Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog


Leave a comment

This Peace Corps Life – Uganda

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Uganda.

Elyse Painter – Age 27

Elyse at the equator, just 30 miles from her house!

Elyse at the equator, just 30 miles from her house!

Where are you from?
I am from Columbus, Ohio.

What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in the education sector in Uganda, as a primary literacy specialist. Our specific goals are to improve literacy outcomes and education in Uganda. Our sector is divided into two groups, primary literacy specialists like myself who work at primary (elementary) schools across the country and primary teacher trainers who work at primary teachers colleges across the country. Primary literacy specialists focus on improving literacy outcomes with young learners, especially focusing on the P4 grade because that is when students transition from local language education to English only education. We work towards this goal in a variety of ways, including assessing reading levels, conducting small group reading lessons, in class read-alouds, library construction and operation, and holding teacher workshops and sessions. We also hold special events like the Peace Corps started national DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) Day and the Peace Corps started My Language Spelling Bee which gives P3 students a chance to compete in a local language spelling bee at the school, district and national level. Primary teacher trainers, on the other hand, focus on improving literacy education techniques and methods in future teachers. They do this by teaching the 5 Big Ideas of Literacy and the Daily 5 to future teachers, teaching and modeling incorporation of literacy into all subject matter, teaching subject lessons (math, science, English, and ICT), supervision and mentoring of future teachers during student teaching, library construction and operation, clubs and workshops. They also hold DEAR Day at PTCs (Primary Teacher College). Both groups also work to promote gender equitable classroom practices, improve resource development and utilization, and to end corporal punishment in the classroom. Of course we’re not limited to these things – the sky is the limit, and volunteers come up with some amazing things! HIV/AIDS, malaria, sanitation and hygiene, even agriculture – they’re all things education volunteers have gotten involved with both at school and otherwise.

I’ve been lucky enough to work not only as a primary literacy specialist, but also as a teacher trainer as well. Since I live on the campus of a PTC, it was pretty easy to get involved and I really enjoy it! A typical day at the primary school might involve working with primary students one-on-one to assess their reading levels. I’ve assessed every P4 student in basic components like letter-sound recognition, segmenting, blending and words read per minute. Sometimes it’s disheartening – very few children can segment a word (tell me that the sounds in ‘cat’ are /c/ /a/ /t/), but sometimes it’s really exciting because a kid will whiz through the reading passage and be able to answer every comprehension question. You know those kids will be able to do well on their future leaving exam in a few years, and I make sure to tell them to keep up the hard work. Then sometimes I pop into a class with a book to do a read-aloud – my P6 class really likes Curious George and all the crazy situations he gets himself in. When their teacher read a book to them for DEAR day about Curious George in an ice cream shop they were hanging on to each word. The teacher did a fantastic read-aloud and I was so proud! I videotaped her for like ten minutes straight – she was acting out the scenes, writing new words on the board – she even jumped up on a bench and pretended to eat ice cream!

I usually work at the PTC one day a week, and I spend my time teaching how to teach reading. No one has ever spent time on how reading happens, and you can tell a lot of them are fascinated by the idea that you can take words, break them into sounds and even replace sounds for a new word. They like when I bring in materials I’ve made from easily obtained objects – like a roll a word on a toilet paper roll. Using learner centered methods and hands on activities is something they hound here, but they’re often at a loss because they never experienced it as students themselves. My sitemate and I taught them how to play Jeopardy with vocabulary words and one of the students asked us how we learned it – when we explained that we played it at school as children he was shocked and asked how he could learn more games to play with his students. I think we’ve taught them that learning, and especially reading, can be fun. We opened last term by spending the first day demonstrating a read-aloud with BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures which had them all laughing so much. I love being silly in read-alouds and that book demands it! Because PTC students are constantly late to class I usually wait 5 minutes past the start time to begin so the stragglers (like 80% of the class) make it in – those who arrive on time get to ask me questions about America, which I love answering. Those 5 minutes are usually my favorite of the day – unless someone asks about the Illuminati!

