Recent RPCV Interview
As part of the transition home, the Peace Corps office for returned PCVs sent out an interview request. The questions are fairly in-depth and range from serious perspective insights to silly inquiries. I thought it worthwhile to post my responses here:
WHAT LED YOU TO SERVE IN THE PEACE CORPS?
Peace Corps service appealed to me ever since I first heard about it at a career fair in high school. It seemed to offer the perfect opportunity for “responsible adventuring” – of simultaneously promoting exploration, personal growth and professional skills development. Moreover, it allowed for the otherwise impossible: true immersion in a culture completely foreign to my own, and the chance to begin to understand a radically different perspective. Peace Corps provided a gateway to global citizenship – and I wanted through.
EDUCATION (COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY, DEGREE & GRAD YEAR):
BA Architecture and City Planning, University of California Berkeley (2008)
MA International Environmental Policy, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (expected 2015). I am a Peace Corps Masters International student; I began my degree in 2011 and will spend this year completing my degree.
HOW DID YOUR COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY PREPARE YOU FOR PEACE CORPS?
Everything about the education at MIIS is international: the student body, the faculty, the course offerings and case studies. Cross-cultural communication, cooperation and team work are inherent to the education. And all lessons point to the same truth: that successful development can only occur when led by the community members themselves.
PEACE CORPS JOB TITLE:
Food Security Volunteer
DESCRIBE YOUR SITE:
Baglung Bazaar begins where the pavement ends, the last great outpost of commerce in western Nepal, a strange pocket of “development” in an otherwise rural countryside. The city limits are sharply defined on three sides by a shear 1000 foot drop to the roaring Kali Gandaki river below, the same canyon of which perfectly frames a view of the worlds 7th highest peak, Mt Dhaulagiri, to the North. Six days a week the dusty streets fill with students, farmers, shopkeepers, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, jeeps, buses, freight trucks and tractors, ringing bells, blasting horns and otherwise rumbling through on their way to some exchange. Baglung Bazaar is a definitive hub town, connecting resources, connecting services, connecting people.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR PRIMARY AND SECONDARY PROJECTS?
My projects included conducting a farmers’ group needs assessment survey, facilitating mushroom farming training for income generation, organizing film screenings for women’s empowerment, co-coordinating a regional Girl’s Leadership Camp, managing a Girls Leadership Club and coordinating 6 community mural projects.
WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
On the morning of January 24th, 2014, a crowd of high school students gathered in the chill outside of a cinema house in Baglung Bazar, but they weren’t there to watch the latest Bollywood hit. They gathered that morning to attend a special screening of Girl Rising, a film that features the stories of 9 girls from around the world who have successfully challenged social barriers to education and equality. A film presented in English, they got to watch the first screening with Nepali subtitles.
That morning represented many month’s collaboration finally come to fruition. The idea to organize a collaborative Gender Equity focused project with the VSO and KOICA volunteers in my town was sparked by the spirit of the UN International Volunteer Day. Our idea: a two-phase event, combining the movie screening with a mural painting project in order to combine action with education, and create a public and permanent message in support of gender equity in our community. In order to be truly accessible to our community, both needed to be presented in Nepali language. For the film, that meant a lengthy process of formal translation and adding Nepali subtitles.
Getting the film ready for local screening was one huge success. Creating a mural over the following week along side community members to further relay the messages of the film was another. The mural features a portrait of a Nepali woman in front of overlapping female symbols that give the impression of a crowd. The text is written in Nepali script. Translated in English it reads:
I am a woman.
I am strong.
I will be educated.
I will be heard.
I will lead.
I will make my presence felt.
I am the author of my own fate.
I deserve respect.
This was my favorite project not only because of the message but because of the successful collaboration across so many parties: between local hosts, government offices, leaders, school teachers, students, neighbors, and international volunteer organizations (Peace Corps, VSO, KOICA and VSO ICS.). And – because it sparked so much enthusiasm and energy with everyone involved, leading to many later replications of both events.
WHAT PART OF YOUR SERVICE DID YOU ENJOY MOST?
