What do volunteers DO in the summer?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the education sector, my job during the school year is obviously teaching. But what about the summer?

The school year in Kosovo is similar to most schools in the US. All schools here start on September 1st and most end in mid-June, but the end of the school year depends on the student’s age. That leaves two and a half months where we are not teaching.

So do we have all summer off? Do we just sit around sipping Kosovo’s world-renowned macchiatos?

Of course it depends on the volunteer, but these are the main ways TEFL volunteers in Kosovo fill their time in June, July, and August:

TravelTravel periods

Education PCVs are limited with when they can take their vacation days, so many volunteers use the summer to visit the U.S. or to travel. We can only travel during school breaks, but that excludes the first summer of training and the last summer before we leave Kosovo. So the summer at our halfway point is the perfect time to use our annual leave and travel.

Some volunteers are using their vacation days in one giant chunk, backpacking Europe for a few weeks. I decided to split up my allotted leave into several trips, saving days for winter break and next spring break. So this summer I’ve got a few little trips planned, one each month:

  1. Berlin Solo Trip (June)
  2. Albania with my host family (July)
  3. Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro (August)

To learn about how vacation days work in the Peace Corps, check out this post.

Summer Camps

Several volunteers decided to plan a week-long summer camp at their site. Many of us signed up to help at these camps throughout Kosovo. The camps have been a major success and have had themes ranging from global citizenship to health/fitness to environmental awareness.

Earlier this month I helped out at a camp in a small village where another volunteer lives. The focus of the camp was being a global citizen and taking care of the environment. Even though the village is surrounded by beautiful mountains, most of the children had never been hiking before. The highlight of the camp was taking about 60 of the kids on a hike up into the mountains with a stunning view  of their village from above.

The summer camps are not only beneficial for the kids, but they provide a chance for us to see other volunteers’ communities around the country. In addition to summer camps, many PCVs are running English clubs or working on grant writing.

Helping with Pre-Service Training for the new volunteers

Several PCVs are also leading training sessions for the K3s (Kosovo’s third group of volunteers). Pre-Service Training begins in early June and lasts about 11 weeks, taking place in Eastern Kosovo around the town of Kamenice. (Check out my post about training to learn more.) So far all of the Kosovo PCVs have been in the Education sector, but we just had our first group of 10 Community Development volunteers arrive this summer. Kosovo map label

Because the Peace Corps Kosovo program is so new, training materials and sessions are still being developed, and current staff and volunteers are playing a significant role in this process. Over the next few years our PST schedule and curriculum will continue to evolve.

Sadly I live on the opposite side of Kosovo, so I have not had the chance to meet the new volunteers yet. But in August I will be leading a training session and can finally meet them!

I also found out that two new volunteers will be placed in or near Gjakova, so I’ll have a couple other Americans to share my site with!

Nothing can prepare you for life with a host family

As I approach the one-year mark of my service, and with the third group of Kosovo volunteers (K3) arriving soon, I’ve been reflecting on some of the greatest challenges and joys of my Peace Corps service. The first thing that came to mind in both of these categories was life with a host family.

On June 10th I arrived in Kamenice, Kosovo, where I lived for the 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training. Immediately upon our arrival at the local school, we saw local families standing outside waiting to bring us to their homes.

We all stood in a crowded classroom and were picked out one by one by the families, to whom we had been assigned in advance.

I stood with my heart pounding, watching my fellow PCVs meet their families for the first time. Then a small woman in her late 50s walked up to me, smiled, and announced that she would be my host mother. (Or I assume that’s what she said, seeing as I knew maybe 15 words in Albanian.) Before I knew what was happening she grabbed my arm and led me out of the school to her car.

Next thing I know I am driving away in a car with a Kosovar woman who speaks zero English. I quickly run through the three things I know how to say in Albanian. And then the awkward silence settles in. Welcome to life with a host family.


Living with a family from another country is a unique experience. It could be argued that it is the part of service that will make or break your time in the Peace Corps.

The host family element was definitely my biggest fear. In case you didn’t know, Peace Corps Volunteers live with a host family during training to help them learn the language and integrate into the culture. In Kosovo we live with a host family during PST and then with a different family at our permanent site for the duration of our service. In some countries PCVs have the option of getting apartments after 6 months or a year, depending on their site.

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My host family in Gjakova, which consists of two parents and their 12 & 15 year-old daughters.