Do you feel supported by your country staff?
For the most part, I do feel supported by the Peace Corps staff. Almost everyone I’ve met on staff has been caring and supportive, and working hard to help us in the field. I adore the education team – the ladies who keep our program running are so funny and I have a great (and very sarcastic relationship) with them! I know that if I needed a hug from them I’d get it (although I’m far more likely to get one of them joking about sending me home or how they like my sitemate better than me).

However, it can be tough at times because the education program is ginormous and there are definitely way too many of us compared to education staff. They’re trying to “right size” the program now, which means bringing in smaller cohorts, but it can be tough because each champion (staff member) is in charge of like 20 volunteers. They can’t be in 20 different places at once or handle 20 different issues and crises at once, and sometimes that can leave a volunteer feeling like they aren’t being heard or they’ve been forgotten. I’m not very needy when it comes to intervention from staff, so it doesn’t bother me too much but I know some volunteers are really frustrated by the lack of attention they feel. There’s also a lot of people coming and going, and because filling posts can be difficult some people end up filling in for roles on top of their primary job. That can be frustrating as a volunteer because sometimes you don’t know who is in charge of what, or they have so many responsibilities that getting a response or help can be slow. I assume this is a similar issue in a lot of development agencies and other Peace Corps posts, and it’s just one aspect you have to accept and figure out a way to deal with.

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I have a kind of weird set-up in terms of housing, as my primary site could not provide housing that met Peace Corps safety standards. Usually that would disqualify a site, but in my case my sitemate’s college provides a house that is big enough for two volunteers. When we did our bidding for sites, and after we were chosen for our site, we were asked several times if we were okay living together. In Uganda, it’s quite scandalous for a woman and man to live together who are not married, and my sitemate and I aren’t married or dating or anything, just friends. We said if the school was okay with us living together, then we were fine with it. So we’re not only sitemates but roommates! It worked out really well for me because primary school housing is usually bare bones, but my sitemate is at a primary teachers college – and not only that, but one of the best core PTCs in the country so our housing situation is really nice. I’m not going to say “Posh Corps”, but I will say that a lot of volunteers enjoy spending the night.

We have a two bedroom house. My sitemate has the bigger bedroom, yet I for some reason have the bigger bed. It doesn’t really make much sense, but that’s the way it was when we moved in and no one wanted to take apart the bigger bed and put it in the big bedroom. So my bed takes up approximately 2/3rds of my room – I’m pretty much only in there to sleep, get dressed and sometimes to read in bed. My room is the exact same color of bubble gum pink as was my childhood bedroom (it was already painted when we arrived) so I feel right at home. We also have a separate WC with flush toilet and sink and a separate shower room. The shower used to have one of those electric shower heads that you can turn on to get hot water, but the electricity went on the fritz in it and we feel better not mixing questionable electricity and water so it’s cold showers for us. You’d think you’d get used to them over time… but I haven’t found that. We have running water like 99.9999% of the time – I can think of only three times it’s been out, and each time it was for less than 24 hours, which is good because we don’t have a pit latrine or borehole for back up.

My sitemate and I rocking local fashions at the district spelling bee he organized.

My sitemate and I rocking local fashions at the district spelling bee he organized.

We have a nice sized living room with couches and armchairs, a bookshelf, and two desk tables with chairs. All of these were in our house when we moved in, left by a previous VSO volunteer who set us up nicely. Our move in allowance was mostly spent on a toaster oven that’s large enough for us to bake things in. I love making fresh bread, brownies, and pizza. In the past we found lasagna noodles and used to impress friends, but they ran out in town. My sitemate makes delicious chicken in it – you can cook a whole chicken in it! Frankly, one of the best investments in my life. I’d honestly be depressed without the ability to bake. Our kitchen has a shelving unit (again, already there from the previous volunteer) that we keep our dry goods on and two cement cooking areas (one featuring a cutting board glued right on it, one with a sink with running water). We cook using a two burner propane range.  About a year into our service my sitemate’s principal asked if he wanted a refrigerator for his office – we put it to use in our house. It’s in between the size of a dorm fridge and a normal one, so it’s very nice. We now can store leftovers for more than a day, which is so convenient. I also hadn’t realized how much I missed cold drinks until I took a sip of my first glass of cold water in like a year – so nice! It also has a little freezer so we can stock up when the supermarket in town has cheese! Our electricity is generally pretty good… sometimes it’s off for most of the daylight hours, and sometimes it’s on all days. For the last two days it’s been off like 95% of the time because of storms. It usually goes off right as we’re about to put something in the oven… I think they know!

