PST August: Training Ends, Service Begins!

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

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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

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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:

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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!