08 June 2010

10 Steps of Pre-Service Training

(Or, The Summation of My Life the Past Two Months in One Really Long Blog Entry)

1. Hold Up the Entire Group at JFK Airport… Twice
•After a day of “staging,” or orientation, in Philadelphia, all 57 trainees boarded buses at 2:00 AM for the ride to JFK Airport. I was the fourth person in line out of a group of almost sixty people (remember that fact). I approached the desk with a big, bright smile and three enormous, overweight bags. Holding my breath, I watched as she let my 5kg-over suitcase pass, since my second bag to check was really light. Phew, exhale. I was safe, right? Well readers, for future reference, South African Air also weighs your carry-on bag, and in my case, my carry-on weighed like 30 pounds (stop judging me, I have a heavy laptop!). Fast-forward through the next hour as I sat on the floor of the airport, in my precious purple traveling dress, as all 53 of the remaining volunteers check-in without a problem and pass me by. I kept trying to redistribute the weight, and I was only saved by Matt offering to carry my laptop for me (damn you Seton Hall, giving us wide-screen IBMs with a huge extra battery). Finally, due to Sydney’s brilliance, I realized that I could just check my heavier bag, carry on my lighter bag, and all will be right in the world. About five other trainees stayed behind with me as I straightened everything out – I wanted to think for moral support, but as Mark told me, “It’s fun to watch you try to make this work.”
•Feeling sheepish and officially branded the “high maintenance girl” of the group, I traipsed along to the security checkpoints. You know how some people have a knack for random things, like winning at slot machines or skipping rocks? Well, I have a knack for always picking the absolute slowest line. And the more of a hurry I’m in, the slower my line will go. Of course, this day was no different. My fellow trainees that took pity and waited for me had gotten through security with their bags as I inched my way forward, through the x-ray machine, and… “Excuse me ma’am, please step over here.” Seriously, JFK?! I had to walk to a special area and watch as they went through the contents of my bag. The woman was carelessly ripping apart my carefully packed bag as suddenly, I remembered – my Swiss Army Knife. I had originally planned to check it, and when I switched my bags around I totally forgot about it. When I asked, “Does this mean you’re going to take it away, or can I keep it?” the woman just rolled her eyes at me. (Sorry Mike and Elaine – it really was the perfect present, and there have already been many times when I wish I still had it. ) Luckily for me, the other trainees are awesome, and we had four hours until our plane left, so I don’t think anyone was mad at my hold-ups. But what a way to start over 24 hours of traveling!

2. Experience Luxury
• The first week of training was held at The Big Five Lodge in Gaborone, the capital city. The Lodge had all the ambience of a safari while still having air conditioned rooms, showers, hot meals, and a swimming pool… talk about the “Peace Corps experience,” huh? This week remains in a slight haze, but we jumped right into our Setswana language lessons as well as general safety information. We even had a dinner with the U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, Steven Nolan. I was excited to speak to him, even if it was only briefly. Unfortunately his presence paled in comparison to Sliza, the Motswana pop-star who was filming her latest music video in front of the pool. Nothing like scantily-clad women grinding in front of a camera to make you feel right at home.

3. Get Hit by Reality
• The beauty and comfort of the lodge could only last so long. Each trainee was matched with a host family to stay with for the remainder of training. There was a ceremony with plenty of singing, followed by the matching process and a luncheon. All the trainees then went their separate ways to move into their homes. I completely lucked out – my host family has electricity, running water, a geyser (pronounced “gee-zer,” it’s a water heater that you have to turn on if you want hot water), and a washing machine. I tried not to tell any of the other trainees the amenities that I have, as some are without running water or electricity. But let me be clear - there have been nights without electricity, many days without water, and I've never been able to use the washing machine.  It has certainly been interesting, and while I am so thankful and grateful to be welcomed into someone’s home, I can’t honestly say it’s something I would like to do again.

