Peace Corps Armenia: With Dust in My Hair

The sole of my hiking boot split clean off halfway home. I stopped walking and stared at the mangled boot in some sort of humbled disbelief, a thin song playing in old ear buds. I had bought the boots for four dollars at a thrift store in Northern Wisconsin. I had put at least 200 miles on them between then and now. I’d stuffed them in a suitcase and lugged them to a new hemisphere. And now, after this, they had the audacity to disintegrate while I still had a quarter mile’s muddy walk.

I didn’t have a good fix for that. There’s no textbook solution for how to fix the bottom of your only pair of boots on a dirt road in the mud. So I kept walking, sole flapping pathetically against my sock, and wondered what the hell it was I wanted that brought me here.

Bees hummed in peach blooms so loud it seemed like the whole tree was buzzing. The smell of wood smoke snaked through the village, sparrows and small birds I didn’t know the names for shot across the sky. Two hundred miles for four dollars isn’t so bad, I reasoned with myself, my sock now soaked through.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, and tried to ignore the metallic taste in my mouth. I want to be here, I reminded myself. My shoe was broken, my language skills stagnant, and my feet wet. I didn’t feel like a good English teacher, or good Armenian learner, or frankly good at anything, while the loud flap of my broken shoe hit against my muddy sock.

Duct tape, I thought. You need duct tape in your backpack. I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sheer task of a quarter mile.

That was the first time I really, really wondered if I’d made the right choice. I feel like I write about walking a lot, but I suppose that’s the only time I have alone, the only time I’m stuck with my thoughts, and the only time my boots break and I walk in the mud.

So I stopped walking on the muddy road and asked myself what it was I really wanted that brought myself to said muddy road.

I wondered if I remembered a year ago, in my writing tutoring job joking with a coworker about wanting to teach English forever. Did I remember her question— why not? Or how I came in the next week and told her I had thought about it, and I was serious, I was going to do it?

I wondered if I remembered how badly I wanted to teach and be that good role model, omni-positive, well-adjusted, with all the right flaws for the younger girls watching me, as if that were a good for thing for either them or me. As if you could ask someone what it is they want and get an honest answer.

I wondered what the point was if I wasn’t good enough at the language, or good enough of a teacher, or able to find a silver lining all the time. What is the point if I can’t even find a good fix for a broken boot on a muddy day?

Right then, there wasn’t a good fix. At least not one that I could think of. The best fix was to tough it out for a quarter mile, and then change my shoes and socks

But the rest of it? I am good enough at the language. I am a good enough teacher. And I do know what I want, why I want to be here. And next time that I stop and take a break on the side of that road, my hair caked in dust and my shoe breaking at the seams, maybe it’ll be a little easier, or funnier, or at least better. And next, I will have that duct tape in my bag.

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Detail at Noravank

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The muddy road

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Apple pie and coffee we made for my host family

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A literal page from my journal in case I didn’t already overshare enough on the internet!

Miss my previous post? Click here!

(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Pre-departure Updates and Overview

Writing in with a minor life update (a minor one, really): in two weeks I am leaving the country to embark on 27 months of Peace Corps service in Armenia as a TEFL volunteer. Cool!

Why am I doing this?

While I was in school, I worked as a writing consultant and science ethics learning assistant. I absolutely loved both jobs. These were the sort of jobs that I would look forward to working, and would hang around long after class was over to help out.

Working as a writing consultant tutoring ELL (English language learning) was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I met so many interesting and brave people who had left their home country to come and learn in mine.

Last March, I started looking into possible other opportunities to continue ELL/EFL work, preferably while also putting myself in another culture with a foreign language like the students I admired had.

I decided that the US Peace Corps fit best with what I was looking for. They provide language training, offer a longer period of service than just a few months, and work to emphasize cultural exchange and respect for host countries. I submitted my application in March, with no country/region specified.

I graduated Michigan State University Spring 2018 with a degree in Neuroscience and additional major in Digital and Technical Writing, then headed up to Northern Wisconsin to sea kayak guide for the summer.

 

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I’m in the yellow boat 🙂

In late August, I interviewed for a TEFL Armenia position, and shortly thereafter was invited to join and accepted. I worked on medical clearance for ten thousand years, and am now in the process of learning Armenian and getting stoked!

What am I going to be doing? 

I will be in Armenia for the first three months participating in language and cultural competency training as well as skill building. After these three months, I will be assigned to a site where I will co-teach English with an Armenian counterpart for two years as well as work with my community on projects to meet community needs. I don’t know where in Armenia my site will be, but I pinky swear I’ll update you (*cough* dad) as soon as I know.

Background on the Peace Corps:

The US Peace Corps was founded after the Cold War, by President John F. Kennedy.

The Peace Corps itself states it’s mission as threefold:

  1.  “To help people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”
  2. “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”
  3. “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

I could write a whole separate piece (totaling about 4000 words which I know because I actually did, then trashed because it’s annoying) on Peace Corps geopolitical context. But honestly, that would be super boring, I am nowhere near an expert on that sort of thing, and a lot of other people have already written about this, so instead I will direct you to some other sources:

  • Here you can read what the Peace Corps has to say about their mission.
  • Read this (brilliant, cannot overemphasize, should be required reading) article by Teju Cole to consider the implications of the narratives we subscribe to.
  • Through the Global Ethics Network you can check out an in-depth examination into the Peace Corps’ role in our world today.
  • This Instagram account offers really great insight into foreign aid work.

Snapshot of Armenia

Armenia is located in the South Caucuses, bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan to the East, Iran to the South, and Turkey to the West. It has one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, and beautiful mountain monasteries. In 1991, Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union. The apricot is the national fruit. The area is largely mountainous, and they have one large lake, Lake Sevan.

Check out the PC Armenia page here, or the Armenia Wikipedia page here.

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Map of Armenia (eurasiangeopolitics.com)

Armenia gets four seasons, and I think I remember hearing somewhere that the temperature is similar to Chicago year round.

I hope to learn lots more about Armenia and share here as appropriate, as part of the Peace Corps Third goal.

Application/ Preservice Process:

There have been three primary parts of the preservice process. The first was the actual application, which I filled out in March 2018. When I didn’t hear back within three months, I started applying for other jobs.

I heard back about an interview in August 2018, and after that interview had about a week to decide whether or not to accept my invitation.

Interview:

Honestly, I felt like my interview went poorly, especially compared to some of the other jobs I had interviewed for the same month, and I was a little surprised (but grateful) to get an invitation. If you’re prepping to interview, I would recommend writing out very specific responses to any questions they tell you to prepare for.

For example, I was told to be ready to answer questions about my experience with other cultures. I wrote down in my notes “EFL teaching”. What they are looking for is specific cultural aspects—food differences, language barriers, misunderstandings you have had. I would recommend writing out very systematic answers to the questions they give you to prep with.

Clearances:

In order to serve with the Peace Corps, you need both legal and medical clearance. Legal clearance was smooth experience for me; medical clearance was hectic.

It involved more appointments than I thought possible, especially since I have always had the luxury of good health. I did learn that I am not allergic to penicillin like I thought I was through penicillin testing.

Medical clearance took about three months for me, and even included follow up in February on the poison ivy I had in September. Very thorough, though I can assure you that if my poison ivy hadn’t resolved over the course of several months, my doctor and Pre-service nurse would’ve heard a lot more about it. None of this is relevant to PC service, but I just felt like sharing on the internet.

Online Language Course/ TEFL Pre-service Modules:

I’ve been working on the TEFL Pre-service modules for about three months now. These modules are designed to make sure everyone is appropriately trained and understands the expectations of the job they will be doing at the end of Pre-Service Training (PST).

I’ve found the modules very helpful, especially in evaluating my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, though each module has taken me at least double the amount of time projected.

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My tiny book of Armenian notes

For the past six weeks I’ve been taking the online pre-departure language course which has been incredibly helpful. My language skills are still practically nonexistent, but I know all 39 letters in the alphabet, can say some food words, and can introduce myself. I also know some super helpful phrases like Im siroom knel (I like sleep), chem siroom lolik (I don’t like tomato), and doo oones orakh vochkar (you have a happy sheep). All equally useful phrases. Also, still maybe not correct.

 

I am super grateful for this opportunity, and very excited for new challenges, learning the Armenian language (which is COOL google it), and the chance to grow as a TEFL teacher. It sounds corny when I write it, but it’s true.

Any questions for me? Drop me a comment, find me on Instagram, or shoot me an email!

And of course, all views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or Armenia.

(Cover photo of my favorite hiking shoes and the Apostle Islands from the Bayfield docks; Basswood Island in the distance.)

 

Next Peace Corps Post linked here