Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Exceptional post from “Dude, Where’s my Gomar?”

dude, where's my gomar?

Before I learned that I would live in Albania for two years, I was like perhaps many Americans of my generation in that my only knowledge of Albania was based on one episode of  The Simpsons. Re-watching, I wanted to share some of my favorite parts of this hilarious episode .

Brief intro: Comrade Homer and Principle Skinner are both ready to be rid of the troublesome Bart. They decide to send him to France as an exchange student while the Simpsons family will host a student from Albania.

I hadn’t remembered that they actually speak Albanian in this episode… or kind of speak Albanian. They say “I will miss you”, “write us frequently”, and finally “mirupafshim” (goodbye). Some of it is incoherent because the speakers are not Albanian speakers.  Watching this episode as a little kid was actually the very first time I would hear an Albanian word. Little…

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“When you’re away you crave the home comforts.
T
hen when you return you forget why you missed
them at all 
and long for the things you left behind.
I grieve for 
the croissant.”

-Randall Brown, “The Hour”

I walked with my sister in her picturesque neighborhood.  We were on our way to pick up my nephew from school with dog in tow.  The day was beautiful; the air crisp, the leaves in hues of bright orange and red, the smell of suburbia and I, in that infinitesimal moment realized, “My gods, I’ve missed this.”  “This” not being the crisp air, or the changing leaves or suburbia (definitely not suburbia) but a quiet, simple moment in the company of my sister and her hulking beast of a dog.

When I left Washington, D.C. over a year ago, I was quite honestly, exhausted of the city and what I perceived were its limitations.  I desired change.  Despite the basic surroundings though and new work challenges, things were not as different as I would have thought.  I adapted rather quickly to life in Albania.  Nor did I experience any counter-culture shock when I walked across the customs threshold back into the USA.  I did not weep in the cereal aisle – or for me more appropriately, the wine racks.

On Thursday, I stood outside my old office building on 15th and M, waiting for Ben and Sarah, my former co-workers.  Looking in, I saw Joe and Ms. Shirley, the front desk attendants, same as ever.  After lunch, when asked if I wanted to visit the office, I could not.  I could not face from my former co-workers that dreaded question of all Peace Corps volunteers, “Oh, what are you going to do next?” Not when I didn’t have an answer or even a clue as to what I thought my post-Peace Corps path should be.

The idea of coming back to D.C., while mixed with the pleasure of being near family, friends and food, also fills me with fear.  It took going across the ocean to find perspective, but when I got there, not much was different, truly different.  With the end of my service looming nearer, I feel the riptide pull of the old life I’m not sure I want. Is Washington D.C. my personal black hole, ready to pull me back in? The gravity of it is too much.

That Halloween night, my friend John and I went out. He dressed as an aging bureaucrat and I as a Peace Corps volunteer in existential crises. How could we have lost to the Invisible Man?  John, however is a master of disguise in his own right.  For the years I have known him he has worn the guise of a cynic, but, I believe him among the happiest of optimists and someone who rides change with casual ease.  Somewhen during that night, I was inspired by John, who having faced his own crisis of stagnation, had found something new and worthwhile in D.C. and I realized the place always had opportunities.  The place was never the problem.  It was me.

To be continued…

This is the 2nd year of the Elbasan Youth Council and over the last few months fellow volunteers have taken some of my lessons learned and either tried to incorporate components or replicate the program in their cities.  So kudos to everyone, and yay for promising practices.

In that same vein as the year rolls along I’ll try to share some of  those lessons learned (and learning) here.  This is of course based solely on my Elbasan Youth Council experience and observations as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I will do my best to keep it succinct, organized, informative, and witty.  Part of this also chronicles my attempts to transition the program from a Peace Corps volunteer led project, and put the onus on my Albanian counterparts. So, yay for capacity building.

Youth-Council-POSTER

PUBLICIZE
It is no good if no one knows about your program.

Social Media – 
These are standard and if your agency has a website or Facebook account, it is good to announce your project there with the appropriate links; however this is passive and will not get you a desirable number of diverse applicants.  Same goes for word-of-mouth.  No, no.  At least in the Elbasan context one must actively promote.

School Visits – In the first year we made a concerted effort to present to all the high school classrooms, describing both the program and it’s benefits to participants, and the application process.  When asked, for many students this was the principle way they heard about it.

To compare, we had 90+ applicants in year one.  In the second year, staff thought that the program was established and that we didn’t need the presentations.  We compromised and went and spoke with all the school directors.  This year we only had 33 applications.

I believe this to be because:
A) After only one year, the program is obviously not “established.”
B) Varying degree of support and publicizing within schools.
C) The idea of an application process is still nascent in a country where nepotism is the norm, and for many students it can be intimidating.  Last year during our presentations we clearly explained what to do, but without that… :P

SCHOOL DIRECTORS

They are the gate keepers to the schools, more so than local Departments of Education, and the lack of a centralized infrastructure gives each a certain degree of autonomy.  Much like a loosely affiliated collective (think the Delian League) school directors may work together for the common cause of youth education, but will have their own approach and interest.  Many will welcome you and be excited for a program that will benefit the students. Others are like griffins at the door.  Placate them and find the mutual benefit – but don’t give into to anything that may connote favoritism.

Try to meet in person with the school directors to explain your program, its benefits, the application process and provide them with a few copies of the application.  You will need them to help disseminate the information to students and support your program.  In any major follow-up activities or events you have, it will also be important to recognize their support and thank them.  School Directors have a long memory, so it is important to build and maintain good relations.

BILINGUAL

In our first year, the program was led largely by the volunteers, and despite best efforts to include staff, the language was sometimes a barrier, less in meetings and more with the materials (which being the first year, we’re sometimes prepared very last minute…whoops).  It is also possible that the focus on English was a deterrent for some (great) students to apply, whose English may not have been as strong (whether this was true or just perceived by them).

While English is an attractive component for any program (at least in Albania), it was important to bring the focus back to the leadership, civic engagement and community project portions, which are the real heart of the program.

To address some of these issues, this year we made the program more obviously bilingual.  How can you do this?:

  • Make your application and promotional materials available in the local language, as well as English.
  • Give students the option of selecting which language they want to submit their application in.  This may be challenging for the volunteer in the review process, but it’s a good tactic for getting staff more involved.
  • Produce all your materials in both languages on the front end.  This will take some time if you are making new lesson plans, but the results will be worth it.
  • Youth are smart.  I’m fortunate to have a counterpart who is bilingual and helps with the translation, but students will help each other (and you) out. Students will demonstrate their leadership in small ways, this being one.

Not to mention promoting a bilingual is a good tactic to help Peace Corps volunteers learn the local language as well. Yay for more exposure.

This is all for the moment, but I will continue to keep tabs on things and share.  If you have questions or there are things you’d like to know more about, please feel free to contact.

SPECIAL THANKS…
to Melia who shared with me the joys of struggle with our first year of EYC…and of course, to all the school directors, public officials, staff, and our first year members.