In terms of food we eat, we definitely do not adhere to the Ugandan customs. Ugandan meals usually consists of two or three large (like heaping) servings of different starches (rice, boiled potatoes, plain pasta, posho/ugali/maize flour meal, or matooke – steamed local bananas) with some kind of sauce (usually groundnut paste sauce or a tomato and onion based sauce), beans, and if you’re lucky a meat of some kind (goat, beef, fish, or rarely chicken or pork) and potentially a bitter green. Meals at primary schools are almost always exclusively posho and beans – every day. I openly confess to being an extremely picky eater, and frankly I’m not a fan of local food. The central region of Uganda is known for it’s matooke, and like my host mom says if you haven’t had matooke with the meal you haven’t eaten the meal. If I never have to eat matooke again in my life, I won’t shed a tear.

My sitemate and I aren’t big breakfast eaters – if we have anything, it’s usually just a banana (specifically a bogoya banana which is a small, sweet yellow banana – Uganda has like a million different types of bananas each with their own name and specific qualities). My school provides an “escort” for my break tea each day – usually a few chapati (kind of oily tortillas). Break tea is a big deal here, and I have become reliant on a snack at 10:30 sharp. By like 10:45 without break tea I feel like I’m going to starve. For lunch, I usually take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school to eat instead of posho and beans. My staff teases me for eating the same thing every day, which is ironic because they do too… we’re just eating different versions of the sterotypical school lunch. On the weekends I’ll usually just have some ramen with eggs for lunch – I’m never eating ramen again when I get home! For dinner, my sitemate and I eat together at home. If he cooks then I do dishes – we’re a good team. We eat a lot of various pastas – spaghetti, puttanesca (when we can both find and afford anchovies we feel really fancy!), noodles with peanut butter sauce and eggs. Generally our meals on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays are the best because that’s when we’ve just gotten back from the supermarket in town. That’s when we make crazy stuff like honey garlic glazed meatballs or shake and bake style chicken. By Thursday or Friday it usually gets rough because we’ve used up most of our groceries and we have to resort to things like plain noodles with garlic butter sauce or the lowest of the low, an entire loaf of bread as French toast with no syrup or anything because we have no food!

How often do you interact with other volunteers?
I really like how our program is set up, with most of us having a sitemate. Usually one of the pair is at a primary teachers college, and one is at a demonstration school (basically a school where student teachers from the college practice at) associated with the college. Sometimes they’re right next door to each other, and sometimes they’re like an hour away by walking. We’re also generally placed in clusters, so there are a few volunteers within the same district or area. Not everyone has a sitemate (some chose that, and others it just happened that way), but most people aren’t too far from someone else. Of course, since I live with my sitemate I see him every day, and we do collaborate on projects a lot. It’s nice to share your day and the frustrations that come with it with someone, and we can bounce ideas off of each other. There are also a lot of volunteers around our closest town – within like an hour there are 7 other education volunteers and a few from the agriculture and health sectors. We see each other fairly often, and most of those times aren’t planned – we just happen to meet up in town at one of the two restaurants that serve American food.

However, Uganda is a big(ish) country and like a lot of places, transport is the pits. Volunteers who aren’t close to me I don’t see nearly as often – one of my best friends in my cohort lives basically on the border of South Sudan and I’ve only seen her at Peace Corps events because she’s just so far away. Pretty much any time you need to travel anywhere you have to go through Kampala, which is sort of miserable. Because I’m south of Kampala I can get to most other places south of Kampala much easier than anywhere north, west or east of Kampala. For that reason, the people I see tend to be from the south more often than not. Since my sitemate and I have a nice house, we’re usually a good place to stop if you’re making the long journey down to the very south of Uganda, so we host a lot of people as they’re passing through. We’re also not allowed into the capital without a Peace Corps related reason and permission for safety and security reasons, so it’s not like you can easily meet up for a night on the town in Kampala.

