Saturday, September 7, 2013

Service Update

After browsing through my blog, I realized I don't write much about my actual work itself. Since I'm now eight months in (30%!) already, I'd like to share with those interested parties some of what I do and the feelings, thoughts, and hopes that have made up, and will make up, my service.

To review, I am part of Peace Corps Thailand's Teacher Collaborator and Community Service program. Mondays through Thursdays I co-teach English with my partner, Kruu Oy. The idea is to be able to provide support in transitioning from teacher centered learning to student centered learning (e.g. a dominant figure in the classroom that bestows knowledge to the lesser beings versus a facilitator who helps their friends uncover knowledge on their own) to Thai English classrooms. We aim to improve instructional practices and instructor English knowledge, create reusable English materials, and connect the community at large with the school and hopefully create new opportunities for all involved through English. This last goal is partly what I do on Fridays, and every time I show my face in my community (in the market, riding my bike, hanging out in a cafe, working out at the stadium)- In Peace Corps' words, "IRBing" (relationship building).

By and large, I feel like the teaching aspect is moving along pretty decently. The basic idea of the teaching portion of this program is to collaborate on student centered teaching techniques (lesson planning, reflection and monitoring, I do/you do), and I feel fortunate to work with Pii (literally, older/elder) Oy. It is evident she wants to improve her English and instructional abilities, is open to ideas, and enjoys watching how I implement ideas so that she can learn and practice them in the next class. We speak freely (for the most part, I'm still encouraging her to always be direct and honest with me because I'm not Thai and won't immediately burst into tears when given constructive feedback) about how to improve a class if it went poorly, or we see something on which the other can improve. We treat each other with respect and appreciate what the other brings to the table. Progress is progress- it will always be slow and steady, but I love what I've seen from her in terms of enthusiasm and responsibility during this first semester, and am excited to see where it goes next. I am proud to work with her.

The other part of my program entails community service, briefly mentioned above. The premise is to improve community opportunities through English. I've basically envisioned seeing my school as a community hub (but really, what school isn't fashioned that way, Western or Thai). This is the part of the project that initially had me really excited, as I've been anxious to get into sustainable community economic development. However, this is also a really difficult endeavor. I lack the language and cultural knowledge to do an effective job, but that's one reason why we have Thai counterparts. Other reasons include community investment, project sustainability after the volunteer completes service, and sharing collaborative ideas. The community service aspect appeals to me because it's fascinating to be able to observe a community without fully understanding what is happening. I feel when this transpires, you have a more object view of the things that happen because you are unable to attribute one action to another, so you may not necessarily jump to conclusions so quickly. Really, volunteers get to discover our community through those around us, lead blindly in some ways, and get to understand what they like about their home and how they want to see it improved.

Of course while in the States, I had many ideas about what I would want to implement- sports groups, a community garden, literacy groups- but again, these were Western ideas through a Western lens with absolutely zero knowledge of social mores, cultural considerations, and/or community wants and needs. While attending the Project Design Management training a couple of weeks ago in Nakhon Ratchasima, I worked with Kruu Jib (pronounced like Jeep, but a soft b/p) on developing a new idea that came from her and her knowledge of our community- Youth Eco-Tour Guides. In an effort to improve student English, confidence, and leadership skills, the hope is to be able to train them and increase economic opportunities for community members, farmers, fishermen,  and OTOP (one dtambon, one product; e.g. dried bananas for my community) vendors.

We are at the very beginning stages of designing this project, but PDM was a huge boon for us, if only because we were able to spend two full days together uninterrupted to begin organizing the project, from vision, to goals, to objectives, and tasks. It was solid work, but again, we've just taken baby steps. I'm excited and have a deadline of October 10th to get the project plan in place. My school director approved of it heartily and stated he will budget for it, which felt like a huge victory; a much needed one for me to develop the confidence and motivation to get this off the ground. Additionally, I will be able to include Nadia in the project as well, a win-win situation- She gets some community development experience, I get another trainer for free (and can even include her labor as a community investment should I need to apply for a grant).

On the topic of projects and PDM, I've been selected to two Peace Corps run committees- Project Review Committee (PRC) and Peer Support Network (PSN). PRC aids volunteers with project design and grant proposals and approves grant proposals to be reviewed by various funding sources. I really enjoy this kind of work. While I don't have much experience with it, I loved my Project Management and Grant Writing (and Cross-Cultural Communication and Creating Collaborative Communities) classes in grad school. All of them are proving incredibly vital to project design here in Thailand. I think these are incredibly critical professional skills to hone, so I'm thrilled to be able to practice them here.

PSN fortunately exists here in Thailand, as it doesn't (yet) in all PC countries, and I feel it is just a formal extension of what I so often do naturally. Being that I have worked in the mental health field for five years, listening to and supporting others others, Socrates'ing them into ideas and solutions, and being a good friend are all things that I love doing. Whether it's proactive solutions like sending out silly Peace Corps Thailand stories, reminding everyone that we're all in this together, or reacting by accepting a phone call from someone in need, I'm honored to help.

I think it's interesting that these are the two committees that called to me most, because there are literally around ten or so. While I am enjoying service and doing all the hard ground work, I really do enjoy doing the work that's out of the spotlight. I love supporting others, making sure they have what they need to succeed, whether that's mental health or a sparkling grant proposal. I'm definitely learning more about my professional strengths through service here. I'm an analyst at heart because I just love thinking. I think about what's good, what's bad, what's feasible, what's not. How do we get this done? What are the obstacles? What are assumptions that are being made that are vital to success? How do we mitigate? Why is this happening? Are A and B linked? I definitely feel like I'd be an excellent roll of duct tape for an non-profit or non-governmental organization when I get home. I not only like fixing things, but holding them together, making them better, more effective and efficient. I like working smarter and definitely not harder. I'm certainly hoping that with a masters in leadership and public management already in hand, with two years of Peace Corps under my belt (which means international, collaborative, project management, grant writing, problem solving, and service experience), I can walk into a decent entry level career with a respectable organization doing respectable work.

Finally, my integration into the community is mediocre at best, I feel. It's definitely not where I ideally want it to be. While I'm recognized and known around town, my Thai really does me no favors. Part of that is on me because I've not been studying. However, when I'm at work and expected to speak English thirty-two hours of the week, it's tough to find opportunities to learn Thai. By the time I get home, I'm usually too mentally drained to practice from a book or in the community. However, words and language are certainly not everything, and I still try to show my dedication to the community through different ways. I play with the neighbor kids who live on my soi (street). Some days we do art in the house (a big thank you to my tia Nena!) or we play in the street. I will run with the kids at school when training for sporting events. I shop in the market and talk as much Thai as I do know. I bike ride with other riders. I work out and talk with community members at the stadium. I run races with a group of runners through my roong paw aw (assistant principal). Once Nadia joins me, I actually feel like I will have more confidence to go out and integrate further. Just having a second person's presence is very comforting to me.

Thanks for bearing with me and reading through such a long entry. I hope you enjoyed it and that it gives you better insight into what I actually do as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. I'm all about transparency, and ultimately, I am living off your tax dollar right now. Cheers!

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