Sunday, June 21, 2009

I Leave New York (Andy)

My whole body aches from the packing we did today. That might make it sound like I did a lot today, but in reality, we've got a pile of about 20 boxes that I'll need to take out to the truck tomorrow morning, plus a couple of box springs and a mattress. No other furniture to speak of -- we're leaving a lot of it with the landlord, and we gave away my two favorite chairs today -- so a relatively small move.

Small because we've known for a long time that the Peace Corps was a possibility. We didn't want to put up pictures. We didn't want to buy a frame for our bed. We didn't want to buy a ton of new clothes. Overall, we didn't bring a lot of new things into the apartment... and it was already the smallest apartment we've ever lived in together.

I'm mentioning that my body aches because the fact terrifies me. How out of shape has sitting on my ass and programming all day made me? More to the point, how out of shape have I made myself? Not a good sign that four hours of packing was enough to almost make me "too tired to blog." Not sure what the Peace Corps will bring, but I promise I'm not as physically prepared as I'd like to be.

How convenient my life in New York has been. We had everything we wanted a phone call away. Want groceries? Order online and they'll be here tomorrow. Need to do laundry?

The place down the block will pick it up and drop it off for you; I didn't realize that it could get easier than "walk less than 10 feet to your laundry room," but Brooklyn found a way to make it easier.

In the mood for Mediterranean food? The best pita you've ever had in your life will be here in less than 15 minutes. Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Cajun, Thai, Japanese and Italian also have great contenders within a ten-minute walk of our front door. Oh, hell yes, the Italian.

Want to do almost anything you can imagine? It's probably happening somewhere in the city. Get on the subway and, for $2.00, be anywhere else in the city within an hour or so.

Let's also talk about my job. I would wake up at about 9:00, go into the living room, browse the Internet for half an hour, then start "working." I put the word into quotes because it is not "work" as most people know it. I do not share an office; I work from the comfort of my own living room. My co-workers are not assholes; they are some of the most like-minded people I've ever had the pleasure of working with. My co-workers are not incompetent; the programmer who is supposed to be my "peer" is one of the most impressive web developers I've ever seen. My bosses actually listen to my opinion. Add to the mix that I'm doing something that I love, and that I'm doing pretty well for myself, and you have one dude who was not happy to say goodbye this past Friday. Not a job. A hobby that pays.

And despite the fact that I'm saying goodbye to all of these things about my life that I love here in New York, I'm thrilled to leave. In the short term, I'm looking forward to seeing our parents and being on an extended vacation. I'm looking forward to all the good food, and all the friends I'm going to see. I'm looking forward to the awesome party my parents are going to throw us.

But more than that, this is the line I'd had drawn in my mind for when the Peace Corps would become real. "Leaving New York" = "It's really happening." Serving in the Peace Corps really is a dream come true for me. I can't wait to see another country, learn another language, and meet new friends.

It's as if I'm an adventurer now. Like Indiana Jones, but not as awesome. Now all I need is the adventure.

New York State of Mind (Lauren)

The apartment is packed. We did it all in about three days which really only speaks to the lack of things we have accumulated here. Moving tip 1(especially when storage is involved): create an inventory of what's in each box so you can easily find whatever you are looking for. This was an important lesson after the move from California where I found that boxes entitled "Linens and Things", though clever, were extremely useless. We'll get to repack those once we get to my parents' house. Fun!

So let's talk some feelings. I have to say this was one of the better transition periods I have gone through. Ending work was difficult. I really loved the people I worked with and I really hope I can stay connected with them. (Shout-out to my DTW peeps! Much love.) Moving tip 2: Really take time to see people and say goodbye. We had a party of lovely friends here in Brooklyn and it just warmed my heart, which hands down beats the slowly slink out of town approach I have used in the past.