What are Ugandans like?
Ugandans are incredibly hard working. Since my time living with my host family I’ve realized that I miss so much of the work Ugandans do because I’m still in bed! They’re usually up with the sun (or before) and have already washed clothes, mopped the house, ate breakfast and headed to the fields well before I’ve even considered getting up. And having seen teachers here, I almost laugh every time I see a teacher complain at home. We have no idea how good we have it! As most teachers are women here, they’re in charge of cooking, cleaning and getting their own children ready for the day at home.

Our school starts at 7am so they have to do all of that before then and get to school. If they have a baby or toddler, that child usually comes to school with them because day care isn’t a thing here. They’re teaching enormous classes with basically no resources. Imagine teaching 50-80 first graders reading without having any books. I had to teach 50 fifth graders a PE lesson without any gym equipment – worst forty five minutes of my life. School lasts until noon for first graders, somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock for second through fifth grade and can last up until 7pm for sixth and seventh graders. These teachers are teaching the entire day, and then go home and have more housework and cooking to do. And they’re usually doing it with no pay, as the salaries are constantly “delayed”. Ugandans are incredibly, incredibly hard working.

My closest neighbors are all tutors (teachers) at the PTC I live at, so it’s a different experience than if I were in a village, but they still lead lives totally unlike mine. My sitemate and I don’t clean our house every day (although we do sweep constantly because our dog has a terrible case of mange and scratches incessantly) and we don’t bathe multiple times a day like most Ugandans. We don’t have chickens or goats to look after, or water to fetch and we don’t cook over a charcoal fire. We don’t have to go to the fields and we don’t go to church on the weekends. We got a puppy last year – most Ugandans are terrified of dogs, and when a stray comes on campus they usually end up killing it. It also  seems like we have a lot more free time at home than those around us. And we always have something to fill our free time – we have movies and games on our computer when we there’s electricity, and books to read when there’s not. And yet somehow we still feel bored. Our neighbors are lucky to have a radio to listen to for entertainment. We can afford to go to town almost every weekend and eat a nice meal in a restaurant, whereas our neighbors can’t. We might live next door to each other, but at times our lives seem to be lived on two separate tracks that intersect briefly.

Elyse and her language group posing as The Last Supper for a group calendar they made to commemorate their time together.

Elyse and her language group posing as The Last Supper for a group calendar they made to commemorate their time together.

One thing that is really weird is that almost everyone who lives in tutor housing on the campus has a real home somewhere else. For example, our neighbor in the house attached to ours is from Busia which is on the border of Kenya – very far away. When term break comes, all of the tutors go home to their villages and we’re pretty much the only ones left! It is kind of creepy, as our PTC is surrounded by a swamp so it’s pretty much silent other than the birds and you don’t see anyone around for days. Unfortunately for the last few breaks our neighbor hasn’t been able to afford to take his children home as well, so his 3 high school age kids stay at the college by themselves for a month. It’s kind of crazy to think that they’re on their own for so long while their family is so far away – but our dog adores them, and they love him so at least they’re all happy to play with each other.

What is Uganda like?
The national language of Uganda is English (it used to be a British colony), but Uganda has something like 50 different local languages and outside of Kampala that’s what you’re most likely to hear. We are placed into language groups based on where we’re going to be living, and learn our languages at satellite locations in our language region. Some languages are pretty rare and really specific to one district or location or tribe – I learned the most common language in Uganda, Luganda (language of the Buganda kingdom). It has I think like 3 million speakers and covers a huge swath of central and south central Uganda. Every Ugandan will tell you it’s really easy to learn Luganda, but I still don’t believe them. It has 12 different noun classes and I can never remember what goes where, other than people go in the mu-ba class. Since I live only two hours from the capital, very near a large district headquarters town and on the campus of a core primary teachers college I can get by very easily with limited Luganda. I can greet people, bargain with people, tell them they are lying or overcharging me (crucial so you don’t get that muzungu price markup) and answer incredibly basic questions about myself. Everything else, I do in English, which is what my school prefers so the students can learn to speak it. I passed the LPI with an intermediate mid (we need at least an intermediate low) but my sitemate is a million times better than me, so I usually let him speak which means I’ve forgotten most of what I learned.