Now that I have lived with two different host families over the past 11 months, I can say that my pre-departure fears were justified. It is strange and uncomfortable and easily the most challenging aspect of PC service. The good news is that each day becomes slightly less awkward and confusing. (I also lucked-out in Gjakova by being placed with the perfect host family, which makes things a lot easier.)

My first night with my PST host family involved a lot of smiling at each other in silence. Then I began pointing at things in the house and asking what they were. The next two hours were spent writing down vocab while my host mom pointed at things and named them in Albanian.

My host parents also Skyped with a number of their relatives and friends, excitedly talking about the random American girl living with them. Then they’d hold the phone in front of my face and tell me to speak in Albanian. I ran through the handful of things I knew how to say, and the relatives on the other side of the screen would laugh and say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. I quickly realized that this would be a common occurrence for the next two years of my life.

dont understand.gif

One of biggest challenges can be the lack of privacy. I lived in an apartment alone for the two years prior to Peace Corps service. I loved having my own space to recharge after a long day at work.

This is borderline impossible while living with a host family, especially in a culture that is much more community-focused. I’ve come to realize that Americans are hyper-individualistic compared to most of the world. In Kosovo almost everything is done in the company of others. Introvert-time is not a thing.

when PCVs go to sleep.gifI am very introverted, so for the first few months this was a shock to my system. Many volunteers would tell their family that they were tired and  would “go to sleep” at 9:00 pm, just to sit in their rooms alone, reading, writing, or just savoring the privacy.

Another challenge of life with a host family can be the sudden lack of independence. This was definitely noticeable for me. I always considered myself fairly self-sufficient, but when you arrive in-country as a PCV you find that you are very dependent. And the people you rely on most are your host family members.

I should also confess that I can be a tad controlling. But when applying to the Peace Corps one of the first things they tell you is that adaptability in a PCV is essential. So I am learning to give up control.

Your lack of control is especially pronounced living with a host family. Your schedule and what you eat is now largely controlled by someone other than you. During PST in particular it was not uncommon to arrive home exhausted and for my family to say, “Jump in the car. We’re going somewhere!” The Peace Corps has been a major lesson in going with the flow. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the memorable adventures that come from a more flexible approach to life.

Im an ADULT.gifAt first having people watch me, ask what I was doing, and ask where I was going every day reminded me of being in high school. This becomes especially apparent when your family gives you rules to follow or a curfew. At times I wanted to scream, “I am an adult! I can take care of myself!”

Although it can feel like your host family is being controlling or restrictive, they are really looking out for you. You are, after all, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar culture, and your family is there to help you integrate. Flija 1.JPGHaving a host family helps you learn the language, integrate into the community, and observe the culture on the ground-level. Although it has its challenges, I can’t imagine doing Peace Corps any other way.

It is also important to realize that you are becoming part of a real-life family. They have their own quirks and flaws, just like families in America. You will see them argue, you will see them cry, you may be with them when a baby is born or when a relative dies.

You will be vulnerable in front of them. My host family sees me when I just wake up and when I haven’t showered in days. They lived with me when I had never-ending diarrhea.  They have seen me cry multiple times.DSCN1084 (2)

You will also have incredibly touching moments. When you are sick, they are the ones who make you tea and nurse you back to health. When you receive bad news on the phone, they are the ones who hold you while you cry.

I have slumber parties with my host sisters and they share about their secret crushes. We sing off-key and dance in the living room. I can say with complete honesty that I love my host family in Gjakova. I call my host parents “mom” and “dad” without giving it a second thought.

Having a host family has gone from being the hardest thing in my service to the absolute best part. The past few months have been a bit rough at times, and when I have considered ET-ing my host family has been my number one reason for deciding to stay. I have no doubt that my relationship with my host family will be a lifelong one.

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Visiting the White Drin Waterfall in northern Kosovo with my host family.

Scaling the language barrier

During our first month of PST, while we were beginning to learn Albanian, a certain male volunteer had an memorable language mix-up with his host family. He was at his host home and needed to use the bathroom. He walked to the bathroom, noticed that the door was ajar, assumed it was empty and walked in. Mistake.Anchorman original when you arrive at site

His host mother was sitting on the toilet. In panic and wanting to quickly apologize he exclaimed, “Faleminderit!” and left the bathroom. One problem: Faleminderit means thank you.


When learning a new language, especially in an immersion context, these embarrassing mistakes are common. Living immersed in another language is a wild experience. More so than I ever anticipated. Below I’ve highlighted a few of the biggest challenges.

1.Confusion abounds.