Two things: First, having a little brother! I am an only child with far-away extended family, so I’ve never really experienced what it means to be a sister. In my first host family there was only one son. As two only children, we both experienced what it was to have a sibling for the first time together. We really bonded over that. He was twelve when I arrived, so I came into his life as he came into adolescence, participating in his coming of age ceremony and acting a true big sister with advice and friendship. It was an amazing experience for me. And – now I have a little brother for the rest of my life!
Second, I loved that daily work involved hiking around the hillsides! Part of my job was to walk several hours a day. It’s pretty hard to beat that.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR COUNTERPARTS AND HOST COMMUNITY.
My relationship with Baglung built upon friendships – on neighbors inviting me over for tea, on farmers forcing dozens of fresh oranges on me, on friendly shop keepers asking me to sit and chat for a while. It was through this network of friends that I was able to make projects happen.
HOW HAS PEACE CORPS CHANGED OR ENLIGHTENED YOUR PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE?
Patience is not a virtue, but a necessity, as almost no day will go precisely the way you plan it to and almost everything will take longer than you expect. While this is especially true in the developing world and the scale is perhaps different, I think it is also true in the United States. In my experience Americans as a whole have an infamous lack of patience and high expectations, and so when things take a bit longer than we expect most of us break down into stress and frustration. My experience in Peace Corps has grounded me in a lot of patience and greater understanding when plans change, in defaulting with patience instead of knee-jerk frustration. I mean, most Americans truly aren’t aware of how good they have it – of how efficiently our society functions 90% of the time.
WHY WOULD YOU RECOMMEND PEACE CORPS TO YOUR COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY SENIORS?
Peace Corps service offers a chance to take your education beyond theory and into practice; the experience is deeply humbling. Working on the ground, deeply immersed in a community will expand your understanding of development 100 fold, enlighten your perspective on both another country and the United States, and force you to see your true strengths and weaknesses as a professional.
WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DID OR PLAN TO DO WHEN YOU GET/GO HOME?
After my mom picked me up (and I gave here a giant hug or two), we drove straight to Ocean Beach to stick our toes in the sand and have our calves kissed by ocean brine.
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’LL MISS MOST ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY OF SERVICE?/DO YOU HAVE ANY FACTS OR CULTURAL INSIGHT YOU WANT TO SHARE?
Tea. I will miss the act of sitting down to a cup of tea with, well – everyone. In Nepal, the act of sharing tea is the act of sharing rest and conversation with another individual; of taking a moment to breath and a moment to catch up with a neighbor or get to know someone new. It is an act of genuine hospitality, and of slowing down to be present for a moment. There is always time for tea!
HOW HAS PEACE CORPS SHAPED YOUR CAREER OR EDUCATIONAL GOALS?
My Peace Corps experience truly solidified several development truths: that change must have support from the ground up or it will never happen, and that the best way to assist from the outside is to contribute toward building local productive capacity. I am currently a graduate student of sustainable development and International Policy – which promotes change from the top down. Peace Corps has not made me do a 180 on development theory, but has made clear to me that development must be supported from both sides, top and bottom, in order to be successful. This effects my career goals insomuch now I’m not sure which side I want to work from – but I know it needs to include time in the field!
Peace Corps also taught me how to healthily manage being far from my close friends and family for long spans of time, which has made me more excited about pursuing a career that will continue to take me overseas.
WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO WORK/GO TO SCHOOL? WHAT’S YOUR DREAM ORGANIZATION TO WORK FOR AND IN WHICH CITY?
The International Institute of Environment and Development (London)
The International Institute of Sustainable Development (Winnipeg, Geneva)
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development – Back in Kathmandu!
DID YOU BRING ANYTHING INTERESTING HOME FROM SERVICE?
Yes, a lot of things! My favorite is a solar-powered prayer wheel, which probably sounds like a super kitchy tourist souvenir but is actually the most authentic local item I brought back. I mean – just about every taxi cab and bus in Nepal has one. I went to a sand-mandala fund-raising event for a group of monks on tour here in California and guess what they had on the dash board of their tour van? That’s right – a solar powered prayer wheel. Seeing it made my day.
HAVE ANY OTHER QUESTIONS?
This question is for you, my readers! If there’s something else you’d like to ask, please feel free to respond in the comments box below :)