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When I was in high school, we had school-wide assemblies every week, twice a week. Lame. I KNOW. The first one of the year was inevitably and without fail “the bookbag talk.” It was a cliché. It was reviled. It was naptime. But, as I’m beginning to ponder my new adventure, it’s … newly meaningful?

Our principal, Dr. Elizabeth Griffith, would place a series of variously-sized schoolbags by the podium. She’d say that now was our chance to unpack our fears, our prejudices, our stereotyping, our preconceived notions, and leave them at the gates. This would open up room in our baggage for new friends and new experiences and new beliefs and all the knowledge we could cram in. I don’t remember all the details, but it was a bit like the speech George Clooney gives in “Up In The Air,” if in reverse.

I am on the cusp of an enormous number of BIG GIANT changes in my life; I finished my thesis, I’m moving out of the country, I’m gaining new friends, I may lose some of the old (you always tell everyone you’ll stay in touch, but how often do you really?), I’m beginning to think about the rough and rocky path to my careeeer? And yes, I say it like that in conversation: extending the second syllable and pitching up the tone at the end as though I’m asking a question. Because I am, aren’t I? In some way.

I’m also packing up my life. Literally, and figuratively. My two best friends have already promised to help me pack my belongings (we’re ordering pizza, drinking wine, maybe making a slumber party of it – IT WILL BE EPIC) so that doesn’t worry me too terribly much. It’s only been today that I’ve begun to think about the “things” I’ll take with me and the “things” I’ll leave. “More than anything else,” a professor told me recently, “graduation is an opportunity to take with you all the good things you’ve gained and leave the bad.” I have no doubt the same can be said for moving to a new continent 8 timezones away. And so, in this spirit, I begin to take stock of my mental rucksack.

Leave: Vexation at the apathy of my generation.
Take: Knowledge that, hell, I’m certainly not the only person out there trying to change things. I know some awesome, competent, activist types. It only takes a few sparks to start a fire.

Leave: The epic frustration that comes with facing a problem so enormous as HIV/AIDS in a place so vast as Africa, compounded with the intimate knowledge of the failings of humanitarian intervention in general.
Take: Learning from others’ mistakes – if I can identify where humanitarianism fails, both as an individual and as part of a larger system, perhaps I can steer away from those courses. Or at least, do no harm.

Leave: Overthinking.
Take: Listening for understanding.

Leave: Worry that I won’t be able to maintain the friendships I’ve formed when I’m so far from twitter, facebook, e-mail, cell phones, text messages, and of course, immediate proximity.
Take: The love and memories I KNOW I’ve gained, which are mine to keep forever, regardless of what happens next.

Leave: Reliance on the familiar
Take: Openness to the unknown in the form of embracing the good experiences and accepting/processing the bad.

Leave: Naïve idealism
Take: Cautious optimism?

Leave: A-effing-dW, anthropological theorist, enormously respected scholar, primary resource for the giant term paper I’m currently finishing, and insufferable Africana know-it-all.
Take: My friend Nora; telling me that the circle of life does, in fact, involve me turning into AdW. Bless her.

Leave: Cynicism, doubt, ill-ease with systems and people and situations relating to East Africa, or to the media, or to the application process, or to the broader political world.
Take: The following little story – an anthropologist once told me about a time he had been driving on a stretch of highway running north out of Nairobi that’s INFAMOUS for police officers shaking down tourists, asking for kitu kidogo (“a little thing” – i.e. bribes to make imaginary traffic violations go away). It had been a bad day, or a hard trip, and he was sick of dealing with it; when he was pulled over and immediately thought, “God, this just takes the cake …”

When he presented his paperwork, though, the officer simply looked at him mildly and said “Congratulations, you’re the first car to have everything in order. You can go.” And like that, the straw that would have broken the camel’s back vanished entirely. And he was fine again.

“This is the thing about East Africa,” he told us solemnly, “is that you must be open to grace. East Africa is FULL of these moments … you spend a lot of time wanting to roll your eyes and going ‘Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse,’ or ‘OH GOD, HERE WE GO AGAIN,’ and then everything turns out in a way that’s unexpected and inspiring. If I can give you a message, let it be this: allow yourself to be open to and experience grace.”

And so I will.

I’ll even save room for it in my luggage.