Did you think that playing charades growing up was just for fun? Wrong. It was serious training, preparing you for the day you became a Peace Corps Volunteer. Your first few weeks in the Peace Corps will involve a lot of pantomiming. And this leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings.Ariel Language learning ariel charades.gif

During Pre-Service Training volunteers live with a host family, but you are dropped off knowing almost zero Albanian. I remember one of the first couple days when I tried telling my host mother that I had to use the bathroom using gestures. She immediately brought me to the bathroom and started teaching me how to use a toilet. She thought I was asking how a toilet works.

A couple weeks later I was eating dinner with my host family and they kept trying to feed me more. I was full, but I couldn’t remember how to say that in Albanian, so I decided to get creative and attempt a joke in Albanian. I motioned to the table and then to my belly and said, “I’ve eaten so much it feels like I’m pregnant!” Or that’s what I thought I said.

My host family suddenly became very serious and wouldn’t make eye contact. Dang it. They  now thought I was actually pregnant.

A week later I got my period and when I told my host mother she practically jumped for joy. I’m refrained from attempting any jokes about babies since then.

2. You improve little by little, but its easy to get discouraged.

A lot of people put “Become fluent in another language” on their Bucket List. The Peace Corps is the perfect opportunity to force yourself to cross that off the list.

Or is it?

Language learning is a much slower process than people expect. There is a major misconception that if you are immersed in a language you will miraculously pick it up within a few months. After all, you’re learning the language 24/7, right? Wrong.Indiana Jones- Tell me again how much fun I'm having

I’ve talked to several friends back in the U.S. who have said, “You must be fluent by now, right Brit?”

Nope. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not even close. And I probably won’t reach fluency by the end of my two years either. I’ve actually remained camped out at the same language level for the past eight months or so.

Because I’m a very visual learner, I made a little graphic to illustrate the reality of language learning:

EXPECTATIONS

Language barrier NAIVE

People think of the language barrier as this obstacle you have to overcome. But through diligent study and daily practice, fluency can be achieved. So you hit the books, practice conversation, improve your pronunciation, and see yourself making significant progress…

Language barrier Part 2 with trophy2

Language barrier Part 3a

REALITY: Unfortunately, after weeks of study you find out that you are not even close to fluent. You are just a novice.

Then you look at all you still have to learn…

Language barrier Part 4a

Fluency paradise? Sorry bud, it’s not that simple. Welcome to Language-Learning Purgatory.

Language barrier GIF

I’m not trying to discourage people or PCVs who want to learn a language. But the truth is that most of us reach a certain level where we can comfortably survive, and then we camp out. For me that has been in the “Intermediate-High” region.

Similar to my stick-figure graphic, I created these charts to  show the reality of language learning, just in a less imaginative way:

Language EXPECTATIONS

Language REALITYAs you can see, at first you experience rapid growth. For every hour you spend studying you see noticeable improvement in the language. But as you progress the return on your investment decreases. Instead of jumping up a level after 15 hours of study, it now takes you two months.

During Pre-Service Training you have structured language classes multiple times a week, where you learn alongside others. At site that all changes. You are on your own. It takes a lot of motivation and self-discipline to continue hitting the books.

At the end of PST our language skills were evaluated and this was the rough distribution of scores:

LPI Chart updated

The intermediate zone is where Peace Corps wants you to be before you end up alone at site. At that level you know how to get by in day-to-day scenarios and how to make polite conversation. It’s also where a lot of people hit their plateau, because we can continue there for the rest of our Peace Corps service and do just fine. (For more information about the LPI you can see my post about PST from August.)

Now that I’ve gone off on a language-learning tangent, I’m realizing that I have a lot to say about the language barrier. I’ll therefore let you take a break and post the second half separately. Stay tuned for some more stories about the dreaded language barrier! I promise to make Part II graph-free!

PST August: Training Ends, Service Begins!

For an overview of Pre-Service Training, visit this page.

PST August3

The month of August included the final three weeks of training and our first week at our permanent sites all over the country. This made the month a busy one, but I will try to summarize the major events.

1.Language Group Day-Trips
         All summer our group of 36 has been divided into seven languages groups. Gjakova 2We had class in these groups almost every day, so you really get to know each other. Gjakova 1Each group was assigned a city in Kosovo to visit for a day-trip, where we were told to explore and make cultural observations. My group lucked out by being assigned Gjakova, which is my permanent site! Unfortunately this meant taking a four-hour bus to the opposite corner of the country (costing less than 7 Euros!) and then back in the evening. We spent five hours taking in the sites of this beautiful city, visiting the oldest mosque in Kosovo and a cultural museum.
Each group then put together a 30-minute presentation on the city they visited to present to the other trainees and Peace Corps staff. We focused on the effects of the war on Gjakova, because it is the city that suffered the most intense violence against civilians.

