26 January 2012

A wee summary

A few days, or possibly weeks ago, an alumna from my high school emailed me, wanting to know more about going into the Peace Corps. I wrote up this summary and figured it would be a good way to get back into posting on my blog as well.

When our alumni director interviewed me, she asked me whether our high school had influenced my choice to go into the Peace Corps. I had a hard time articulating that in the moment, but it certainly did. Choosing to serve requires an immense amount of self-confidence and a belief that one single person CAN make a difference. I know that the supportive environment, both teachers and other students, at our high school nurtured those qualities in me. I'm not surprised that another alumna is looking for a way to 'give back.'

Let me just say, if you are considering doing service in international development, I believe that Peace Corps is the best option available. The training and support you receive and the huge emphasis on project management, cultural integration, and community-initiated work is a unique blend. Too many other volunteer opportunities focus on one thing - like cultural exchange, where they send volunteers to an area, they do a cookie-cutter project like building houses, eat a few meals with a host family, and then go home. In the Peace Corps, you arrive in your village and spend the first six months doing a participatory needs assessment, learning what your community is good at, how they celebrate grand occasions, how they mourn loss, and what they want to do to improve their own lives. Then you develop ideas and projects hand-in-hand with your local counterparts. It's slower and you will work harder than in other projects, but in the end, you have personally learned a huge number of skills in project management and design, skills that you wouldn't have had exposure to in the workplace in America for several years. And your unique integration with the community, positive identification of their resources (human, plant, animal, financial) allows your community itself to find the strength to not only be successful with you, but also to continue the work after you've left.

I spent three years in Togo, in West Africa. I went in as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer with an emphasis in Non-Profit Development. The following summary is only the bare bones of the work that I did, I recommend you take a look at other entries on my blog for a fuller picture.
A short video I used in a presentation
I spent most of my first year doing projects in my tiny no-electricity-no-running-water village, working with a local seamstress to build up her business and then, through her, teaching apprentice seamstresses and tailors basic business skills. My second year, I took on managing and running a national youth leadership camp, recruiting camp counselors and young people from all over Togo to learn skills from the personal - self-confidence, to the practical - puberty and adolescence, to the social - how to prevent HIV/AIDS and teach others to prevent it too. I took on a third year of service (service is normally only 2 years) because I had the opportunity to take on a leadership role in the volunteer community, helping to improve training and support for volunteers. In addition to supporting volunteers, I was able to continue the community projects I'd taken on, bringing them to the next level - re-establishing a scholarship program for girls with a US-based foundation to support them, and starting to put together monitoring and evaluation techniques for the youth leadership camp that would enable us and our funders to better attract donations.

As you can see, I did a lot of interesting work - from grant-writing to building a gigantic walk-through uterus to help kids understand how menstruation and pregnancy work. I participated in tons of community events - from a convoluted traditional engagement ceremony that started with a 45 minute hike up a mountain to joining the local church choir (trying as best I could to sing along in the local language Ewe).

It was at times tough and tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but I am so happy that I did it. I am very proud of the work that I did, blessed by the friendships I made, and profoundly changed by the challenges I faced.

I strongly encourage you to apply to the Peace Corps - keep in mind that the application process itself took a year for me, and that's pretty typical, so go into it with patience and flexibility.

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