Yesterday’s post about not having to be a star captured the attention of my friend and former student, Stepan, who is now working for Peace Corps Armenia. Since I’ve been working on writing about my Armenia trip on my travel blog, I thought today’s main blog post should be connected to yesterday’s post. I’ll try to be brief.
Two years after I finished my Peace Corps service, I decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. Originally, I had hoped to be a Peace Corps Fellow, but that didn’t work out for me. In retrospect, the fact that the plan didn’t work out for me turned out to be a huge blessing. If I had been a Fellow, it would have altered my life quite a bit. I would have been required to stay in South Carolina for four years after I finished my dual master’s degrees in social work and public health. Since I ultimately got married six months after I graduated, and then moved back to Virginia, it would not have been ideal for me to be obligated to stay in South Carolina for four years.
The Peace Corps Fellows program I had hoped to sign up for went defunct the year I matriculated. Then it was reformed, so that it was really best for people who had served in Spanish speaking countries. While I did study Spanish for several years, I am definitely nowhere near fluent. I’m much better at speaking Armenian than Spanish. There aren’t that many needy Armenians in Columbia, South Carolina.
So, I wasn’t a Peace Corps Fellow, but I did know a couple of other former Volunteers who were in my dual degree program and had become friends. They served in Costa Rica and Guatemala.
One of the courses I took for my public health degree was a health promotion course. It was about coming up with public health campaigns that could be “sold” to people willing to invest in the cause. I remember the professor, a man with the last name of Ureda, presented this idea by likening it to throwing a party. He brought up concepts of planning the party and deciding who should be invited, so the gathering would be fun and successful for everyone.
I took that course in the summer, and it lasted about five or six weeks or so, if I recall correctly. Our class decided on a public health issue to present. We were divided into groups, and we had to come up with campaigns for our “parties”. My memories are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember that our class decided the issue we should address was bulimia. Bulimia, for those who don’t know, is an eating disorder in which sufferers binge on vast amounts of food and then vomit or use other means (compulsive exercise, laxatives, purgatives, etc.) to quickly get rid of the food before they gain weight.
Bulimia is a serious problem, especially among young women. I’m still not sure why that particular topic was chosen for our project. Maybe it was because we were on a university campus, and a lot of the people in the class were young women. In any case, I was pretty tired of writing and talking about bulimia by the time that class was finished. I had to write four long papers about it within the short timeframe of the class. But I managed to do it, and passed the class. And today, I’m reminded of the concept of planning “parties” while coming up with campaigns for helping people.
I don’t actually remember Ureda posing the question “What can you bring to the party?”. He was focused on saying “Come to the party!” But, when it comes to Peace Corps service, and the powers that be within it, I think “What can you bring to the party” is a good question to ask of any Volunteer.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote that I didn’t think Peace Corps should be super “results oriented”. I base that opinion on my experiences as a Volunteer, and how there wasn’t a lot of trust when I was serving. The earliest Peace Corps Armenia groups were kind of like “young pioneers” (see what I did there?) in what has turned out to be a very successful program. But, at the beginning of Peace Corps Armenia’s existence, some ice had to be broken. We couldn’t be expected to just go marching into a classroom or a business and expect everyone to immediately trust us. Building trust takes time, and two years isn’t a super long time to build a lot of trust… especially when you’re struggling to pick up language skills and get the lay of the land.
As I mentioned yesterday, though, almost every person has some kind of strength, talent, or skill… something they’re good at that has some value to other people. As I found out when I was a Volunteer, sharing those talents with other people is a great way to make connections and build trust. I am very fortunate, as one thing I’m really good at is singing. Armenia is a fabulous place for anyone interested in the arts. Whether you’re a singer, or a dancer, or an artist, or you play an instrument or act… all of these skills, as well as just about any other, are valuable and translate well.
Singing, for me, was a way I could connect to my three classes of first form pupils– seven year olds, who didn’t speak English at all and were just learning how to be in school. If I spoke to them, they’d talk over me. But if I broke into “The Hokey Pokey”, “Brown Squirrel”, or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, they’d be quiet and we could get some things done. I used music with my older students, too. I remember singing “What a Wonderful World” with several of my tenth form students during my first year.
Using music also worked for bonding with adults. I remember joining some Peace Corps friends at a jazz club near Republic Square and there was a band playing. My friends wanted me to sing with the band, and they were kind enough to oblige. I sang “Summertime”, which was my go to song back then. I don’t remember the last time I sang it, but back in the 90s, I sang it ALL the time. And the sudden collaboration was a success. We bonded with the club owner and the band, and had a great time. That was one of the really GOOD times I had in Armenia.
