Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Peace Corps Aspiration Statement and my first steps in meeting it!

As part of one's preparation for the PC, they ask you to write an "Aspiration Statement" before you deploy.

Mine is rather long, (4 pages), but it's included after the jump for those who are interested.
The main theme of the whole thing is INTENTIONALITY.  I want to approach all aspects of my service intentionally, and not just let it fly by me the way life sometimes does.

So, in the spirit of that commitment, I am taking the first step toward that goal today, and leaving on a 11 day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Center in Illinois. When I return, it will be full scale packing mode! Literally, I'm flying out the door, late, right now! (Fitting, right?!)

So, cheers!

A: Reflecting on my upcoming service has again reminded me of the inseparable bind tying my professional experiences to my aspirations.  Most generally, as a PCV I expect to use my attributes as a hard worker, empathizer, self-mover, leader, team-builder, doer, advocate, and mediator, characteristics I have developed through previous activities ranging from human rights advocacy to academic research.  Though diverse in substance, a common thread is woven through these activities by a belief that my greatest potential is fulfilled through the challenge of public service, and the ambition such service embodies to live purposely by improving society.  Because my work is at its best when aiming toward this end, the most powerful attribute I bring is a conviction of this aspiration. At the most basic level, therefore, as a PCV I aspire to test myself by helping Moldovans, in the course improving both parties.  Through this challenge, I aspire to confront basic assumptions, and ultimately live with greater intentionality for it.

In practical terms, volunteering with the HESC Project I expect to utilize daily my prior experience educating students on health topics.  I am excited to draw on this knowledge, particularly around HIV/AIDS and ability issues, but those experiences have taught me that no two target groups are alike, and successful engagement requires constant adaptation in order to utilize new models and minimize the passive lecture format.  In addition to technical knowledge, this work has developed my traits as a facilitator and comfortable public speaker.  Finally, these positions have further shown me that one can often learn more as a teacher than as a student.  Thus, these attributes also correspond to an aspiration to learn as much as possible while serving: about myself, about Moldova, about the tangible barriers to public health in a developing country, and above all about the unanticipated lessons, which are certain to be the most trying.

I also hope to contribute my non-profit organizational experience in order to ensure that my projects have adequate support.  My goal to build capacity for local health education initiatives is motivated by an aspiration that projects are sustainable in my absence.  Organizational skills encompass a number of those personal attributes mentioned above – willingness to work long hours, teamwork, and leadership abilities.  Collaborative and team initiatives hold great potential to create new stakeholders and find untapped synergies, and have already occupied a great deal of brainstorming.  I am particularly excited to partner with EE, ARBD, and COD volunteers as well as international organizations to tackle problems from multiple angles.  In so doing, I aspire to learn more about the functioning of larger organizations and their local partnerships.

Finally, having studied extensively the political economy of post-communist transitions in Europe, I hope to offer theoretical insight and demonstrate the patience necessary for the pace of work in these countries.  The corollary to this macro perspective forms my most fundamental aspiration: to better understand the local dynamics of development initiatives.  This goal is revisited below in my professional aspirations, but in concrete terms, my desire for full immersion in the world of micro-assistance inspires me to: become a member of my community who is known to every household; contribute a fresh perspective and translate that perspective into action; and to work through local initiatives, rather than imposing ‘foreign’ models.

B: My predominant strategy to work effectively with local partners is to integrate as fully as possible into my community and Moldovan culture.  Such a project in trust-building is lengthy – it took almost half a year with my German host family – but it also provides an opportunity to listen and observe local practices while tailoring projects.  To the extent possible, I hope to facilitate my integration by finding a “Moldovan way” of doing things, which will ultimately make any innovations more likely to be received well.  Coming in with an agenda would be dismissively offensive and liable to miss critical needs, so one of my key strategies is to listen first and take advice, and then work to strike a balance that both appreciates local customs and mitigates those conventions that impede improvement.  Initially, after all, my local partners will possess a greater understanding of local health challenges and even solutions; I am there because of my ability to offer fresh perspective, but recognize that I have much to learn along the way.

In fact, my general philosophy is that I can be most effective while working subtly to support and promote innovations, but letting local partners instigate change, thereby empowering them to feel ownership over “my” initiatives.  In designing projects, my experience has shown that needs are best met when projects flow from strategic goals; thus, if necessary, I will work with local partners to flesh out a broader vision that supports programming and casts targeted needs as strategic priorities.  I also recognize that local partners may have a different vision for my role than the goals of the Peace Corps, and if necessary, being firm and straightforward about my position will prevent unrealistic expectations and miscommunications.  Finally, I hope to work more effectively at post by minimizing now any expectations regarding an ideal location, project, or partner organization.  My approach to limiting expectations will be to maintain a focus on what can be done with the position I am given, not what I’d want to do if given the choice.

C: Above all, I have learned to take nothing for granted; our culture informs more of our traits than we realize, and until a new context challenges assumptions we are often unaware of many habits.  Nevertheless, routine habits can be incredibly offensive once the cultural context that gave rise to them is removed.  Thus, I plan to give attention to small differences, ask questions taken for granted in the U.S., always give new things a chance, and above all, to never assume my way is better or the local way.

