One Year as a Volunteer

Ambassador Callahan, my host mom, and I at my swearing-in ceremony last year

On November 22nd, 2010 I attended the swearing-in ceremony in a fancy hotel in Managua and changed my job title from ‘Peace Corps Trainee’ to ‘Peace Corps Volunteer.’ The change felt small and mammoth at the same time and I believed in what I was swearing to do. I still do believe it. I am here to build relationships, learn about others, teach others, and support a community that lacks the resources necessary to fulfill its potential. I never had illusions that these things would be easy and I’ve had to constantly revise my internal goals and strategies to feel productive and successful. So here I am, at the halfway mark in my service. Here are some reflections about what this last year has meant: (my previous reflections on my year in Nicaragua including the three months of training can be found here)

One year in Service: Am I succeeding?

This is a question that has been on my mind ever since I began training: What does it mean to be a successful Peace Corps volunteer? Change one life for the better? Do no harm and learn new skills to bring back to the US? What is the balance between personal growth and meaningful change in our host country? How would I know if the time and money being spent on this endeavor are worth the outcomes? I have no final answers, but I feel more comfortable with my role now and here’s how I think about it:

I judge success in part by referencing the three broad goals of Peace Corps. Provide technical assistance to countries who request it, bring information and goodwill from the US to other countries, and bring the host country into clearer focus for the public back in the US. These are not sufficiently specific measures to judge success, but they point in a general direction. In addition, I had my own personal goals of examining my life and my place in the broader world, challenging myself, and learning new things. These are an important part of any volunteer’s experience, too. So how do I feel like I’ve been doing?

In terms of my program-specific goals (I am an English education volunteer), I feel like I have been only moderately successful. I work with local English teachers to improve their English ability, teaching skills, and material use in the classroom. They are good goals, but when reality intervenes it can be extremely difficult to stay focused on making progress in these areas. By reality I mean the institutional and psychological resistance to change inherent in all humans. We are constrained in our work by the educational environment, the economic environment, the political environment, the local infrastructure, and the historical legacies that influence every aspect of culture and society. Some specific examples could include low teacher pay that forces teachers to find second jobs and retracts from their ability to plan and focus energy on improving their teaching, lack of materials and training necessary to face the challenges of impoverished schools, political influences in the educational system that warp incentives and shift the focus away from education, and the lack of regular and effective transportation to facilitate collaboration. I have tried to face some of these broader issues in order to make progress on my primary goals by providing trainings for teachers, organizing initiatives to improve collaboration and focus on student education, and get creative with the bus system to find a reliable schedule for planning with my counterparts. I don’t think I have made much impact on these broad and systemic challenges, but it has been a good learning experience and I know that I won’t be able to succeed if I stop trying new things.

After a teacher training session about using new materials in English education.

I am lucky to work with engaged and interested counterparts, but they must labor in a failing education system which not only limits the progress that we can make together, but saps their energy, optimism, and interest in trying new things. After a decade of seeing the same dysfunction, would I want to spend time and energy on some ideas that a kid from the states has for my classroom? Maybe, but it’s not as easy as it originally sounded. I have no doubts that I am a valuable resource to my counterparts and students because of my English skills, but acting as a walking dictionary and pronunciation machine alone does not make me feel like a successful volunteer.

My excellent counterpart Dagoberto and I at a training event

In my other projects I have felt slightly more success, probably because I can work more directly rather than indirectly. My community classes are well-attended and seem to be achieving measurable progress in terms of helping a number of interested people acquire language skills that will serve them personally and economically. Probably can’t hurt, anyways. I have supported the local community center that offers a public library and computer classes. I give intermittent trainings to local teachers on new teaching methods to help education more broadly and have had positive feedback from these initiatives, though how much impact it is having in their classrooms is likely to be small.

My first community class.

I also work on initiatives to help fellow volunteers be more successful in their service by sharing my experiences, posting lesson plans, and trying to create a collaborative culture to speed along everyone’s learning curves. My goal is to decrease the amount of energy and time each volunteer spends doing the same thing that other volunteers have successfully done in the past. These initiatives have been met with some success, though the institutional culture of Peace Corps has its own problems and the access to technology that would make collaboration possible in the internet age is not available everywhere.

I am finally feeling socially successful here, though it has been a long, slow process. It takes a great deal of time to meet a critical mass of people, learn the right names, walk through town X amount of times, and figure out the correct casual banter in Spanish to not be awkward in social situations. Moving out of my host family’s house recently has made a huge difference in my ability to just hang out, which has been important to feeling like part of the town. I tend to identify more with the locals than the tourists, finally. I’m on the inside looking out and it’s a great feeling.

Two of my closest friends, Ruth (L) and Enoe (R)

I have felt the most concrete and meaningful changes to be the personal changes that I had set as goals from the beginning. I cannot know the changes that I am effecting outside as well as I can sense the new skills and ideas that I have acquired myself. My Spanish has improved significantly and I feel very confident that it will serve me in my future life and careers. I have gone from ignorance about teaching to considerable ability in organizing a classroom, designing curriculum, and training fellow teachers. I have developed important conflict resolution skills, communication skills, coping-with-change skills, social skills, cooking skills, nunchuck skills(j/k), and organizational skills. I have stayed intellectually active and listen to podcasts, read articles, read books, and written often. I have a goal to read at least 100 books during my time in the Peace Corps and I’m up to 60 so far. I have maintained and deepened my long-distance relationship with my girlfriend and my family, though I have not stayed in touch with even a fraction of the people I would like to. I have felt, at times, lonely and selfish for this focus on my own personal development and often fear that it detracts from my ability to do the larger goals for which I am here. Still, they have provided a refuge from the frustrations of slow institutional change that I am working against and have given me a small arena in which to feel clearly successful.

Overall my sense of being successful or not is a mix of all of these things. Social, personal, professional, cultural, and linguistic. Initiatives, goals, challenges, setbacks, and experiences. I have contributed in small ways to the quality of the education system in Nicaragua, I have helped Nicaraguans better understand the United States and its citizens, I have tried to provide information to those reading this blog about my experiences here, and I have grown as a person. I have certainly done very little harm (I think) and have created some small benefits for others and greater benefits for myself. I am prepared to say that I am being a successful volunteer in these modest ways, but determined not to become complacent. In order to continue feeling successful I must constantly assess my problems, challenges, failed initiatives, and mistakes to find constructive new solutions. Maybe the best definition of success is simply never giving up. Well, I’m not about to.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. first of all, i absolutely love your pictures!
    second of all i’m jealous of your awesome counterparts..
    third of all…after hearing them talk about you and just from knowing you, i can tell you that you’re an amazing volunteer and that the island and all of it’s teachers and students are super afortunados to have you there. your humbleness makes you that much more awesome!

    oh and i’d love to get access to the lesson plans etc that you are no doubt sharing with your fellow tefl-ers! let me know where i should be looking…sharepoint??

    Reply

    • Thanks Krista! That means a lot coming from you. 🙂 I’ll get you a link to where I’ve got a google doc, and when we see each other next I’ll show you what I’ve got and haven’t posted yet…

      Reply

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