Tell us about your history of working overseas – where did you start? How did you get to where you are now as Country Director of Peace Corps Georgia?
I began working overseas in 1993, when I was 23 years old and just out of college. I moved with a friend to Osaka, Japan, to teach English to Japanese businessmen. I also moonlighted as a bartender in the first Irish pub in Japan! During and after living in Japan I traveled around South and Southeast Asia, including Thailand. There my Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) uncle regaled me with stories of his time as a Volunteer in Thailand and Ecuador and I became convinced that it was my calling to be a Volunteer, too. I wanted to work at the grassroots level with a community—as part of a community. So I went back to the States to apply to the Peace Corps and, in the meantime, gained teaching experience working with Vietnamese refugees. I received an invitation to serve as an education and community development Volunteer in the Federated States of Micronesia. Admittedly, I had to take a trip to the local library to find out where that was, exactly! I served for over two years on a tiny island called Falalop (“island of plenty”) in Woleai Atoll, Yap State. The island is less than half a square mile (many maps don’t show it as more than a speck in the ocean) with a population of 400 and is remote, traditional, and…completely topless. My Peace Corps Volunteer experience was amazing, intense, incredible, and life-changing…it led me to seek a degree and a career in international development. And I’ve managed to progress along that path and be involved in some really amazing work.
Key points have included managing a community development program for Internally Displaced Persons with the Internal Rescue Committee in the Republic of Georgia, joining the start-up team to establish a new Peace Corps program in Georgia, serving again as Peace Corps staff in Thailand, consulting for several years across five continents for clients such as the State Department, USAID, the World Bank, and many government contractors, and eventually making my way back to Peace Corps as Country Director in Georgia. I suppose I got here through commitment and intention and a bit of grit and serendipity, too. I could not be happier to serve Peace Corps in this exciting role.
What is your favorite story that you tell about your time overseas?
Any story I am able to share from my Peace Corps Volunteer experience is my favorite story because it was such an intense and unique experience. Telling people I served on a remote topless island that was a two and a half day ship ride from the main island is usually a good starter! I lived with a host family in Woleai and life with them was inspiring, funny, and difficult all at the same time. And they took great care of me and of each other. The best lesson they taught me was about resilience. In my second year as a Volunteer a super typhoon hit the island. It was really devastating, especially given the fact that the highest point on the island was three feet above sea level and two-thirds was swampy taro patch. The huge waves breeched a sea wall and sent sea water flooding onto the island, threatening houses and killing many crops. Luckily, no one died and the community immediately rallied to repair homes, save the crops they could, and clean up the damage. For a subsistence community, this should have been really overwhelming. And it was–but the islanders’ reaction to it all was one of resolve, determination, and, what seemed to me to be unwavering optimism. They would get through it, one day at a time, just like they had many times before, while taking moments for rest and singing and storytelling. It really was amazing. I was impressed and humbled and never forgot the power of people coming together and of relishing the small joys…even in the face of hardship. It was the unique Woleaian weltanschauung that I learned to appreciate…taking things day to day. The crops did grow back…and I am still learning how to be resilient.
What is your greatest inspiration from your time living and working overseas? What keeps you going?
Personally my greatest inspiration has been the opportunity I’ve been afforded to grow, stretch, and be challenged. Professionally my greatest inspiration has been the opportunity to bring a strengths-based and assets-based approach to my work and see how powerful it can be. Looking for strengths and what works (instead of problems and what doesn’t work) changes the dynamics of how people collaborate and what they can accomplish. I have seen Peace Corps Volunteers, community members, and government leaders all embrace this approach with the understanding that what we focus on grows. I love seeing Peace Corps Volunteers and their community partners shift their thinking from “what’s the problem here?” to “what is working here?” and identify ways they can make things even better, even more sustainable. The spirit, energy, and commitment of the Peace Corps Volunteers I support helps keep me going in my current job.
What is your most difficult frustration – the thing that makes you want to quit and pack it in?
I don’t have many days when I feel like packing it in…I believe in my work too much. But I have had days when I have been frustrated by some of the culturally/socially/politically inappropriate approaches to development and aid work or the inefficiencies of donor money and assistance. It usually comes from a lack of understanding or a lack of time spent truly getting to know people’s issues and priorities. That intentional relationship building is critical at the outset of–and throughout–a project or activity. We should be far enough along the development continuum that all community development is participatory community development, involving all key stakeholders at all levels. But too often I see a more top-down approach and that is not truly effective or sustainable.
What critical advice would you give to a new graduate seeking a profession in development/aid?
Serve in the Peace Corps. Really, do it! The Volunteer experience is like no other. It provides an opportunity to develop key career, leadership, and life skills and it can be a life-changing experience. The work itself is indeed “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and Volunteers grow and stretch and develop in innumerable ways. My Peace Corps service propelled me on a fascinating and intriguing career path that has also shaped my personal values. Peace Corps affords RPCVs like me with membership in an incredible alumni network of more than 200,000 people. There is an instant connection between RPCVs; a common bond and understanding amongst people who have a shared experience and a similar worldview. My RPCV network has helped to open doorways to jobs and other professional opportunities I would otherwise not have had. If Peace Corps service is not possible, I’d advise graduates to find another way to get overseas and gain practical, on the ground experience in participatory community development projects. Not “voluntourism” but real, grassroots work for a sustained period of time. And through that experience I’d advise them to…get your hands dirty. Live in another culture as closely as you can. Learn and speak a second language. Be curious about others’ hopes and dreams and priorities. Share your passion. Ask provocative questions. Learn to write well and share your stories. Take a strengths-based approach-look for what works. Build on assets instead of looking for problems. Learn to be adaptable and flexible and resilient. Try everything once and be open to all opportunities.