At the same time, because no one can cut themselves loose from their mooring entirely, before deploying I have made plans for a personal retreat in order to reflect on those core parts of my identity that cannot be compromised.  On everything beyond that foundation I will be flexible, and identifying my core attributes should make it easier both to make difficult concessions and draw boundaries.  In reality, my adjustment has already begun.  My vegetarian diet, for example, is re-acquainting itself with meat.  On the point of my sexuality, I long ago accepted that in many countries effective integration precludes being ‘out’; at the same time, it does not require fabricating sexual interest in women.  There are also many smaller areas in which my cultural adaptation is already underway: studying Moldova’s language, history and current affairs fascinates me.  Quickly achieving linguistic fluency, in particular, is a key skill necessary to become comfortable in a new environment.  Lastly, I plan to never hesitate in asking questions.  Most people – particularly those hosting foreigners – welcome the chance to discuss their culture, and asking questions invites an open atmosphere.

D: Most importantly, I hope to achieve a solid working proficiency in Romanian during PST. Languages do not always come easily to me and ten weeks is a short period to reach working proficiency, so I fully expect this to be a challenging period; nevertheless, I am excited for the intensive immersion format.  At some point, either during PST or IST, I also want to receive additional instruction in Russian, thus ensuring at least a basic level of communication is possible in all environments.  On the broader subject of cross-cultural and community development training, given the sensitive nature of health education, I am curious to examine techniques for increasing enrollment in health classes and mediating the religious context in an attentive manner.  Overall, a better understanding of the causes underlying the difficulties some aspects of Moldovan culture pose to HESC initiatives should increase my efficacy at post.

As for technical training, I look forward to case studies and site visits to successful HESC projects, a chance to learn from previous volunteers, professional training on the best practices of results-oriented health education, and monitoring/evaluation techniques.  An overview of other health organizations working in the country would provide helpful context, particularly where contrasts can be drawn to the LSBE approach.  A basic orientation on the EE, ARBD, and COD programs would facilitate the type of collaboration I already mentioned looking forward to.

In terms of the three main duties of HESC projects, I feel my weakest area is as a health education mentor, specifically in the area of training teachers, though this is also the kind of capacity building that greatly enthuses me.  Previous experiences provide more background for the direct teaching and facilitating roles.  Given the dual nature of the HESC position, I would also appreciate a few joint sessions with COD volunteers to increase my holistic understanding of the challenges unique to community organizations.  Finally, to facilitate technical training, I hope to receive a mentor who is also a HESC volunteer.

Lastly, regarding my personal development during PST, I hope for insight into goal setting strategies that can simultaneously promote effective prioritizing and avoid setting expectations that may lead to discontent.  I have already been greatly encouraged regarding the support queer volunteers receive, and expect such support to continue through PST.  Similar to how I don’t expect to convey a false sexual interest in women, I’m also interested to learn how to participate in religious customs without professing religious beliefs I do not truly hold.

My original motivation to serve with the PC stemmed from my calling to development work, and my desire to gain the professional experiences necessary to launch such a career.  For me, development work conjured images of global summits with important leaders and pioneering new policies to increase programs’ efficacy.  PC was a logical step toward such work, and meshed well with my belief that the interests of the U.S. are best served by a free and prosperous world.  Over time, however, a number of patient friends, inspiring stories, RPCVs, and sharp academic works have convinced me that to successfully affect change at that macro scale, one must first understand the micro level.  Two recent works in particular had a profound effect on me: Three Cups of Tea and Banker To the Poor both helped me to appreciate that all the well intended agencies in the world could never make a difference if it weren’t for the innovative and dedicated individuals on the ground, embedded in communities and getting their hands dirty with details.  As my appreciation for this fact grew, so did my excitement for the uniqueness of the PC model, not just as a means, but as an important end itself for my professional goals.  Thus, I come full circle to my most fundamental aspiration, which is both personal and professional: to gain a greater appreciation for development’s inherently local dynamics, as the foundation for successful assistance.  The PC experience cannot help but inform my worldview, and thus the personal and professional aspirations which flow from it.

By advancing a fuller understanding of what development work looks like up close, I expect the coming two years and three months to shape my subsequent career efforts, and forever provide me with a personal reminder of the individuals touched by my work.  Meanwhile, as a profound personal challenge, I anticipate that the PC will be a supreme lesson in patience, flexibility, and finding happiness in simple pleasures.  Such characteristics are already the foundation of my adaptive nature, but as virtues, they are life goals which will always remain partially unrealized.  At the end of my service, I may be a different person or I may be the same person with new experiences.  At the very least, however, I will have challenged my basic assumptions, and be a more self-moving individual for it.  I am excited for the profound potential Peace Corps’ holds to contribute to my development in all these areas.


abstract_threat said...

Thanks for posting this. I am currently writing my apsiration statement for my assignment in Moldova as a Health Education for School and Communities Specialist. I did a search online and your blog came up. Being that you are in Moldova, I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

craig said...

I too am leaving for Moldova this Summer and have enjoyed your blog. If the prior person is reading this.. please contact me in that we will be in the same program at the same time.