4. Establish a Daily Schedule
• Wake up 5:30. Wash face. Consume bowl of Kellogg’s Bran Flakes and cup of instant coffee. Take anti-malarial medication. Apply makeup. Attempt to manage hair, burst into tears, abort mission. Leave for training 7:00, arrive 7:45. Attend Setswana classes 8:00 – 12:30. Walk to SuperSpar to buy lunch, attempt to tan pasty-white legs. Attend sessions on behavior change, capacity building, and other relevant topics 13:30 – 16:30. Convince Ron to let us go early in order to work out and hang out at the stadium. Avoid going home as long as possible. Arrive home 18:00. Eat dinner, heat water on stove, take bucket bath. Write in journal. Lights out 20:00. Rinse and repeat, Monday through Saturday.

5. Get a Taste of Real Volunteer Life
• One of my favorite weeks was when they arranged for us to shadow a current volunteer. I was assigned to Stuart, a Life Skills volunteer in Mogobane, with Anna, another trainee and a good friend of mine. At first I was worried that it would be awkward to impose upon a volunteer for a five-day/four-night stay, but Stuart was beyond welcoming and it ended up being a great time. While I could write paragraphs about the absolutely delicious food he cooked for us (I ate cheese for the first time in four weeks!) and the laughs we had, I think the more important experiences to take away were concerning his role as a volunteer. It was so refreshing to see how respected and integrated he is in the community, especially in the school. The students obviously looked up to him – a group of girls even directly asked him about stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV. Stuart has started an all-girl choir, and Friday afternoon they put on a mini-performance for Anna and me. Some of the girls were so shy, even though they had such powerful, mature, amazing voices. On Saturday, the three of us trekked to Lobatse, the closest big village, and met up with other volunteers and trainees. We relaxed at the Cumberland Hotel, drinking cider and eating pizza. It was not only a week to observe a current volunteer’s daily life, but also to be reminded of what I’m here to accomplish. It was really hard to go back to homestay, but I feel so lucky to say that I gained a good friend out of the experience (thanks Stuart!).

6. Overdose on Language
• For anyone who has been wondering, the majority of my training is Setswana. There are a bunch of Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs) that teach us. I had two advantages over other trainees in that 1. I just graduated from college, so my brain is still very much in “school mode”, and 2. I did an intensive language program last summer, so four hours of language every day came as no shock to me. Also, compared to Arabic, Setswana is a breeze to learn. Okay, okay, maybe not a breeze, but still, much easier. The way that they decide which LCF a trainee will have is by administering language proficiency exams, termed Language Performance Index (LPIs). My strategy has been to focus as best as I can during class, not stress about the LPIs, and see where I fall on the spectrum. Last summer I would always worry about my weekly Arabic tests, and the anxiety definitely hindered me. I think forcing myself to have a laid-back attitude (that sounds almost like an oxy-moron, doesn’t it?) has been very beneficial, because the “nature of the training beast” will absolutely drive anyone crazy. Anyway, the final LPI is on Tuesday, two days before we get sworn-in as volunteers. The results get sent to Washington in order for Peace Corps to have statistical information on how well the language program is, but other than that I don’t think your level of Setswana (at this point) affects whether you get sworn-in or not. My group will have another LPI at In-Service Training in August, as well as a couple more throughout service.