In terms of culture, like most of Africa it is incredibly patriarchal here – and especially in the Buganda kingdom. Women are expected to do everything – cook, clean, farm, produce children, care for children and keep the house running at all times. Men are expected to work outside of the home to bring in money and… sit. From my experience most of the households in the village still have a strict hierarchy where dad is the ultimate authority, mom is in charge when dad’s not home and the kids should really be neither seen nor heard for a good portion of the day. There’s even hierarchy in child birth order – my host mom told me that I should always expect my younger brother to do things for me like clear my dishes from the table because he was younger. The one thing that really struck me is that women and children in the Buganda kingdom are still expected to kneel to show deference to men. It’s really jarring when you greet someone on the road and they get down on their knees in the middle of the dirt to show you respect because you’re white and it’s something I still don’t feel comfortable with. This is not as common outside of the Buganda kingdom – I’ve heard in the north that women even ride bikes which is something you’d never see happen here!

Men are expected to be well versed with the ladies while women are of course supposed to remain virginal until marriage. Many men have “side dishes” as they’re called here, or other women on the side. This is made easier because in some cases men move away from the village for work leaving the wife and family at home. This happens a lot in teaching as teachers are posted to schools away from home – most of my teachers are not living with their spouses. Polygamy is still practiced to some extent, especially among more wealthy men who can support multiple families – my host mom was the second wife in a polygamous family that lived in two separate houses. Uganda has an incredibly high birth rate and one of the youngest populations on the planet because having children is seen as a sign of power here. One of the male teachers at my school has told me he feels like it’s his job to have as many children as possible even though he is always worried about money. As a 27 year old without children I’m constantly asked when I will reproduce.

Uganda is all about looking “smart”, or nice. In the village women and girls are expected to wear skirts or dresses covering their knees – pants (or trousers as they call them here) are quite rare. My counterpart is super modern and wears them at home, but felt too scared to wear them at in-service training because of what the other teachers might say about her! Both men and women are not allowed to wear shorts, as it’s seen as children’s clothing. Traditional clothing in the Buganda kingdom is a gomezi for women which is an incredibly bulky silk dress with shoulders that put the 80s to shame, and a kanzu for men which is a long white or cream linen shirt that reaches the ankles, which is worn over pants and under a blazer. Both my sitemate and I have traditional outfits, and we cause quite a commotion when we show up wearing them!

What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
I feel the most sense of accomplishment from building the library at my school, getting involved with teaching at the primary teachers college and my women’s empowerment club. I’ve found that I’m most motivated and feel better about things that stray a bit from my primary project of teaching P4 but are things that will have a bigger impact and last longer. I’m currently frantically working on my library so it will be completed by the time I leave – the builders were finishing up the cementing of the ceiling yesterday, which means it’s almost time to paint and then we’ll just be waiting for the furniture to be built and delivered! The library is something the school really wanted, and they’ve impressed me by how much they’ve taken on in terms of getting the builders there and working each day and really managing it well. I was so nervous that it’d all fall on me, but they’ve really taken the project on as their own. I’ve been able to secure almost 2300 donated books and I am so incredibly excited to get them on the shelves and have the big reveal and opening day – it’s going to be amazing.

I’ve also really enjoyed working at the teachers college. I’ve been able to teach the basics of literacy education to about 300 pre-service teachers. Literacy education here is majorly lacking – when I watch teachers “teach” vocabulary they usually just have the kids repeat the word a few times, spell it a few times and call it a day. They don’t even teach the meaning! I know that all of the pre-service teachers won’t change their ways, but if even a few of them do (and we’re seeing it in their student teaching for sure!) it will have a huge impact. Most of them will be teaching classes of 50 or more students each year – that’s so many kids being reached with better strategies. I’ve also really enjoyed starting my women’s empowerment club at the PTC. It’s a chance for the girls to let loose, ask the questions they really want answered and learn new things. We’re focusing on reproductive health right now and after a little bit of shyness they’ve found their voice and it’s really inspiring to watch. I enjoy each meeting I have with them. Yesterday they asked how will they keep meeting after I leave – it was nice to know they’re enjoying it as much as I am.