New York snuck up on me. I was determined not to like it here because I thought it would be betraying California and more importantly Andy would have been right about something. Not a chance! Turns out, New York is freakin' awesome. There are endless things to do, the food is amazing, you never have to drive, the seasons are distinct and there are even four of them, you can take a train to Long Island and spend a day at the beach (thanks Kate!) or head upstate to ski, and the people are fascinating. Who knew?! I definitely don't feel done here which makes it easier and harder to leave all at once.

I guess the grand struggle is taking it all in. I can't seem to wrap my mind around the vast amount of change I'm about to experience. I know the Uhaul is coming tomorrow, but I can't understand it. I can think and read about South Africa endlessly, but it doesn't bring me any closer to being there and understanding what it will be like.

For now, I just mentally compile todo lists. The lists mainly are made up of things that need to be bought and packed, people to visits, food that needs to be eaten for the last time in 2 years. One of the items packed for storage was my pie dish. It suddenly dawned on me that I wouldn't be able to able to make a pie for 2 whole years, so "making a pie" got added to a list. I'm definitely open to hearing what other people think should be on the lists. I know I'll forget a bunch of stuff and kick myself later, but I'm sure that's part of it.

In the meantime, the top priority is spending time with the people I love and spending time preparing my mind for what's to come. I'm sure I'll have some time on our 25 hour drive to MO starting tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Game On (Andy)

It's come to our attention that the work we're going to be doing is sort of open-ended. Moreover, the literature the Peace Corps has sent us makes references to self-directed side projects.

I've thought a lot about what exactly I want to contribute. In a perfect world, I'd show up, teach everyone Ruby on Rails, and when I left my village would be full of startups and outsourcing firms. It would spark economic growth, which would lead to improved living conditions, which would lead to me being remembered as a hero forever.

But let's be realistic.

I'll probably end up somewhere with very limited Internet access. The machines I'll be working on? I'm guessing there will be three of them, and they'll all be i386s running virus-ridden Windows 95 installations. I can't count on the people I'll be teaching knowing how to use a mouse, let alone being ready to learn the basics of programming and scripting. In fact, I can't count on them even caring about computers or understanding why they might be important.

So I had an idea. What got me into computers? What made me want to learn more?


I'd like to bring a bunch of classic DOS games with me... games with low hardware requirements that can run on DOSBox. Hopefully, the students will fall in love with the games the way I did. If a few of them then grow a curiosity for how games are made (or at least how to hack and cheat), I can use that as a lead-in for teaching programming. Maybe we could even program a simple game together?

I've recently discovered Abandonia, which has a bunch of classic abandonware DOS games. There are some really good ones that I can't wait to show my future students. "Buck Rogers," anyone?

I'm not sure this is the kind of project that the Peace Corps would find acceptable, or that others would deem important, but I'm very passionate about it. So far, I believe in it. And if it gets nixed or there's no interest, at least I'll have a great way to spend some of my free time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What We'll Be Doing (Lauren)

We are both slated to be “Resource Specialists”-Andy in Computer Science and me in Math Education. From what we can gather that can be anything from teaching students in the classroom to training teachers to working with school administrators to helping develop curriculum .

The Peace Corps also encourage volunteers to pick up a secondary project based on your interests/community needs. I am hoping to do something in women’s health. Andy and I have both talked about doing theater or after-school programming projects as well (Andy’s thinking about a computer game club) .

Some details (Lauren)

So around the end of May we got access to a Message Board where all the old South Africa volunteers and the ones who will be in our group can post about questions and advice. Today we got word of the two possible regions we will be placed in and the languages we'll be learning.

Languages: Setswana and some Afrikaans

Regions: Northwest Province or Northern Cape

Links to the wiki articles about the regions.


Aspiration Statements

After you receive your invitation, the country desk asks that you write an essay stating what you think your job will be like and what you plan to do with the work while your there and after you leave. Though it was difficult at first to write another essay, it turned out to be a great experience for both of us and to read what the other wrote. They're written in 5 sections, but I blended them altogether so sorry for any confusion. Still, thought they'd be nice to share.....


Professionally, I rely heavily upon both my basic computer skills such as mouse operation, touch typing, word processing and spreadsheet writing. I suspect that I will be teaching these skills, so I also expect to grow as both a communicator and teacher.

