Note: This essay was completed as part of our Pre-Service Training tasks to prove that we are indeed ready to swear in on November 7, 2014 for two years of service as Peace Corps Volunteers in the department of Estelí.
To find out more about our Peace Corps Service check out this brief Peace Corps (Global and Nicaragua) overview, our Assignments and Projects, Stories and Experiences, or any number of series and features we have on our blog.
As we walked up the stairs towards the porch I could already feel the butterflies in my stomach long before we shouted, “Buenas!” My husband had assured me that Doña Nubia was worth talking to, but I was still feeling nervous about my Spanish abilities and wondering if it really was worth our time to speak with her tonight. It was soon to be dark, I was tired from the day, and just felt the weight of training tasks yet to be completed.
But in the time it took us both to kiss Doña Nuvia on the cheek, I began to relax. As typical with lovely older Nicaraguan women, she welcomed me, a complete stranger, into her house just to chat, share coffee, and learn a little about each other. We asked questions. We responded emotionally when hearing of struggles and trials in Doña Nuvia’s life and family. We learned about the education system and how important she believes it is to have high expectations of students. This woman had no connection to Peace Corps or our schools we’d been teaching in, but we quickly found common ground. We connected.
As I near the end of our 12 weeks of training, I find myself wondering if I am ready to finally become a volunteer. In these moments of wondering, I find myself thinking back to small interactions like these and I know that I am ready. Even within this short, simple conversation with Doña Nuvia, I exhibited the three qualities I believe are essential for a successful volunteer service: flexibility, self-initiative, and putting people first.
There are numerous ways I have learned to be flexible during training. Moving to a new country and culture requires you to modify certain behaviors to meet host country norms. Some changes are physical in nature – what I eat, when I eat, when I sleep, sleeping with earplugs to block out noise, etc. I don’t travel at night alone, as it would make me stand out even more than I already do as a very white, blond, tall woman. My body is slowing adjusting to the weather, the climate, the different stimuli. Yet other modifications are more emotional or mental adjustments. I’ve learned how to better deal with the catcalls walking down the street without hitting or completely going off on someone. I’ve lived apart from my husband to help my language acquisition. Like my conversation with Doña Nuvia, I’ve learned to push through my fear of talking to complete strangers and to simply invite myself into people’s porches, or the MINED office, or the Alcaldia for a chat.
From these and other behavioral modifications I’ve been introduced to different ways of living and it has helped open my eyes to various aspects of the culture I will have to be aware of at site, both good and not-so-good. Knowing a bit more now about machismo I will be far more aware of gender roles when conducting any workshop or activity at site as it affects things from the time and place of my events to how I invite guests. I’ve learned to find time for myself in the morning before my day starts to emotionally manage the stress of culture shock. Slowly, but surely, I’m being flexible in my expectations of others, striving first to understand their backgrounds, reasons, and history before I place any judgment or try to fix any “problem.”
The second quality I believe I have that will aid in my success as a volunteer is that of self-initiative. During training, I have put my all into my language acquisition. From studying on my own and talking with my family and neighbors, to being OK with making mistakes and seeking answers to my language questions, I’ve tried to take my learning into my own hands. Not only will this process continue at site in regards to language acquisition, but this self-initiative will be a huge asset in working towards my TEFL project objectives. Three objectives I personally want to give extra attention to are:
Goal 1: Build Capacity of English Teachers
- Objective 1.1: By October 2018, 143 English teachers will implement more student-centered English teaching and effective classroom management techniques.
- Objective 1.4: By October 2018, 1,824 English teachers will increase their technical knowledge of TEFL through workshops and trainings.
Goal 2: Promote English within the Community
- Objective 2.1: By October 2018, 13,046 students will improve their English proficiency through participation in English extracurricular activities
My primary work falls under building the capacity of English teachers. At my site in Estelí, I will have three to four counterpart English teachers in one of the city schools. While their movement towards higher English proficiency and more student-centered and effective management techniques will each be different depending on their backgrounds, education, and knowledge of these teaching methodologies, it will also take patience, understanding, and self-initiative on my part. Working side-by-side with these counterparts over the next two years I’m sure will prove challenging at times, but I am convinced that I will learn as much (if not more) from them as they will from me. I’m committed to paying close attention to how I can best approach opportunities for growth and change. I will be aware of gender challenges and differences in the classroom and will strive to help my counterparts see these interactions as they are and how we can approach them together. I’m willing to put in the hours and hard work it will take to truly co-plan and co-teach. I’m ready to dive into the community that is the school and create ways to become a true working member of that community. None of this will just happen for me. It’s up to me to find a way in.
Another aspect of my work will be building a strong relationship with the Ministry of Education (MINED). There is a contact in the MINED in Estelí we are hoping to work closely with to develop workshops and trainings, build communities of practices with the various teachers in the region and municipality, and work together on meeting the teacher’s need for training (both English skills and teaching methodologies). As with any big scale objective, this goal will require focus, discipline, and initiative from my husband and I as we strive to work alongside the MINED to meet these goals. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with the Nicaraguan MINED on objectives they have set for their teachers, and be a part of building the capacity of the English teachers.