2.  The dreaded Language Proficiency Interview (LPI)

Ten weeks of language learning culminates in a recorded 20-minute Albanian (or Serbian) interview that measures our knowledge of the language. It is like our PST Final Exam. The Peace Corps’ goal for trainees is that they reach Intermediate-Low by the end of training. If you do not reach this mark you are not kicked out, but you are required to find a language tutor and to retake the LPI in three months.LPI Chart

Most volunteers score Intermediate-Low or Intermediate-Mid on their LPIs. Out of the 25 volunteers from last year, a few did not pass, receiving Novice-High, and only two scored Intermediate-High. We were given our scores the day before PST ended, and I was pleasantly surprised by mine! I don’t know the precise breakdown of my group’s scores, but I know that between 3 and 5 scored Intermediate-High and a handful did not pass (out of 36 of us). For more stories about the challenges of learning Albanian check out my post Scaling the Language Barrier.

Host parents at Swearing In
My PST host parents at the Swearing-In Ceremony.

3. Packing and Goodbyes
The final week was an emotional one in my host home. My host mom cried several times, especially in the final 24 hours. Even my host dad cried twice. At one point my host mom grabbed my shoulders and said in Albanian, “Please do not forget me, my daughter!”

Oftentimes volunteers move to their sites and fail to stay in-touch with their PST families. In a culture where families are everything, volunteers can really hurt the feelings of their host families by moving-on and cutting ties. I am going to try to stay in-touch with my PST family and visit them every couple months.

4. Surprise Speech!
During our second to last week of training we were informed that two of us would be selected to speak at the Swearing-In Ceremony. We were told to nominate one male and one female volunteer from the group of 36, and to my surprise, I was selected to be the female speaker! 

I was honestly a bit terrified. Giving a speech in front of important government officials, TV cameras, and the President of Kosovo?! That would be nerve-racking enough, but here’s the kicker: We were asked to give the speech in Albanian. 

I considered asking them to select someone else, but then I realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this would be. Sure I’d be nervous, but how could I turn down the chance to give a speech to the President of another country? Speakers at ceremony

The male speaker selected was Brett, who also happened to be in my Albanian group. (Our language teacher was so proud!) We decided that instead of giving two separate speeches and feeling like competitors, we would write it together and deliver the speech as a team, taking turns speaking. I could not have asked for a better partner for such a daunting task.

5. Swearing-In Ceremony
PST is like our version of basic training, and the ceremony is pretty formal. We dress in our finest and are addressed by our Country Director, the new U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, a couple government officials, and President Atifete Jahjaga. We then take an oath of service. To read more about the swearing-in ceremony, check out this post about it.

After the ceremony we all said our goodbyes to our PST host families and were dropped off at the Prishtina bus station. We then made our way on our own (with 150 pounds of luggage) to our permanent sites.

It was an surreal afternoon. Suddenly you arrive at your permanent site, all alone, and you realize that this will be the next two years of your life.

6. First week at your site

In Kosovo all schools start on September 1st, so after Swearing-In we had one week to adjust to our sites and host families before beginning teaching. This week reminded me a lot of the beginning of PST. You are on this stressful sort of high, trying to figure everything out with your family and school.

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On a picnic with my Gjakova host family

I visited the high school where I will be teaching each morning for meetings with the director and other teachers. I also met with my counterpart to discuss curriculum and classroom structure. This week also included talking to my host family about financial matters (rent is provided by the Peace Corps) and dietary needs.

Overall the week was an overwhelming one. It was a lot of meeting relatives and neighbors and teachers (and trying to remember complicated names). But things will calm down as I get adjusted, and in the meantime I will keep exploring my new home of Gjakova!

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The view from a cafe overlooking the city of Gjakova on a beautiful August day.

Swearing-In Ceremony

k2 swearing in (2)

Pre-Service Training is like the Peace Corps’ version of basic training, but with a lot less push-ups. (But just as much sweat thanks to no air-conditioning.)

These 11 weeks of in-country training conclude with a formal ceremony, where trainees take an oath and become official Peace Corps Volunteers.

Our Swearing-In Ceremony was on Saturday, August 22nd, 2015. The night before we were busy re-packing our bags and eating our final meal with our PST host families. I was also busy practicing for the speech I was asked to give at the ceremony in Albanian. My host family probably thought I was crazy as I paced my room, packing and mumbling in Albanian.

