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8/5/09 The Newbies

Last year, when I was a newbie Environment Volunteer, I waited six months after my 11-week Pre-Service Training (PST) to see my buddies again, at our week-long IST (In-Service Training).

Thanks to the rearranging of the training schedule, this year’s newbies only got 8 weeks - not 11 - of training when they first arrived, then three months of living with their host families and working on language and integration, and now they have two weeks of “Post-PST” training. Yes, that means Post-Pre-Service Training training. Sometimes government bureaucracy just makes me smile. :)

I’m assured that they’ll end up with the same amount of training we got – either because they’ll get a 2-week IST or because I miscounted the number of weeks of PST – but the big difference is that instead of getting their “technical sessions” mixed in with their language and cultural sessions during one massive training haul, they had 8 weeks of language/culture and now, once they’re settled in-site and integrated into their communities, they’re getting all of the technical sessions in one huge batch.

As my loyal readers may remember, during PST, I shuttled regularly between my Training City and my small riverbank village. Three days in the City followed by a week in the village. A week in the City followed by two weeks in the village. Etc. We spent three months packing and repacking almost daily…but it also meant that we got to take breathers. Too many hours on learning a language that shares no roots with English? Take a week to train on how to set up EE clubs and conduct SIDA lessons. Too many PowerPoint presentations? Time to chill with your host family and bounce a baby on your knee.

I’m not sure which training model is more effective, though I do know that the newbies’ language skills are amazing. 8 solid weeks of living with their host families while getting 8 hours every day of direct instruction on language gave them a fluency and vocabulary range that I’m still working on after a year.

So why am I bringing this up now?

Because I’ve come to the newbies’ Training City to conduct some of those infamous PowerPoint presentations. I’m talking to them twice, actually. Today, I get to discuss the club that Fatima and I have run over the past year, and show them pictures of the murals, soccer tournament, tree planting, SIDA lessons, and other games and activities we all did together. Tomorrow I’ll co-lead a session on Monitoring & Evaluation. (A few months ago, a newbie & I went up to Peace Corps headquarters for a workshop on M&E, and now we get to pass along what we learned.)

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the newbies. For all that I call them by that slightly condescending term – newbies – I have nothing but respect for the new crop of Volunteers, a fresh group of wide-eyed innocents who have left their families, friends, and homeland for two years in hopes of bringing the world closer to peace.

When I was a wide-eyed Peace Corps Trainee, I *loved* getting visits from 2nd year Volunteers. They all seemed so confident, so blasé, so assured of things that I still found bewildering and shocking. I peppered each visitor with questions, trying to define the undefinable Peace Corps Experience. These newbies aren’t in quite the same position I was – they’ve had 3 months in their sites to knock the edges off their shiny newness, so they’re not as mystified by The World Outside of Training as I was – so I haven’t gotten as many What’s It Like?? questions. Instead, I’ve gotten to hang out with them. We’ve eaten meals, walked around town, chilled out on the hotel roof…we’ve gotten to know each other. And I’m reminded all over again what an honor it is to be a PCV.

Spending time with a room full of Volunteers…just isn’t quite like anything else. You have the full range of personality types, from fresh-out-of-undergrad-fratboy-type to retiree-calmer-and-wiser-type and everything inbetween. But young, old, goofy, serious, partier, workerbee, funny, chill…they’re all Peace Corps Volunteers. They all chose to surrender two years of their lives to live and learn and love a new country.

I can’t figure out how to say this without sounding like I’m self-aggrandizing, but please just trust that I don’t mean to be: PCVs are amazing human beings.

For most of my life, when I entered social situations full of strangers, I'd hang back, looking for the one or two folks in the room who I could connect to on a meaningful level. I’m capable of small talk, but I dislike it and prefer a friendly silence to stilted chatter. I'd nearly always find someone I'd enjoy talking with, and then spend the rest of my time with that individual.

It’s different here. When I walked into this hotel full of strange PCVs, I remembered something I’d forgotten since the beginning of stage: a group of PCVs isn’t like any other group I’ve ever met. I’m already connected to them all, on a profound level. These aren’t strangers at all; they’re members of my Peace Corps family, unknown to me but bonded nonetheless. It’s like going to your ancestral homelands and meeting your distant cousins. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never seen each other before or that your accents are different; you’re still family. You’ll figure out what else you have in common soon enough, but it hardly matters, because you’ve already flown across the first social hurdle. They’re already an us, not a them.

PCVs, despite the thousands of ways that we 8000 people are so different from each other, share similarities on a level that I just haven’t found anywhere else. And of course you find exceptions. A handful joined Peace Corps because they wanted an in to graduate school, or because they were bored and confused and didn’t know what to do with themselves. But those are the exception…and they don’t usually last very long, either because they go home early or because Peace Corps Service works its magic on them, and they find themselves serving the world as PCVs, even to their own surprise.

So I’m grateful to be here, not only to get to “pay forward” the generosity of the 2nd-year Volunteers who helped my Training, but because I’ve gotten to meet 26 new friends. 26 new amazing, selfless, generous-hearted brothers and sisters.

[[Little brothers and sisters, of course, regardless of their age in calendar years, because I’ve been here a year longer and am therefore clearly entitled to play the big sister card. ;) ]]

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