I also hope to focus at site on the secondary goal of promoting English within the community. While I am not sure exactly how this will look at site (as this will depend on the activities already in place that we may plug into, as well as the needs we see once we arrive and take a few months to get to know the community) I easily envision this involving working with youth in some capacity. My husband and I love working with youth. I have been a camp counselor and youth leader for close to ten years. In my training town, I have co-led a youth group that focused both on reinforcing the English teaching of the instituto and providing access to life-skills lessons to aid their personal growth and development. The model that a youth group provides may be one that we employ working towards this project goal. Working with youth provides an excellent way to work towards gender equality, working to promote HIV/Aids awareness, and any other life skill we recognize as a need or area for growth in the youth in the community. We look forward to getting to site and exploring the professional connections that exist in the form of non-profits, community organizations, and other local volunteers who are working or want to work on building a better future for the younger generation.
Self-initiative will also be an asset to my personal well being during my two years as a volunteer. Peace Corps has an “EPIC” model used to describe volunteer resiliency and navigating the roller coaster of service. The four goals of EPIC (Empowerment, Protection, Integration, and Connection) speak to the ways in which volunteers can find success or deeply struggle at site. Empowerment is that we all need to feel some sort of control over our daily living. Taking charge of small things and feeling this sense of empowerment in one area can greatly help a volunteer deal with things that aren’t going as planned in a different area. Living in a physical and emotional safe place is essential to a volunteer’s sense of Protection. Being Integrated deeply into the community, school, and networks surrounding the volunteer can be a life-line into belonging, feeling of worth, as well as making progress on any project objectives. Finally Connection to people, host family, counterparts, local friends, other PCVs can build a network of love and support that helps the volunteer feel a bit more human and normal in a world that at times feels vastly different from their own. In each of these areas, when I am feeling a lack of any one of them, my self-initiative could be my best ally. Each of these areas can be approached from the mindset of needing to dive in a little deeper. If I’m feeling un-integrated, then try to integrate. If I’m feeling a lack of empowerment, then find an area of my life, even if it’s small, to take some sense of control over. For example, during my training I’ve tried to take control of my first hour of the day. I get up before my family, I do yoga, I journal, I complete homework in the only time I’ve found that is quiet. Taking charge of this small part of my life in training has helped me have a positive attitude and outlook on the rest of the day. It has made me a more effective trainee and it will aid me in being a more effective and resilient volunteer. I know I am ready for service because a strength I have is recognizing my emotions and when I am in a state that is not the best. In those moments I can rely on my networks, my initiative, my coping skills to find a way to jump back on the roller coaster for another crazy ride.
During my short interaction with Doña Nuvia, and throughout my training experience, my belief that serving in the Peace Corps is all about relationships has been reinforced tenfold. The second and third goal of the Peace Corps, to share in cultural exchange and relationship building with the people of Nicaragua and the people we know and love in the United States, keeps creeping into our lives and interactions. Training has fostered within me a deep desire to sit around drinking coffee and watching telenovelas with family and friends, to set aside my books and flash cards to have real conversations in Spanish even if they are a bit above my current language ability level, to learn Nica sayings and try to make my host families laugh as I butcher those sayings. While these may seem simple, little things at first glance, they are really what gives power to all of our project goals and objectives and are in line with Peace Corps approach to development.
One way I hope to put this into practice at my site is by developing a close relationship with the MINED, the delagado and the teachers of Estelí. One project we would like to begin in Estelí is that of the STEP program (Fundacion Uno). The program partners with the MINED and Peace Corps to aid Nicaraguan English teachers in learning English. Right now though, the idea to begin the program is only a Peace Corps idea. We know the program is aligned with the national MINED goals and objectives. We also know that English teachers all over Nicaragua want to learn more English. However, there is no way that this project idea is going anywhere if we try to start it. This isn’t the way Peace Corps approaches development and it’s not the way to go about bringing and facilitating sustainable change.
Our task then is to remember Peace Corps’ approach to develop and the role of a volunteer in the development process. For the first few months at site, and throughout our entire service, it is our task to start with building relationships. Putting people first is our number one goal. We are going to ask questions, get to know the MINED staff, get to know the teachers, and strive to get them to tell us what they need and want. Using any appropriate tools such as the PACA or Needs Assessments, we will build an idea of what the people of Estelí think is important for their future, for their success. Our role is that of a companion on the journey, a listening ear, a friend. Peace Corps approach to development is from the ground up, starting with the people and working to help empower them to improve their lives. We will keep project ideas in mind, such as the STEP program, throughout this process and only if it aligns with the information we gather though relationship building will we even suggest it as an option. If our then friends and co-workers agree that the program is something they are interested in we can then work though our role as a volunteer in development, a facilitator and bridge builder between the people who have decided a need and a path forward and the resources we know exist.
Whether or not we are able to implement the STEP program, this process will be the backbone of everything we want to do at site. It is in line with our project goals and it ensures that volunteers are creating sustainable projects and striving to put people, their needs, their desires, and their lives first.
I am so thankful that my husband had the idea to visit Doña Nuvia. Not only was it a perfect way to help me feel a bit more confident about my Spanish acquisition where at first I felt only fear, but it helped me see and know that I am ready to be a volunteer. I am ready and willing to be flexible in my ways of living and working, to have self-initiative in my personal and professional tasks, and above all put the people first in all of my interactions, projects, and ideas.