Moreover, I hope to learn a great deal about computer programming by teaching about it. It is my hope that I will be given the opportunity to teach advanced computer usage such as script- and program writing, in a capacity that will not only give important skills to my community, but will also give me new insight into my craft.

Because I do not yet know the skill level of my students (I'm not even certain I'll be teaching!) it is hard to speak specifically about my strategies for working effectively with host country partners. However, when it comes to teaching others to use computers, in my experience, there is one strategy that works almost universally: be patient. I remember my wonder, amazement and confusion when I first started using a computer. Learning to use a computer -- one of the most complex machines on earth -- is a skill with a steep learning curve. By remembering what it was like for me the first time, I will put myself into my students' shoes and better be able to guide them to mastery.

Unsurprisingly, I intend to adapt to the culture of South Africa by keeping an open mind above all else. In the past three years of my life, I've experienced a great deal of personal growth by living in communities such as New York City and Southern California that differ so greatly from the suburban Minnesota I grew up in. Keeping an open mind helped me adapt to and quickly become a participating member of those communities.

In South Africa, I intend to make myself a member of the community I live in, and the skill that will best help me achieve this goal is language. During my pre-service, in addition to knowledge about the culture of my community, I hope to learn a local language. The best way to speak to people is by speaking their language, whether in a metaphorical or literal sense.

In addition, I look forward to formally learning more about teaching. Specifically, learning how South African students expect to be taught will help me be a more effective instructor.

It is my expectation that the Peace Corps will give me an opportunity to make myself a stronger person. I have lived a largely sheltered, easy life in the U.S. Exposure to hard work, minimalist living conditions and an alien culture is an opportunity for me to grow.

This exposure is in keeping with my personal goals for life after my service has ended. My life's goal is to make a difference in the fight against global poverty. Through the Peace Corps, I will learn more about the people and the need so that I am better able to help in the future. My plan for fighting global poverty has only two specifics: I will volunteer my time and money to charities with the same goal. There is no way I can give myself more time, but I can increase the amount that I donate by growing as a professional; how specifically, I am yet unsure.


The lessons I have learned from teaching in southern California as well as my time as a training coordinator for the Fundamentals Center will be invaluable during my Peace Corps service. As a teacher, I found patience I never knew I had, strength when I was ready to quit, and hope in the small and infrequent victories. Teaching by nature is a profession of constant growth and self-evaluation. Through this, I have learned to keep a very open mind when confronted with new people and new ideas; because this is where relationships are built and good work can begin.

My time as a training coordinator will be useful on a technical level. From this, I learned about managing multiple sites and understanding that each community-no matter how similar-has vastly different needs and must be dealt with in a personal, thoughtful manner. I also learned how to package materials in a “train the trainer” type model which I plan to use in my service. My hope is that, though I will leave in two years, the programs and curricula that I help establish will go on for as long as they are needed.

In addition to my duties and aspirations for my math education placement, I hope to be involved in women’s health work for my secondary project. My hope would be to apply the public health concepts I have been studying independently, and create or continue a program that the community I am serving desires.

My greatest wish for all my work is that I truly listen to the people who have brought me to my placement, and give them whatever services they desire, and not the ones I think they need. I know that programs like these make the most effective and lasting changes. Just as in teaching, when I meet students where they are at, we can all forge a better path towards where we want to be.

As I stated in my previous passage, I think the most effective strategy is keeping an open mind and really listening to what the host country partners are saying. I have just as much to learn from this experience, if not more, as they do. Though my training and skills will be useful, it will only be through discussing their wishes, that we will find how those skills can best be used.

I believe the second most valuable strategy is persistence. Change never comes easily, no matter how much I and the country partners want it to. People have to learn to trust me and my motivations, and this is not an overnight process. If I fail to help someone today, or I am being met with great resistance, I know the best thing I can do is go home, reflect on those challenges, and go back again tomorrow.

