Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Things I Wish I Knew

I just spent 3 days with a group of 96 excited, apprehensive, eager, and motivated Peace Corps trainees! They just arrived last Wednesday and have been thrown into the grind with 2 months of intense training to learn everything from Moroccan culture and language to figuring out how to assess community needs and develop an action plan to lectures on Peace Corps policies and procedures. My time in Rabat was spent in sessions talking about gender-specific programming, volunteer diversity, and harassment, and out of sessions talking about everything and anything on these trainees' minds - how to manage language learning, volunteer experiences, the kinds of programming we do, what the food is like, you name it.

Sharing some of my experiences with them was really exciting, and in return I soaked up so much of their energy and motivation. Watching a group of individuals who are about to embark on this amazing adventure, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic about those first few months when everything was so scary and overwhelming, but at the same time incredibly new and exciting. I have now been living in this country for over 16 months (scary!) and while I’m no expert, I certainly feel I’ve come a long way from those scary initial months. So I thought it might be fun to make a quick list of some of the things that I wish I knew (or wish I understood) about this experience at the very beginning, for better or for worse!

1.   My job might will be ambiguous
My official title is a Youth Development Volunteer. What that means in Morocco can vary from being an English teacher to running sports teams to doing job skills trainings to developing health activities to cleaning up neighborhoods to teaching about citizenship to training teachers to supporting cooperatives and artisan groups to promoting cultural exchange to working with people with disabilities… and pretty much everything in between. What’s awesome about this is that Volunteers truly have the opportunity to match their skills to the work that they feel is both important and needed in the community – but what makes it difficult is actually determining what those are.

2.   Making mistakes is okay
I very distinctly remember on day 2 of our training, my Moroccan Arabic language teacher sent me out of the classroom and into the street to have my first “conversation” with a Moroccan. He picked out a girl near our training center, asked if she wouldn’t mind speaking with me at a 1st grade level, and then pushed me towards her. I consider myself an outgoing and friendly person but I remember feeling more scared of this encounter than anything I could remember… mainly because I wasn’t confident in my language skills (pretty reasonable after only 1 day!) and I was practically paralyzed with fear about making mistakes. But I sucked it up and went into that conversation, and laughed with her as we worked together to construct a very broken conversation. And this spills over into so many experiences that I’ve had – I can only improve from learning and I can only learn from doing and if doing involves making some mistakes, then it’s an important part of the process. 

3.   Morocco gets COLD!
Yes, I know that Morocco is on the edge of the Sahara Desert. But there are mountains and forests and large bodies of water and did I mention ski resorts or that homes are generally not heated? And I’m fortunate to be in an area that’s not even the coldest part of the Morocco by far.

4.   Everyone’s experience is different
Peace Corps staff teach that we shouldn’t compare our experience to any other Peace Corps Volunteer’s, because every person’s situation is so different – varying communities, backgrounds, attitudes and perspectives contribute to totally different experiences. But it’s certainly hard when we’re all trying to figure out our ways at the same time.

5.   Relationships take time to build
Just like making a good couscous here, relationships take time to develop, build, and nurture. It has taken me until just a few months ago to develop strong relationships with young women in my community. Part of this comes from cultural restrictions – these women just don’t spend as much time out of the home, so there’s less opportunity to create relationships – and part of this comes from me being with Justin and spending less time on my own developing individual relationships. Regardless, I have been patient and I am so happy that I have done so, as I’m now being rewarded with some wonderful friends and potential partners.

6.   I am stronger than I think
I am truly proud of what I have been able to do here – not just in terms of programs or classes or partnerships but for the personal leaps that I have been able to make: living in an unknown place separated at an enormous distance from friends and family and the comforts of the U.S. that we are used to; learning a spoken language for the first time (other than English) in my life (regretting that choice to study Latin in high school); figuring out how to understand, appreciate and respect a new culture, religion, and way of life; dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity (see #1); and taking new experiences and adventures head on and with drive and positivity!

7.   Time will fly.
Cliché but very, very, very true.

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