What have been some of your greatest challenges?
I’d say my greatest challenges have been a lack of motivation to keep trying when things aren’t working and harassment. Our primary project’s goals are to work with P4 students on improving their literacy skills, which is fine except that kids are coming into P4 with no literacy skills. Watching some of them struggle to recognize letters or recognize letter sounds after months is hard. You start to feel like what you’re doing doesn’t really matter – so what if Josephine finally knows that ‘a’ makes the /a/ sound when she’s still headed on to P5 and can’t read an unfamiliar word on her own. You wish you could undo all of the wrong teaching they’ve had and start all over, but you can’t. It can be hard to find motivation in that situation, but I’ve found that secondary projects and goals have helped me a lot – I’ve felt much more motivated to work with pre-service teachers because if I can get them to teach properly from the start then I know I’ll have a much bigger impact than working with 20 kids to get them to know the alphabet.

On a day-to-day basis, I’d also say that harassment is something that I’ve struggled with and has really brought me down at times. This is the first time I’ve ever been a stark minority, and I really miss the anonymity of just being another person in the crowd. Muzungu is the term used for foreigners here, but it essentially means white person. Little kids scream it every time they see you, and sometimes adults do too. When kids scream it (with a little song “byyyyyye muzungu, byyyyyye muzungu!”) I understand that they don’t know any better, but when adults do it I’m really annoyed. If I’m in a good mood I will explain that my name isn’t muzungu and that they can call me ‘madam’ or ‘nnyabo’ just like any other woman – they usually laugh at me, but at least I feel better. My sitemate is Taiwanese American, so they shout “muchina” at him or make “ching ching chong” noises at him which really makes me angry. Being a woman in such a patriarchal society can be pretty miserable too, as men in general really do not respect women. Men frequently shout at me or do the kissy noise when they’re driving by. I’ve been grabbed, scratched, and even punched twice in the arm while I’ve been walking with American men while nothing happens to them. That’s crazy! Multiple men have offered to make a baby with me, and I’ve had marriage proposals yelled at me by motorcycle drivers in basically every town I’ve been to. I’ve even had a teenager offer me his penis, and a motorcycle driver offer to “erection me”. I declined both opportunities.

Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I absolutely feel like my expectations of service have been met, surpassed, and trampled on all at once. A lot of people in my group said that they tried to come in with no expectations. I am the exact opposite of that. I’m a researcher by nature, I can’t even buy a camera without reading about every model available and finding reviews and trying them all out. Obviously with a decision this big, I did a lot of research. I read books on the history of the Peace Corps and about different people’s experiences. I read newspaper articles and investigations. I went in to my interview with cited questions! Once I got my invitation I tried to read every Peace Corps Uganda blog I could find, and read books on Uganda. I knew before stepping off the plane that we’d be going to an organic farm first, and I even (somehow) found a document requesting language trainers for all the languages we’d be trained in. I came in with a lot of expectations, and I’m okay with that because that’s how I operate. I can’t go into anything without doing my homework. Some things I’ve expected have been met – my school has no electricity or resources of any type. Some things I’ve expected have been surpassed – my house is way nicer than I ever expected and I don’t have to use a pit latrine all that often (and hey, I’m actually pretty good at it!). Some things I’ve expected have been trampled on – I don’t really live in a community and am missing that aspect of service, and I don’t really need a local language to get by and that’s a bummer. But that’s what life is about. Sometimes things are what you expect, sometimes they’re better and sometimes they’re worse. Peace Corps is no different.

The Yearbook Committee of our cohort and our final product!

The Yearbook Committee of our cohort and our final product!