The day began extremely early. I woke up by 5:00 AM to get ready and finish packing. The ceremony was being broadcast by several television stations, so we were told to look our best. I left the house at 5:45 with all of my bags to meet in the center of Kamenice, where we all boarded a bus to the capital Prishtina, where the ceremony was being held.

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Receiving my official Peace Corps certificate from the US Ambassador

Before the ceremony we were given instructions on how to enter, the order of speakers, how to receive our certificates, and how to take the Oath of Service. It felt a lot like rehearsing for graduation. We also signed copies of the oath and were addressed by our Country Director.

The ceremony began at 10:00 AM and it was a pretty fancy affair. All of the Peace Corps Kosovo staff were in attendance, along with our PST host families, numerous government officials, and lots of news reporters. The ceremony included a speech by our Country Director, the new U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, and President Atifete Jahjaga. We then took our oath of service:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath:

I,_________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

After being sworn-in, Brett & I took the stage to give our speech on behalf of the Speechvolunteers. My primary goal was to not throw-up on the President on national television. There were several news stations broadcasting the ceremony, especially because it was the first public event for the new U.S. Ambassador.

It is with great relief that I report that I did not embarrass myself on TV! The speech was definitely a success, and it even brought several Kosovars to tears. You can see a couple of the short news clips here:

Talking with Pres
Chatting with President Atifete Jahjaga after the ceremony.

At the conclusion of the ceremony I was able to chat with the President, got interviewed by a news station, and then took pictures with the other volunteers and my host family.

After saying our tearful goodbyes we were responsible for traveling to our permanent sites on our own. It was a surreal moment. After being together as a group for 11 weeks, suddenly we are thrown out of the PST nest and told to fly. It’s a frightening and exciting moment. I’ll also say that moving 150 pounds of luggage in a dress and heels through Kosovar bus stations was quite the challenge.

TV stars wide
Over the next few days I had the crazy experience of seeing myself on the news and hearing my Albanian speech on the radio. I guess it was my 15 minutes of fame!

Now begins two years of service as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!

 

If want to read a summary of the end of PST and my first week at site, read PST August: Training Ends, Service Begins!

PST June: The First Month in Kosovo

To see an overview of Pre-Service Training, visit this page.

PST June

I began my Peace Corps adventure on June 5th by flying to Washington D.C. for Staging. After meeting my fellow volunteers and completing a brief orientation, we flew to Kosovo, leaving Saturday and arriving on Sunday around lunch time. We were warmly welcomed to the country by the Peace Corps staff and a few of the current PCVs.

Language classes in Gjilan
Our first Albanian language classes in Gjilan.

We then took a bus to the city of Gjilan, where we spent the next three days in a hotel for orientation. This included language classes, meetings with the medical staff, and sessions on Kosovar culture. (To see what our hotel rooms look like, check out this video clip posted by a K3 volunteer named April.)

On Wednesday we had the privilege of meeting the U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Tracey Ann Jacobson. Afterwards we boarded a bus to our Pre-Service Training (PST) site of Kamenice.

Me and host mom
Meeting my PST host mother for the first time!

Waiting for us were our host families, who we will live with for the duration of the summer. For more information about my first night with my host family, check out this post.

On Thursday the real PST began. Most of our days are spent in class from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM. To read more about the structure of PST, visit this page.

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Hiking in the beautiful hills surrounding Novobrdo

Luckily PST also includes day trips around the country. On June 12th we traveled to Novobrdo, a medieval fortress in the mountains of eastern Kosovo. It is estimated that the castle was built around 1285. We were able to learn about the ancient metropolis while hiking around the ruins. The trip showcased the striking beauty and rich history of Kosovo.

Novobrdo
Standing on top of some of the ruins of Novobrdo
President chat
President Jahjaga speaking to us about the challenges facing Kosovo
Presidents office
Posing in the Presidential Office

On June 26th we woke up super early to take a bus to Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital. We walked all over the city, visited the Peace Corps Office, and then had an official meeting with the President of Kosovo! She spoke to us about the ethnic tensions in Kosovo and gender inequality. When we arrived back in Kamenice that night, our families turned on the television and we got to see ourselves on the news! The first month in Kosovo made me feel so grateful for the opportunity to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in this new country. To continue reading about my summer in Kosovo, check out my post on PST in July.

Me and President
Meeting President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosovo