To incoming volunteers

It’s funny how quickly things seem to come full circle. It was about a year ago that I was spending hours online reading volunteer blogs, trying to piece together what life was going to be like and how I should prepare myself. I’m not sure if any incoming volunteers have stumbled across my blog yet, but in case some do, I want to share my thoughts and advice. For those of you who are not incoming volunteers, it may be an interesting review of what it was like when I arrived, but with hindsight.

Before coming: Read Steven Kinzer’s Blood of Brothers. It’s a bit long, but it’s an excellent account of Nicaragua’s revolutionary history. Seriously consider getting a 3G Kindle. You can get internet access on it for free anywhere there’s phone service, you can get periodicals like the Economist or the New Yorker, and it’s WAY lighter than any books that you are thinking of bringing. If you’re at all nervous about not having much educational background, find a copy of ‘Teach Like a Champion.’ It’s the best book I’ve found about teaching strategies. Check out blogs and email current volunteers and contact us directly. If we have time, I’m sure we’d love to respond to your specific questions. If you’re concerned about your Spanish level, go ahead and find some podcasts or language lessons, but fear not. The training period will be grueling but will prepare you very well. Not a single member of our group was held back because of language concerns. I will echo what I’m sure every other blog says, too, about a headlamp, a good regular flashlight, a laptop or netbook if you can manage it, a digital camera, and good hiking boots (waterproof have worked wonders for me). Long pants and undershirts have turned out to be my best, albeit unexpected, friends. Long pants keep mosquitoes and flies away and undershirts hide unsightly sweat stains during class. Also, spend the money on fancy travel underwear. They’re awesome.

What to expect from training: Training is exhilarating at first, then it gets old, but stay focused because there’s a ton of great information and experiences that you will seriously benefit from when you’re in your site. Training is structured so that you will be grouped with other volunteers (though you won’t be called volunteers yet, you’ll be aspirantes or trainees) at about the same language level as you. There can be one or two groups per town and the towns are relatively close together. Beginners receive the full 11 weeks of Spanish classes (four hours per day, five days a week in 4-5 person groups) while intermediate or advanced students will get less and have more time for independent study or other projects. In addition to language classes you will be getting involved in the community where you’re stationed by working with a counterpart to co-plan and co-teach English classes and form a community group. These are the things that you’ll be doing in site, so it’s a dry run. This fact can get pretty frustrating because it feels like you’re sort of using the counterparts and students to get your training and that you don’t have much of a buy-in to the community because you’re only staying for 11 weeks, but I still think it’s the best way to do it. During the week, in addition to Spanish classes and community and school projects, you’ll be receiving technical, medical, and security trainings(technical meaning in your case, English education). I found these to be really well-done, plus it’s a chance to get together as a whole group and compare notes, drink instant coffee, and eat crackers and cookies. There are a few planned excursions and with luck a site visit where you get to go visit a current volunteer to get the inside scoop, but in my group this was canceled due to a hurricane. Some people loved training (like me) and some found it slow and repetitive. Just take your time and get all that you can out of it.

I found that the general trajectory was that my first two weeks in training went extremely slowly because everything was so new, but then things started to speed up. When I got to my site everything REALLY slowed down again because we arrive during the summer break, so there’s not much to do. Peace Corps will help you deal with that when it comes, but I got through it by making small lists to keep involved with my goals and to get me out in the community and by reading a LOT to stay sane until my real work started a month later.

What to expect from service: I probably should have mentioned this right off the bat, but get excited to be joining one of the best Peace Corps programs in the world. I’m only slightly biased on that one. Really. I’ve looked at some numbers and compared experiences with others and volunteer satisfaction, safety, and work accomplished are all excellent here. Training was top-notch, the staff are awesome, and the volunteers (mostly) reflect this in their attitudes and drive for the work they do. I say mostly because you can expect to meet the full diversity of characters in your fellow volunteers that you did in college. Each person’s service is different (cliché, but true) and some put a premium on community integration while others value being able to explore the country and enjoy their freedom. I don’t mean that to sound judgmental, because we all have different needs and we’re all held to standards in terms of minimum requirements, so just keep in mind that you make your service what you want of it.

Service so far for me has been full of ups and downs. The ups come from feeling organized, socially connected, and personally challenged. The downs from when my ideas don’t work out the way I hope, when my routines get thrown off, or when I experience crises of purpose (What the hell am I even doing here?). I’ve had more ups than downs, but I happen to be in a down as I’m writing this, so it’s hard to give a look into all the joys of service at the moment(I’m a bit sick). Check out my previous posts for that.

Our main job consists of co-planning and co-teaching English classes with local counterpart teachers. I meet with my counterparts once per week, we spend a couple of hours planning, and then we team-teach in class. The relationships with counterparts are diverse, though all of them have requested volunteers to work with them (not all have had volunteers before you). An important thing to realize is that this main job, supporting counterparts, is NOT teaching students. It’s training teachers. Teaching students happens, but our focus is on helping English teachers improve their language, teaching skills, and developing materials for their classes. Secondary projects include community classes, community groups, HIV/AIDS awareness events, computer classes, building a computer lab, or anything else that you find a need and support for in the community. The non-work hobbies that volunteers develop varies greatly, from reading(mine) to studying for the GRE or traveling or spending a great deal of time with an especially loving host family. We have site visits from the central PC office three or four times during the two years, 24-hour access to PC medical staff, and continued trainings at various points throughout the year. We have a family plan for our cell phones which means that we can go to each other for support and can call for free to the PC office any time. You will almost certainly have easy access to internet. The food is excellent. The accommodations are not the most comfortable, but you adapt.

If you have any questions, please let me know, and I hope this quenches a bit of your thirst for knowledge about the unknown. You can comment on this post, or email me at

A personal update: Amanda headed off after her nearly four-week visit this week. She’ll be exploring Peru for a few weeks before she returns to the states. I got sick the day she left, so I’m kind of in a double disequilibrium of feeling lonely and physically unwell. I’m sure I’ll get it sorted out in a few days. It was wonderful having her visit and traveling to Granada and Leon with her. We watched Harry Potter 7 the day after it came out and, while we didn’t get to climb a volcano, we spent a good deal of time playing with Kenneth and my host family. I’m just starting my second semester of school, though I’ve now missed the first two days staying home sick.

Amanda and I had a lovely time visiting my training town family. Here we are with Alicia.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks (you mentioned obsessively reading PCV blogs… that’s totally me!). Anyway, I’m scheduled to leave for training on August 30th and this information was GREAT! I’m a big reader and had been debating about bringing a Kindle… do you think it would be worth it, even if I end up being somewhere pretty rural?


    • Yes, definitely. I am in a rural area and I am probably in one of the only sites that DOESN´T get 3G service and it´s still the most useful thing I own (besides my laptop). When I do travel I can check email and use wikipedia as well as buy books and when I am in my site I can either read the classics that I have stored on there OR go to the kindle website and download content and transfer it over USB. I do this when I can´t get signal and still want to read the New Yorker. Also, I would recommend getting one of the cases with a built in reading light. They´re really useful, though a bit pricey. Anyways, these are my thoughts and geek-outs. Glad the post was helpful!

      Also – Yay for Wisconsin! I´m from Adams-Friendship, which is halfway in between the Dells and the Rapids.


  2. Posted by Carol Lindsay on July 31, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Andrew–Thank you. Like emily.anne, I’m in the Aug. 30 ESL group. I have a kindle and was hoping it would deliver all the books I’m storing on it. Sounds like you don’t have a problem getting more books in Nicaragua. This is the first time I’ve read a post of yours. I’ll try more because I want to know more about the teaching/teacher training part. Thank you for the assurance about Spanish, my major focus in the last 3 months. Looking forward to meeting you. Carol Lindsay


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