Why did you join Peace Corps?
I’ve been what I like to call a “professional volunteer” since I graduated college in 2010 – I spent a semester volunteering in the former Soviet republic of Georgia as an English teacher, then followed that with two years working as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Service is just an integral part of my life, and Peace Corps was the obvious next step. I’d thought about it a few times in college and even when I was in Georgia, but I never felt like I could “make it”. Peace Corps volunteers seemed special to me, and obviously I didn’t really fit that. I still remember the precise moment when I was talking to a friend in Georgia when he told me I was being silly and that of course I could do it. It took a couple of years to work up the nerve to actually apply, but when I did I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I too was “special” enough to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Has your Peace Corps service changed you? 
I can’t imagine my life not having served in Peace Corps, it just doesn’t seem possible to have any other trajectory. My service has definitely helped me see that I don’t want to be a teacher (which is what I came in thinking I would do), but that I still want to work with kids and that my biggest motivation is really connecting with them on an emotional level. It’s also helped me realize that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. I went into my interview and told the person that I really wanted to serve in Eastern Europe and that I know a lot of people want to go to Africa, but I just wasn’t one of them. I was nominated for a program in Eastern Europe, but because of the weirdness of the pre-change system and the fact that medical was super backed up I missed my nomination. When my invitation came and said ‘Uganda’ I was pretty crushed. It was a weird feeling, on one hand I was so excited that I finally got into Peace Corps after nine months of waiting, but on the other hand I felt there was just no way I could survive in Uganda. Everything about it scared me. But here I am, a few months away from closing my service. I did it. The things I was scared of (like using a pit latrine) turned out to be nothing. I had food poisioning and giardia (at the same time) seven times this year – even ended up having to get IV rehydration at a clinic once – and every time I felt like I was dying and that I was definitely going to go home once I felt better… and yet here I am. I don’t want to say I’ve impressed myself, but I’ve definitely surprised myself.

Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I absolutely believe that Peace Corps is still worthwhile. Like all the other interviewees before me have stated it’s an incredibly small part of the government’s budget but we can get a lot of return on it. The majority of people in our countries of service have a preconception of America and Americans that is off base – in the case of Uganda, most people have seen Rambo, think that there’s a gay epidemic in the US and have a list a mile long of Americans in the Illuminati. Peace Corps volunteers are frequently the first American our host country nationals have met, and we dispel the myths. Americans are no longer gun-toting, Ferrari-driving, war-mongering people but someone who has struggles and worries as well. We have people who don’t mind spending two years of their lives going to the edge of the world to focus on needs that aren’t their own. The on-the-ground diplomacy we do is something the embassy can never touch and is incredibly powerful.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
If you’re considering applying, now that you can choose where you want to go and what you want to do really focus on the project descriptions. After all, if you choose a project you’re not interested in just because you might be able to check out the beaches of Fiji I can pretty much guarantee you will not actually enjoy your service and won’t be an asset to your community. Find something you’re passionate about.

As for those getting ready for staging I would suggest taking like half of the clothes you have packed out of your back. You’re going to a country where people already live – they have to clothe themselves somehow, so you don’t have to worry about having two years worth of stuff! Instead, fill that space with all the mac ‘n’ cheese and deliciousness you won’t want to miss. And maybe some duct tape – you’d be surprised how many things can be fixed by it!

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Immediately after Peace Corps I’m taking a little COS trip to Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, and Hallstat) with a couple day trips to Slovakia, Germany and Liechtenstein thrown in. I’m still planning it out right now, but it looks like it will end in Torino, Italy and then I’ll fly to San Francisco to see my friends from AmeriCorps for a week or so before flying home to Columbus. Then, hopefully on to grad school (please oh please let someone accept me!) for social work or child life. In either case, I’d like to eventually work with hospitalized children focusing on their psychosocial and developmental needs. I’m considering doing another Peace Corps service after grad school – I still really want to serve in Eastern Europe as that’s where my political, historical and linguistic interests lie.

Here’s an awesome “Cribs” style video of Elyse and her site mate’s house that their friend made as a secondary project.  You can watch it here!

Thanks Elyse!