then I realized I probably didn’t want the U.S. government to be in possession of a document that says I slept with six hundred people in a year. (Not true, btw.) Instead I wrote, “Declined to answer.”]

So, yeah, the government has all kinds of info on me. And I don’t know who has access to it or what happens to it. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve decided to share some of my answers from my recent report on this blog. Because … it’s my report, and why not?

Below is a slightly edited version. As I’ve said, I try to be respectful of others’ privacy, so I have removed some of what I wrote about my home life and school.

How could cross-cultural and language training be improved to support effective cultural integration?

I do not think training needs to be improved. My issues with cultural integration center around being a woman in a small village, and having limited opportunities to interact with local people. Spending time in the few cafes in my village is not an option, since it is not culturally appropriate for women to visit cafes alone. I sometimes shop at the small market or the bakery, and interact with local people working there. However, my interactions there are limited as well: “Miredita.” “Sa kushton?” etc. Therefore, most of my interactions take place in my host family or at my school.

What challenges have you faced in your project or other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

Living with a host family has by far been the most challenging part of my service. I feel as though I walked into a situation where expectations of who I was and what our relationship would be were already set. I continually have to set boundaries with my host mother, who very much expected us to have a mother-daughter relationship. She was not prepared to live with an independent, now- 36-year-old American woman.

What lessons have you learned about yourself, your community, or your project?

I have learned that, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My living circumstances have changed, and yet I am still the same person I have always been, with the same interests and habits I had in the United States. Living in Kosovo has prompted me to consider my own unique skills and gifts, and think of how best to use them in this context. I am never going to be the Most Outgoing Volunteer, or the Best at Language. And yet, that does not mean I cannot use what I have to be of use to my community. I am good at listening, I am good at observing the needs of my students, and I am creative, just to give a few examples. I bring all of these skills with me when I enter my classroom.

Finish this sentence: One thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is …

that appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fact that Pristina, for example, appears very modern and “Western” in many ways, life there is very different from life in a small village. Poverty rates are high where I live, and education and health care systems are poor.

How successful has your integration with your host family been?

I am unsure how to answer this question, to be honest. I would say I have a good relationship with my host family, in that we generally get along. I eat all of my meals with them, and will sometimes go with them to visit neighbors or other relatives. I am included in family events, like engagement parties, etc. However, as I mentioned previously, my relationship with my host mother is my biggest source of stress.

My relationships with my host father and host brother are much more easy going. Both of them are quiet people, as am I, and so we don’t actually spend a lot of time talking with one another. Meals are very quiet in my household. I also try to give my host father and brother a good deal of space. My host father is not old enough to be my real father (he is 51; I am 36), and I am aware of how inappropriate it would look if he and I were close. I feel the same way about my host brother (age 21). I want to state that I feel safe in my house. My decision to give the men in my household a wide berth has more to do with awareness of perception and cultural expectations than anything else.

What opportunities have you had to build relationships outside of your host family?

Regarding my actual community of [redacted], I have had very little opportunity to interact with locals. My village is small, and again, the culture dictates that I spend my non-working time at home. I have more professional contacts in the larger, nearby village of [redacted], thanks to my site mate and her counterpart. I have also met a good number of professional contacts who live in Pristina.

***

So, there you have it — an honest look at my life in Kosovo so far.

The Peace Corps’ Work to Eradicate Smallpox

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I get a free copy of WorldView, the magazine Peace Corps puts out. I read an interesting article in their spring issue I thought I would share. (All information is pulled from an article titled “The Eradicators,” by Patricia A. Wand. I summarize parts of the article. Any direct quotes will be in quotation marks.)

In 1966, the World Health Organization (WHO) wanted to eradicate smallpox, so it enlisted the help of the Peace Corps. “In 1966 an estimated 10-million people had smallpox and two million died from the disease.” Due to the efforts of the WHO and its partners, the last cases of smallpox were reported in 1971. (Kind of amazing that they made such a huge change in just five years.)

The Peace Corps’ Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning released the following information in a report:

“During the 1960s in Afghanistan only males worked in health care and tradition dictated that men could not touch women and children outside their families. Following a pilot project with Peace Corps nurses in 1966, Peace Corps recruited and trained volunteers for women-only groups. These American women traveled with Afghan male health workers into the far reaches of the deserts and mountains to vaccinate rural and nomadic women and children. Local men, seeing the activity, often stepped up with arms ready for vaccination. The program reached far more people than expected. The volunteers helped devise a way for Afghans themselves to continue the program after 1970 by instructing women and girls to extend only one arm through the tent door so no identification took place.”

In addition to Afghanistan, Peace Corps Volunteers also served in smallpox eradication programs in Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland, and Togo. (The full report is available online, if you search “Peace Corps Global Smallpox.”)

WorldView magazine is full of interesting stories related to the Peace Corps. I don’t know where you can get a copy in the United States, but it appears to be for sale, as it has a price marked in the corner. The spring issue largely focuses on the world wide refugee crisis and brings to light an interesting question — should Peace Corps Volunteers be placed in refugee camps? It draws comparison to smallpox eradication efforts, noting that Peace Corps has been recruited to partner with other organizations in the past.

WorldView magazine

 

 

Peja Technology Camp

So, there is this thing in Peace Corps called “secondary projects.” A secondary project is anything you do for your host country outside of your primary job role. (Writing this blog counts as one of my secondary projects, because I am sharing information about my host country with my friends and family back home.) LOOK AT ME, SECONDARY PROJECTING AT YOU!

The Peace Corps (at least here in Kosovo) takes a pretty non-directive approach to secondary projects. Volunteers are expected to do secondary projects, but we have a lot of autonomy in the projects we choose. The basic attitude seems to be, “Go forth and … do stuff.”

One of my friends and another volunteer took on an ambitious project — hosting a 7-day technology camp for middle-school kids in Peja. I attended on the first day to show moral support. 1) My host brother did a presentation on graphic design and 2) One of my students attended, and I wanted to shepherd her and make sure she knew where she was going.

The day started with a series of ice-breakers, followed by my host brother’s presentation. After a lunch break, we took the kids over to Anibar, an NGO that primarily focuses on teaching kids about animation. Using old, broken, donated computers, Anibar hosted a “junkyard robots” workshop. Students got to tear apart computers to make their own “robots.”

technology camp peja 2
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technology camp peja 1
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technology camp peja 4
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If I learned anything that day, it’s that kids get very excited when they’re encouraged to break stuff.

technology camp peja 3
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As far as my own secondary projects go this summer, I am putting together some ideas for a few writing workshops I’d like to host. I’ll also likely help out with Anibar’s big film festival in August.

It’s been about a billion degrees here lately. I have to say — at this point, my desire to help Kosovo is about equal to my desire to lie around with no clothes on and read books. 😛 Let’s see if I can rally …

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