Personally, I have found that music is an international language. I’ve connected with people in Germany, too, through the gift of song. But not everyone can sing or play an instrument. Some people have no interest whatsoever in the arts. Maybe they’re good at athletics– something I am definitely not good at! So they play a game with locals, maybe form a team or a club… I remember our training group used to play basketball or softball, and that was a good way of bonding with locals. There was also a guy who served in Vanadzor who formed a band with Armenians called “Snack”. They were great! They played at a lot of our parties! One of the band members married a woman in my cohort. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago, but he was a really nice guy who knew most of us. Somewhere in storage, I have a cassette tape with Snack’s music on it.
Stepan told me about one of the current Volunteers who dances. Recently, Peace Corps Armenia shared a video of him dancing with the locals. I thought it was really awesome, because they were obviously having a great time and strengthening a bond. Those kinds of activities are not only fun, but they also promote understanding and trust. They help break barriers and destroy stereotypes. This is how relationships are built so that positive changes can happen.
My sister, who was a Volunteer in Morocco, loved to go running. She’d run through her village in 80s era Morocco, creating quite a spectacle, since local women didn’t tend to do that. I remember she said they used to call her Superwoman. I don’t know if any of the locals ever joined her, but she did present an example of someone doing something different… she was someone venturing outside the “box” and presenting a new perspective. This is one way people evolve.
If someone asked me to issue a challenge to today’s Volunteers, I would encourage them to take an inventory of what interests them and the areas where they have natural gifts. What are you good at? What can you share with others? What can you bring to the party? It could be almost anything, as long as it’s legal.
I was known as a singer… and later, I shared my talents in the kitchen, when I got recruited to help some business Volunteers with a dried produce project. I used Armenian produce to create recipes. One of our most successful ventures was using dried tomatoes, onions, and peppers to make pizza sauce. We threw a pizza party that was very well received! Not only was it a potentially profitable enterprise for Armenians, it was also a lot of fun for me. I loved coming up with creative ways to use fruits and vegetables grown in Armenia. I even got to use an electric oven, provided to me by the US Department of Agriculture. That was quite a coup in the 90s. During my first year, I made a primitive oven with a big pot and my kerosene heaters!
Maybe I wasn’t a star teacher, but I was successful in other ways. And after my experiences as a PCV in Armenia, I know that there are many ways to contribute to a community effort. In fact, I learned that it’s a good thing that people have different strengths. If everyone invited brought soda or cake to a party, that wouldn’t be a good thing, would it? It’s much better when someone brings the plates, another person brings the ice, someone else brings beverages, and maybe someone bakes a cake and brings that.
Everyone has something they can contribute to the effort, and that’s what makes the whole party a success, and fun for everyone. Even if you can’t sing or play basketball, you almost surely have something to offer. Maybe it’s just two functioning arms to carry equipment, or a strong back. Never discount or underestimate the importance of those things. Any good project involves some kind of “heavy lifting”– whether figuratively or literally. A strong back and two strong arms can be the critical keys to the viability of any program. So can good critical thinking and communication skills. Maybe you’re not a singer or an athlete, but you are a good organizer. Maybe you’re empathic and good at managing people. Maybe you’re a whiz at budgeting. The possibilities are endless.
Back in the 90s, I lamented that I wasn’t a super talented and charismatic teacher… Or, at least I didn’t think I was. Maybe other people have a different take. But one thing I know I can do is sing a pretty song. I can make killer pizza sauce and bake delicious apple pies. I can write an engaging article– and when I was a PCV, it was I who put together the Peace Corps cookbook, with help from all of the Volunteers who also contributed. I can be entertaining in other ways, too… especially for those who like crude humor. 😉 And, let me tell you, when I was in Armenia, I used every one of those skills and more. When it comes to living in a place where people don’t have much, those skills and talents turn into valuable tools that are essential for success.
So ends today’s “sermon”. I think I have two or three more Armenia blog posts left to write on my travel blog. Once those are done, I’ll probably return to my usual blog “programming” on this blog. So, if you’ve been missing my usual stuff here, hang tight. I should be getting back to that material in just a few days. For those who prefer this kind of post, fair warning that I’m not usually this mature. 😀
Today’s featured photo is part of the spread Bill and I enjoyed with Stepan and his daughter. We also had some killer khorovatz! It was a hell of a party!