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We have ten days after we accept our assignments wherein we must submit an updated resume (tailored to our assignment and country) as well as a five-part series of miniature essays known as the “Volunteer Aspiration Statement.” The goal is to inform our hosts as to our ambitions, guide our own efforts, and make those with whom we will be working aware of any shortcomings we’d like to address personally during our 12-week training period. Updating my resume took all of ten minutes – I’ve kept it in fairly good order since I first started it in high school. The aspiration statement was decidedly trickier. My mind began whirring the moment I read the instructional sheet, and countless times I wrote and re-wrote the whole of it in my head. Usually, though, I would do this as I was falling asleep, and by the time I awoke the next morning, it had been overwritten by dreams.

With the deadline looming and Freddie Mercury blaring in my earbuds, I finally sat down once and for all to write it Monday afternoon in my favorite local coffee shop. Parked on the couch with a large skinny iced mocha, I sat with my computer on my lap, waiting for the perfect words to spring from my fingertips like a cheetah from a trampoline. This is not, however, how the creative process actually works. There’s agency involved. And though. OH THE HORROR. The blink-blink of the cursor mocked me.

“My goals are thus,” I began, then quickly deleted it. I can’t use “thus,” that sounds too pretentious. “As I prepare to enter the Peace Corps, I have the following goals and aspirations:” didn’t feel right, either. Too … listy. Clearly, this was more challenging than I’d initially thought.

I won’t bore you to death (“TOO LATE!” I hear you shout) with the whole process, but after much wrestling, much espresso, and more than a little uncomfortable introspection, I produced what you will find below. It’s not my finest work, but it is honest, and for that I feel like I am owed some credit. Enjoy.

*****

A: Professional Attributes & Personal Aspirations

Having worked abroad and traveled somewhat widely, I realize that there are limitations to what I, an interloper, can achieve during a relatively brief two-year tenure in a new culture. This optimism tempered with recognizable realism is both an attribute of note as well as salient factor in my personal aspirations. Broad challenges such as HIV/AIDS, water sanitation, or the widespread disenfranchisement of the local youth are complex, long-term, systemic problems that likely require equally complex and long-term solutions. It is my hope to learn as much as I teach, grow as much as I inspire. I strongly believe in my own power to be of service. My goal is not to single-handedly effect change (or “save the world,” as the naïve idealist’s cliché goes), but to lend my knowledge, training, and enthusiasm to projects in such a way as to empower individuals who will continue long after my own departure to live in the communities with which I work. I want to raise awareness and provoke discussion about such issues as HIV/AIDS and its related gender issues in the communities I serve, while leaving these discussions open-ended so as to adapt as the community changes. I want to embolden people with the facts about issues like water sanitation and personal hygiene, in the hope that I may motivate them to consider long-term, culturally competent solutions specific to their own situations that can morph and grow with the needs of the community.

I also seek to engage in genuine cultural exchange – not in the sense of supplanting American values, codes, or traditions in place of Kenyan ones (or vice-versa) but rather to positively educate both Kenyan and American communities about the benefits and intrinsic challenges to both cultures. Through this, I hope, positive changes can be sought where needed, and each culture can experience a deeper understanding of the other. From understanding comes respect, which is the key to success in interactions between cultures.

These are among the professional attributes I consider most relevant to my assignment: knowledge, enthusiasm, and appropriate realism. I will also be drawing on skills I have developed through prior volunteer and work experiences of many kinds, including patience, intuition, and a keen respect for cultural awareness honed in prior experiences abroad. My work will be aided by my strong communication skills that I sought to develop both in academia and governmental experience. I also possess the ability to assert opinions and listen attentively while guiding respectful dialogue. Such experiences as those in crisis counseling and research have enhanced my ability to mediate conflict and work effectively in situations of disagreement. I have a deep sense of empathy and am aided by both intuition and general “people skills.” I work well under pressure, maintaining composure during situations of professional or emotional adversity. I anticipate that these professional and personal attributes will serve both my hosts and me well in my service with the Peace Corps.

B: Strategies for Working Effectively with Host Country Partners

My strategies for working effectively with my host country partners in Kenya draw upon my strengths and attributes listed above, including my strong communication skills and respect for cultural interaction. More specifically, it is among my goals to become as proficient in Kiswahili as possible, as well as obtaining at very least a minimal degree of competence in relevant local language(s). In my travels in and studies of East Africa, I have also become aware of the particular emphasis on regionalism in Kenya, and will make it my mission to understand the particular subtleties of custom and culture in the area to which I am assigned. I will be a proactive listener and attend carefully to the expressed needs of the community as indicated both by my colleagues in education as well as whatever direct feedback I can gain from the groups with which I’m working (youth groups, women’s groups, seminar attendees, etc). My scientific research background in psychology has prepared me to systematically assess what works and what does not; this is another skill I will be using to make the relationship between me and my host country partners as mutually beneficial as possible.