7. Have the Next Two Years of Your Life Hanging on a Single Moment
• After shadowing, all the trainees anxiously awaited site announcement, where we would find out our permanent assignment for the next two years. Obviously, in order to prepare for the day and calm my nerves, I planned an outfit a week in advance and woke up early to straighten my hair. Actually, when I say I woke up early, I mean that my eyes snapped open at 4 AM and refused to close again. To say the group was on-edge would be an understatement. In my opinion, Life Skills volunteers get the short end of the stick right now. Since it is a pilot program with the Ministry of Education, we are required to be placed in Kweneng District in order that we can make it back to Gaborone easily for trainings and workshops. Of course I understand the logic in this and I realize that it can’t be different until the program is more established, but it was also anti-climactic for my group, since we knew there was no way we’d be anywhere (dare I say it?) “cool.” That being said, I actually am really excited about my village and can’t wait to get there. I am assigned to a Motswakhumo Junior Secondary School, a boarding school in Lentsweletau. The name of my village means “hill of the lion,” but don’t worry guys, it’s been a long time since any lions roamed there!
• After the little ceremony of finding our assignment on a map one-by-one, some trainees had organized a braai, which is a barbeque. It was held at the Peace Corps staff “mansion,” as we like to call it. It was such a nice afternoon for all the trainees and staff to eat, drink, and be merry together, and celebrate not only our sites but how far we’ve come since arriving in Botswana. There was even some dancing, which of course I was all over. (I’m sorry to say it Courtney, but no, I did NOT bust out my signature dance moves… I don’t think the other trainees are ready for that just yet.)

8. Visit site
• Following site announcement, we had a two-day workshop in order to meet and greet our supervisors and counterparts. They also learned more about Peace Corps and about the role of the volunteer (i.e. I am here to assist in the implementation of the Life Skills curriculum, not to teach classes). My supervisor is a really nice man with a good sense of humor who seems to truly care about the school and the students. He gave me a lot of good information from the start, and has a solid view of which areas the school and community needs help in. I know it will be easy to work with him because from the very beginning he said to me, “Maybe you know a way that we can work on this,” rather than assuming that as a young woman I don’t know anything. He drove me to Lentsweletau on Wednesday and I got to meet a plethora of students, teachers, and community members. The head teacher (or principal) is a formidable woman who made me feel extremely welcome from the very start, and encouraged my halting Setswana. In addition to visiting the Kgosi (chief of the village – BIG DEAL), post office (I have my new address!), clinic, social and community development office, member of parliament office, and three surrounding primary schools that feed into the boarding school, I got to visit my house! I’ll be living in – wait for it – a ROUND house with a THATCHED roof. I’m on a beautiful family compound with a gracious landlord, so safety is the farthest concern from my mind. I could write so much about my house because I’m so excited, but I’ll wait until I’ve furnished it and then post some pictures! To ease your mind though – I’m hooked up with electricity and running water. No hot water, or even a kitchen sink, but I am in no way complaining. I have an awesome living situation, and I’m so excited!

9. Survival of the Fittest
• As I post this entry, I’m in my last week of Pre-Service Training. The days are undeniably long, but the weeks have flown by. While I haven’t had as hard of a time with training as many people in my group, these final days are going to be brutal. When I applied for Peace Corps, it wasn’t for the two months of intensive school – it was to be living in a community, trying to inspire change. I can probably speak for the whole group when I say that we are itching to get established and start working at our sites. So sitting in a classroom, quietly listening and patiently waiting day-after-day will be a mind game of the cruelest sort.

10. Time to Grow Up
• June 10th, 2010: The day everyone in my training group becomes official Peace Corps Volunteers, and truly a momentous occasion for all of us, as it is the culmination of all our hard work. I’m already counting down the days. Plus, my parents sent me a special, beautiful dress to wear to the ceremony, so obvs I’m super excited.
• June 11th, 2010: my brother’s 24th birthday and the day my adult life truly begins! As Adam surely will be relaxing, enjoying a beautiful summer day and probably a few Dos Equis or some other equally classy beer, I’ll be sweating and straining as I move everything I’ll need for the next two years into my very first house – albeit a round one, but a good one all the same!

So there you have it, two months of updates in one post. If you made it this far, I salute you. Once I get internet set up at my site, my posts will hopefully be more regular and shorter.

A shout-out to Meghan Doty, Rusty Stauder, Christine Clemmens, Jess Bailey, Emily Carsten, and Grandma Mimi for the letters and cards. You have no idea how amazing it is to get mail here – it literally brings a tear to my eye reading your letters. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart! (And I promise, I will be writing back to you, training is just intense and exhausting.)