Swearing In Update
It has been a while – at least it feels that way! My last update came at the midway point through my thirteen weeks of Pre-Service Training. I have since graduated from training, sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and began my two years of service; I am now living and working in the community in which will spend the next two years, a small town in the northern verdant mountains of Nicaragua. Despite the excitement of recent weeks in transitioning into this new community, I am going to focus this update on the second half of Pre-Service Training, and will save information about my new home for the next update.
The concluding half of Pre-Service Training, as well as my first few weeks at site, have continued to be quite the emotional roller coaster, and I have a feeling this will be a common theme woven throughout my service. Every day, every hour, is totally different. One moment I’m feeling confident, capable, affirmed, the next the exact opposite – deficient, lost, lonely. However, the more I practice mindful living, living in the here and now as opposed to allowing my thought patterns to lurk into the past or grasp into the future, I find the happier I am. But staying mindful is much easier said than done, and I struggle with losing myself in the tug of memories and future expectations constantly – as such, the continued cultivation of mindful living has increasingly become a core focus of my daily priorities.
Much of my time and efforts throughout the second half of Pre-Service Training were dedicated to “Practicum Activities”, three main activities designed to give me direct, hands-on experience into the work I will be doing the next two years.
Coaching and Co-Teaching
Each week I would coach and co-plan with a Nicaraguan teacher over the theme of that week’s Entrepreneurship class, and then attend and co-teach the class alongside him.
While the Nicaraguan high school teachers are trained in pedagogy and fluent in Nicaraguan culture (two skill sets I very much lack), they generally have no experience with business concepts/curriculum – as such, a central role of my service is ‘coaching’ Nicaraguan teachers charged with teaching Entrepreneurship (a new class recently introduced as a result of the Nicaraguan government’s innovative and novel focus of fostering Entrepreneurship across the country), helping the teachers to strengthen their understanding of the business concepts they have been asked to teach their students. Moreover, this focus on ‘coaching’ teachers, rather than simply teaching students directly, is meant to empower the sustainability and longevity of our service, with the goal being that we conclude our two years of service having trained educators who will then continue to work with students for decades to come. It is a development model centered on human development, rather than more traditional (and in my opinion less effective and ethically questionable) development models centered on aid/relief and infrastructure.
While initially intimidating and frustrating, I came to really enjoy my time working with Profe. Jose David and his class, and found my final goodbyes difficult to deliver. Moreover, the farewell words and applauses of Profe. Jose David and his students were really moving, and left me feeling like I have already had a positive impact on the lives of many Nicaraguans. I am so humbled and grateful for the opportunity to really dig in and expand this impact in the years to come.
Visiting the school of a currently serving Entrepreneurial Education Volunteer to observe and learn about his work dynamics in the classroom.
I also spent a considerable amount of time working outside of school with a group of 11th grade youth from the community. Over the course of ten weeks myself and two other volunteers guided a group of nine students through a crash course on starting their own business: helping them to choose/create their own product, walking them through every aspect of a business plan, and finally having them apply this knowledge to form their own start-up business complete with a finished product and accompanying business plan. Our team’s work culminated with their competing in a regional business plan competition in which they were awarded second prize, and perhaps even more tellingly, selling their finished product (a beautiful ceramic coffee/tea set) to my boss, the head of Peace Corps Nicaragua’s Entrepreneurship program!
This activity was meant to emulate and simulate a key component of my work in the classroom for the next two years; the 11th grade curriculum I will be helping to teach is based around the students forming their own businesses, creating their own product/service, and applying all the course material towards creating their own business plan. At the end of every school year, students from around the country come together for a national business plan competition. Our work with the youth group was in part meant to simulate this year long process in an intensified timeline.
It was really nice to get a taste of this process (and study the entire 11th grade curriculum along the way) during Pre-Service Training. However, more importantly, it was incredibly impactful working with these students, seeing them learn and grow from week to week, and sharing in their joy and excitement after finishing their product and business plan and realizing the possibilities and opportunities this newly acquired skill set could bring into their lives. Working with this group of youth has been one of the most impactful and rewarding experiences I have had in Nicaragua to date, and I am so excited for the opportunity to continue building and fostering relationships with Nicaraguan youth in the years to come.
Our youth group posing with their ceramic product and its new owner – my boss!
The third central component of the Practicum Activities was designing and providing high school teachers from the four cities/towns in which trainees were living with a Circulo Pedagógico, or a teacher training. Like the other practicum activities, this project was designed to give me experience in another central dimension of my service moving forward, as I will be organizing and providing Circulo Pedagógicos to 10th and 11th grade teachers from across my Municipality (more or less my school district) every month. These teacher trainings are generally focused on a specific theme in the course that the teachers desire further clarification on or resources for. For example, the first half of the Circulo Pedagógico we organized during training centered on the different dynamics of competition within the business environment and the second half on the role, use, and importance of feasibility studies.
Overall, I was pleased with how it all came together and really enjoyed the dynamics of working with a classroom filled with teachers. In fact, this is one of the dimensions of my service I am most looking forward to in the months to come.
Presenting certifications to the professors who attended our Circulo Pedagógico.
Along with focussing on these Practicum Activities within site, trainees would come together a few times a week for technical and core competency trainings. Technical trainings ranged from lectures on the content covered in the Entrepreneurship curriculum, Nicaragua’s current and historic business environment and dynamics, navigating and working effectively within the classroom environment, etc. Core competency trainings focused on cultural education and integration, health, safety, and administrative topics.
Perhaps my favorite focus of the trainings were those dedicated to the theoretical and practical concepts of grassroots community development work. For example, how to design and facilitate trainings, how to conduct community analyses, defining and understanding the importance of human development as opposed to aid/infrastructural development, non-formal education outside of the classroom, behavior change, etc. The Peace Corps is an international development organization, and as such, I am in large part here to do responsible development work. Moreover, these themes resonated strongly with my past work in community organizing, and are designed to empower us to do the work that initially inspired me to apply for the Peace Corps, and the work I am most excited about dedicating my time towards moving forward.
The final organized aspect of training consisted of language education and acquisition. For the first half of Pre-Service Training, this was much more focused in the ‘classroom’, with my two site mates and myself studying and practicing different dynamics of Spanish in our community with a Nicaraguan language instructor. However, as training wore on and the weeks became more and more busy and concentrated on our work with the Practicum Activities, language training naturally evolved towards empowering our work in these regards. While I do feel like I made a lot of progress in terms of my Spanish speaking ability, I’ve also been surprised by my evolving realization of how much farther I have to go. As an analogy, it feels like I started out on what I thought would be a 5k running race and have passed the ‘halfway’ mark, only to now learn the race I started out on is actually a marathon.
Upon arrival my Spanish speaking ability was tested and classified as Intermediate Low on the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages scale (the scale runs from Novice Low, Mid, and High, Intermediate Low, Mid, and High, Advanced Low, Mid, and High, and for most tops out at Superior). The same interview was conducted at the end of Pre-Service Training, and I was excited to have progressed to the point of being classified as Advanced Low. However, more than anything, I’m still struck by how much my Spanish speaking ability is lacking and am amazed by how long and arduous the process of learning a foreign language really is. Every day I continue to make small improvements, and hope that with time they will accumulate and eventually contribute to my ability to converse in Spanish with fluency.
However, it has not been all work and no play… One afternoon we were able to explore a beautiful lake tucked away in the mountains while visiting an older Peace Corps volunteer to observe and shadow his day to day work.
Perhaps the most moving, fulfilling, and impactful aspect of my thirteen weeks of Pre-Service Training were the opportunities it provided for connecting with and integrating into my host community. While I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time overseas, I have always felt predominantly like a tourist just passing through, even during my semester living abroad. These past thirteen weeks have been different. Even though my community members and I both knew I would only be in the community for three months, the fact that I would be staying on for a further two years thereafter seemed to shift the way that Nicaraguans interacted with me, as well as the way I interacted in the community. At a personal level, for the first time in my life, I did not, and do not, feel like a tourist in a foreign country – I feel I have simply moved to a new home; and this sentiment seemed to be reflected by my community members. I am constantly impressed and moved by the warmth and generosity with which community members treat me – whether being invited in from the street to share fresh picked mangos straight from a tree in the backyard, being invited to observe and learn the traditional ceramic making process in an artist’s home, being invited to play fútbol on the weekends and then being lent cleats and a jersey, unexpected invitations to enjoy humble meals and snacks on the front porch, always being offered local prices for goods and services I wished to purchase, or simply receiving warm smiles and kind words when walking down the street – I truly felt welcomed and at home throughout my time in San Juan de Oriente.
However, the most rewarding aspect of all was my home stay experience. My host mother truly made me feel like her own son, and I shared a very special relationship with my host sister. I learned so much from the family, and am so grateful for all of their patience, love, support, and home cooking! They will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Being invited in from the street to meet these newborn piglets – not even 20 hours old!
Enjoying smoothies with my host family after a special church celebration.
After 13 long (and short) weeks of Pre-Service Training, I graduated and officially swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on June 2nd. What a remarkable feeling! Pre-Service Training was challenging; the fast paced and intensive trainings alongside the practicum activities, paired with the cultural transitions and constant language challenges, made for a mentally exhausting three months. An exhausting, but tremendously formative and transformation three months. Completing Pre-Service Training feels like a small accomplishment in and of itself, and it was nice to be able to celebrate that at the swearing in ceremony. However, more than anything I was so excited to get to my community and finally begin my service. I was first offered (and immediately accepted) a position to serve for Peace Corps Nicaragua in December of 2015 – needless to say, the anticipation has had ample time to build! In effect, swearing in felt like the definitive end of the previous chapter of my life and the introduction to this next chapter.
The ceremony was nice. It was presided over by the director of Peace Corps Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan Minister of Education, the Nicaraguan Minister of Health (both of which are analogous to cabinet positions in the United States), and the US Ambassador to Nicaragua. After a few hours of speeches and other formalities, one by one every trainee rose to sign their name and confirm their commitment to service for the next two years. It is official – I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer!
Making it official!!
Celebrating my graduation from Pre-Service Training with my host mother.
I am now finishing up my first month in site, and have really been enjoying the transition and freedom that has come with it. I have spent much of this time settling in: settling into my new home, into my schools, and into my community more generally. As initially mentioned, I am going to save the details of my site assignment for my next update. For now, suffice it to say I am living in a small community tucked away in the northern verdant mountains. From what I have gathered, I am one of the most isolated volunteers serving in Nicaragua, and generally speaking feel that this site will be a good fit for me the next two years.
As always, I really do love hearing personal updates from your end. Please do not be intimidated by the length of my updates – any information you feel inclined to share is always cherished and welcomed.
Be Well. Be Happy.
Note: The contents of this blog are mine personally and may not reflect the position of the PC Corps nor (and most likely not) the position of the US Government.