My background as an army brat (a child of someone in the military) has done nothing but teach me strategies for adapting to a new culture. I have learned to be an excellent observer. Through this observation, I can learn whatever outer aspects will make people feel comfortable, as well as have them know that I am trying to understand and appreciate their culture (i.e. clothing, food, day-to-day routine).

At the same time, I have learned that this process does not mean changing what is important to me. It just means valuing where I have been, while appreciating what my new surroundings have to offer. This way I emerge a better, wiser me, but still me at the core.

On a technical level, I am hoping that the pre-service training will provide me with the essentials needed for my job placement as well as strategies that have been effective for past volunteers. I am expecting to learn any language requirements in addition to other basic cultural and safety adjustments I may need to make.

On a more personal level, I would hope to learn strategies for dealing with struggles I might face during my assignment. I look forward to hearing a variety of tools past volunteers have used or created to help them with the transition to South Africa. I would hope to hear about secondary projects that were successful, and what made them successful. Mostly, I am hoping for an immersion experience with a strong and knowledgeable support system that will help me through the initial culture shock of living on an entirely new continent.

I think of all the questions, this is the most difficult to answer. My service will influence me greatly; there is no doubt in my mind about that. However, if I have learned anything from my past experiences, it’s that you can never predict how something will change you, and that is the beauty of it.

I have aspirations to serve my community wherever I live. I’m not quite sure what that service looks like yet, but I feel like with every new experience, I am getting one step closer. I am contemplating a career change into health, and my service might solidify those dreams. However, I know that I love teaching, and my time in South Africa might place me firmly back on that track. In the end, I could be shown something entirely different I could have never imagined.

In all honestly, I am content to let the journey decide. I will work as hard as I can and pour all of myself into my time with Peace Corps and my service beyond. Because what matters most to me is that I do the very best I can, and perhaps make the lives of the people around me a little better. What I get out of that is completely secondary, and in the end, not really in my control. Like the great poet said, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

The Application Process (Lauren)

So let me bring you up to date with a little timeline

  • Andy and Lauren talk about traveling abroad August of 2007 in Redlands, CA at a little restaurant called Farm Artisan Foods (which you should eat at if you ever have the chance). We decide that traveling is cool, but we'd like some service element, and we don't want to go there for just a month, we'd really like to stay and live there, and isn't there a program that.....
  • Andy and Lauren apply to Peace Corps at the end of September 2007. The application includes two essays, the longest questionnaire you've ever seen, three references, and ten years of work history.
  • Andy and Lauren have an interview with a cool gal outside of L.A. in mid-November 2007
  • Andy and Lauren get nominated for Sub-Saharan Africa leaving in summer of 2008 in January 2008
  • Andy and Lauren go through the crazy process that is Medical/Dental/Legal Clearance and miss their anticipated leave date (through no fault of their own and despite my expert organizational skills) and are told it will take another 6-12 months to get a placement because placing couples is a complicated/delicate process
  • Andy and Lauren contemplate moving back to my parent's house vs. moving to NYC June of 2008 and temporarily withdraw from the Peace Corps process
  • Andy and Lauren move to NYC August of 2008
  • Andy and Lauren decide to give Peace Corps another go in November 2008 which entails writing two more essays, a new resume, and a new reference.
  • Andy and Lauren are reactivated February 4, 2008
  • Andy and Lauren receive email notification that they are receiving an invitation to a country Feb 20, 2008.
  • Andy and Lauren receive the actual invitation stating they were going to South Africa to be Education Resources (Andy-Computers, Lauren-Math) by mail March 5. I note the two different invitation times, because that was probably the most excruciating time of the entire experience.
  • Andy and Lauren prepare, which means new Dental Clearance, tons of new paperwork, and the ups and downs of telling people our news.

And there you have it! Currently, we are enjoying the last weeks of work and NYC. We will truly miss them both.

The Uhaul is scheduled for the 22nd and then we're off to the Midwest to visit with the friends and fam. After that, we travel to our Staging Event somewhere in the U.S. around July 21st, and then off to Africa!