C: Strategies for Adapting to a New Culture

Although I was raised in a part of the United States with a reputation for dubiousness, my individual background is one of tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional understanding. To adapt to a new culture is not to value-rank its various aspects so that one may pick and choose the most favored bits, but rather to accept it largely for what it is and treat it with the respect it is owed. This carefully nonjudgmental outlook and respect for difference is an attitude I have no doubt will be helpful in my service for the Peace Corps.

My personal attributes I have discussed above will no doubt serve me well in seeking to adapt to both Kenyan culture as well as the peculiar cultural eccentricities of whichever region where I will find myself stationed: communication skills, composure under pressure, patience, intuition, empathy, and the rest. I am also a quick learner and openly embrace the challenge of new, unfamiliar experiences.

Also of great importance is my expansively-developed sense of humor. Although I’m quite capable of affording situations the gravity that they are due, I nonetheless have a ready skill for finding the humor in difficult or trying situations. I am unafraid to laugh at my own mistakes (of which I am sure there will be no shortage, as there always are whenever such a drastic cultural and linguistic change is undertaken.) The ability to “shake it off” with grace and good humor is an underrated but invaluable mechanism for coping with difficulty. It goes without saying that cultural appropriateness and boundaries must be respected when making light of something, but it is a near-universal truth that laughter has the power to draw people together in a way that can transcend unfamiliarity and discomfort.

D: Skills and Knowledge To Acquire During Pre-Service Training

Part of my preparation process will be continuing to learn about the language and culture of the nation and region in which I will be serving, so as to feel reasonably prepared when I arrive to take full advantage of my training. There are, however, some specific skills I will be hoping to acquire or hone during the pre-service training period. First and foremost, I want to continue improving my language skills – I see in the assignment description that an “intermediate low” level of Kiswahili is expected by the end of training, but I would be more than willing to learn beyond that level of proficiency, as I hope to achieve comfortable fluency by the end of my service. Furthermore, I look forward to exploring and gaining some competence in any other local languages that could be useful in helping me communicate with the people I will be working with and serving.

Similarly, I hope training will be able to help me achieve a greater degree of cultural competency. I arrive with a particular skill set and base of knowledge tailored towards particular audiences; although I have indeed worked with HIV/AIDS and community health projects in East Africa (though in Tanzania, not Kenya) I must nonetheless confess that much of my experience has been with an English-speaking American population. Any assistance or guidance in understanding the particular mien in which I am working, or ways in which I can adapt the knowledge I already have to better suit the needs of the communities I am serving, would be deeply appreciated. Finally, a review of the standard curriculum for what I am intended to teach – HIV/AIDS prevention, water sanitation, etc – would be helpful in allowing me to identify where I may have gaps in my own knowledge (or conversely, there may be room for improvement in existing core curricula.)

E: How the Peace Corps Will Influence Personal & Professional Aspirations After the Completion of Service

People are often mystified when I explain that, following a term of service in the US Peace Corps, I then intend to settle into a traditional PhD track to clinical psychology and eventual therapy/research practice. I do not, however, see them as particularly disparate. Both require working closely with people who have the power to pull you out of your pre-determined “comfort zone.” Both require patience, understanding, and ingenuity. Both speak to the famous statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” Indeed, serving in the Peace Corps will do much to enhance my suitability for my intended future career.

With regards to the actual, marketable skills I will acquire in the Peace Corps – cultural awareness of a fascinating world region, proficiency in Kiswahili (possibly among others), a top-notch working knowledge of Kenyan public hygiene projects – these specific skills could be of use in the world of psychology. My area of research thus far has been individuals who have suffered some form of life trauma; HIV/AIDS infection can fit this category in some instances, as can other populations I’m likely to come into contact with at some point during my tenure in the Peace Corps (victims of sexual violence, individuals affected by the 2007-8 political violence, etc). And certainly, if part of the purpose of the Peace Corps is to educate Americans about other parts of the world, I have no doubt whatsoever that I will also be a vehicle for that. I will most definitely be educating everyone around me in an informal way and would happily share my experiences in a more structured format (seminars, lectures, educational panels about African issues, etc) if the opportunity were to arise. I would be honored to share whatever insight I am able to gain with a wider audience.

However, perhaps more significant to my future will be the application of the life skills I hone while abroad. Patience, empathy, compassion, flexibility, humor, wonder, awe, calm in the face of overwhelming challenges – these are things I have now that I will no doubt have in even greater abundance upon return. The Peace Corps may not change my ultimate life goals, but it will undoubtedly influence the skills I yield to pursue them.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly