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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Article for the Gunnison Country Times

I wrote this article a couple of weeks ago and it was published in my hometown newspaper.  I will work on a new blog post soon!  I am definitely missing home right now- I love Colorado in the summer and it is too freaking hot here!  Things are going well, though, and my sister comes in 16 days!!!!!


During my senior year at Gunnison High School, attending Colorado College and maybe studying abroad were the biggest dreams I had for my future.  Living abroad and joining the Peace Corps seemed no more or less likely than becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  However, I remember the exact moment the Peace Corps entered my life and led me to Central Asia.  I was watching "Lord of War" with my new college friends in the first months of school and I got tired of watching people destroy each other.  I decided that evening that I would join the Peace Corps, so I looked up the application online and diligently wrote down exactly what I needed to do to join.  Thanks to the privilege bestowed upon me at birth, the opportunities given to me at Colorado College, and the support of my family, I am now a volunteer teaching English in Kazakhstan.


The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, invited Peace Corps into Kazakhstan in 1991, the year the country gained its independence from the former Soviet Union.  Kazakhstan is one of five countries in the region generally known as Central Asia.  There are now two Peace Corps programs in Kazakhstan: education and youth development.  Kazakhstan's leadership has specifically identified the need to develop English as an important international language and has invited hundreds of volunteers to teach English over the past twenty years.


Peace Corps accepted me as a volunteer in May 2010 and I left for Kazakhstan in August.  I flew out of Washington D.C. with about seventy other Americans.  Once in Kazakhstan we trained in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan.  We were organized into training groups and sent to villages on the outskirts of the city to live with host families, learn Kazakh or Russian, and teach for three months. 


Peace Corps had been an idea in the back of my mind for four years and I spent most of my senior year at Colorado College thinking about this opportunity every night before I went to sleep.  By the time I landed in Peace Corps I was done with thinking about the pros and cons of my adventure and was ready to just jump in and get to work!  I barely felt the first wave of culture shock because I was so happy to be in the moment.  Peace Corps kept us busy with language training, cultural training, and working in local classrooms.  I learned in November Peace Corps placed me in Turkestan.  I double checked to make sure Turkestan was indeed in Kazakhstan and then set to brooding on this new development. 


I remember reading a pamphlet from Peace Corps when I was preparing to leave.  It said one frustration among volunteers is that their lives are still too easy.  The pamphlet said that being a volunteer isn't about living on the floor in torrential rains with spiders crawling all over you.  It isn't about being hungry and walking around without shoes.  We simply go where there is an identified need and the people want us.  We help them with technical expertise that they don't have access to and we probably learn more than we teach. 


Despite the warning, my brain had somehow conjured the image that I would be working in a little village with one road.  Everyone would know me, wave, and invite me in for tea.  I would work closely with underprivileged students for two solid years and inspire them to travel, dream, and pursue English with enthusiasm.  Then I learned that Turkestan was a city of at least 30,000 people, I would be working in a school of gifted children, and the counterpart teacher that I would be team teaching with was almost fluent in English. 


My image was destroyed and my brooding led me to question exactly what I was doing here.  Surely gifted children with a practically fluent teacher didn't really need my help.  I have very little teaching experience and barely know the grammar of my native language.  I began to create a new image of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer.  How would I integrate into the community?  How can I possibly make a difference there?  I needed a new vision quick.  In my panic, I made the same mistake for the second time in three months- I tried to predict the future. 


Once I got to Turkestan and began speaking with the students I realized exactly why I am here.  They struggle so much that it surprises me that they have been learning this language for five years.  Many things about these students surprise me.  The surprises keep me smiling every day.  They keep me up at night thinking about new projects, competitions, and games that will enrich the students' learning and pique their interest.


They keep me here when all I can think of is the smell of hot coffee on a Sunday morning with my family.  They kept me here on Thanksgiving when I thought all day about what my family was doing, where they were, what they were eating.  I broke into tears in my Kazakh lesson because I was so frustrated with the language.  I was defeated, walking back to the classroom when a group of 9th graders ran up to me with thank you cards for Thanksgiving! My heart nearly exploded.  On another rotten day, I was exhausted and frustrated, riding the public van home.  My student happened to be on the same van and told me he was going to get a new English phrasebook.  He said someday he wanted to be an astronomer. 


Whenever I have felt defeated, unwanted, and unsuccessful, my students have pulled through; giving me presents on Christmas, cards on Valentines, and telling me insights into their lives that remind me why I am here.  I am here for the students.  They want to know the world, but more importantly, they want the world to know about them.  They are proud of their Kazakhstan and dream that someday people will know where their country is on the map, what food they eat, and why they are important.  It turns out these students' dreams are far beyond what I dreamt at their age and I hope my students can play a part in shaping their world.

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