Atlántico

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“My host family here for the next three months of training gave me an extremely warm and kind welcome.”

Over a week has passed since I arrived in Barranquilla, Colombia with the other Peace Corps Trainees from our CII-8 group but it seems like more time than that with all of the changes and moving around that we have done in such a short amount of time. Each of us has since relocated to different rural towns and communities outside of Barranquilla where we were each introduced and have become acquainted with our first host families here in Colombia for the first three months of our training.

The Atlantico department of Colombia has an interesting climate to say the least. It is very hot and humid here but the rainy season here is not slated to begin until around April or May. However, this month and hopefully in February, there is a very strong wind breeze coming from the coast that cools down the temperature a little bit which is a very welcome relief. From what I have heard from others, this is only temporary and does not stick around for the rest of the calendar year. Oh well.

I can’t speak for the other trainees but I have been extremely happy with my 1st host family here and how they have received me so far. They have been very hospitable, kind, and helpful to me especially when it comes to improving my Spanish and preparing excellent food for me. I currently live with a grandmother, her husband, and her grandson. Besides the Spanish classes that we are enrolled in as part of our training, I have enjoyed conversing with my host family in Spanish and learning the local slang words and phrases. The locals here known as Costeños, (People from the Caribbean coast of Colombia) tend to speak very quickly so it’s quite the challenge sometimes to understand everything but it will only help me in the long run to develop my fluency.

It’s been a real pleasure meeting the people in my community so far and sharing with them where I’m from, who I am, and why I’m here in Colombia. The locals in my community are very curious about the Peace Corps and what we are all about. This is the first time for many of them with meeting an American so I hope to make a good impression on behalf of my country and its people. In addition to Spanish classes, I hope to get involved in some community projects during my three-month stay here. My fellow Peace Corps trainees and I were lucky enough to meet some local officials along with the Mayor and we hope to be of any assistance to the community if it is necessary.

Families live within walking distance of each other and the bond between neighbors is much stronger and closer than what I’ve seen in the United States. That’s one of the first things that struck me about my community as well. Everybody knows each other pretty well and they each look out for one another. It’s really cool to see families hanging out and children playing together when the heat lets up and the sun sets down.

One thing that I underestimated before coming to Colombia was the sheer passion and love that the people have here for the game of football (futbol). It doesn’t matter what age you are or which neighborhood you are from. All you need is a few friends, a sturdy ball, your feet, and a makeshift goal/net and you have yourself a game. I have enjoyed bonding with my younger neighbors and other kids in the community by playing some football with them at the local field (cancha) or in the park. Regardless of language miscommunications that are bound to happen, football has a universal language that everyone can enjoy at the end of the day.

For the Colombians who are living in rural communities, access to the Internet is not easy to come by. I was very pleased to see that the local government here has recently set up a new Internet (Wi-fi) cafe with laptops for locals to share and use for a very minimal cost per hour. In addition, there is a small conference center for meetings, and a room for young people to hang out and play some video games after school lets out. From what I have noticed so far, there is a lot of construction going on and a lot of development, which is exciting to see.

In addition to the many motorcycles, motorcars that take families and friends from place to place within and outside our community, there are also these large buses that transport Colombians to and from Barranquilla. They remind me a lot of the dolmuşes that I used during my time living in Istanbul where for a small cost, they would ferry the stuffed in passengers from neighborhood to neighborhood. However, the difference here in Colombia is that these buses are a little bigger than the dolmuşes that I used there and they also are much more colorful. Each bus is unique in the colors that it has, the symbols and pictures that are used, and also with the kind of music that is being played through the speakers. It seems to me that these are buses that you would only find to be used in Colombia though. Some symbols are religious in meaning on the buses as they would be on the dolmuşes but other symbols represent cartoons, historical figures, etc. The cool fact of it is that each bus has a different name, different colors, and has a different saying for its passengers to read and enjoy.

In a way, these buses could represent the Colombian people. Colorful, full of life, and not shy when it comes to avoid a traffic jam at rush hour. One week in and I am starting to understand why Colombians are often ranked as one of the happiest, if not the happiest people in the world. More entries from me to come in the near future. Until then, “Que le vaya bien!”

Staging and Arrival in Barranquilla

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The day has finally come and I have made it safely to Colombia. It has been an extremely eventful week so far and I am very happy to be apart of the CII-8 volunteer trainee group as apart of the U.S. Peace Corps. Everyone in my cohort has been extremely friendly and helpful so far and I look forward to training with them over the next three months so that we can be sworn in as official Volunteers serving in Colombia. It’s a real pleasure for me to meet all of the great people from around the United States who have committed themselves to the Peace Corps for the next 27 months.

The only bad part of this trip so far was the rather tedious and stressful flight from New York to Miami on American Airlines which provides much better international service than domestic service. I arrived in Miami on Monday afternoon after a tumultuous morning but I was happy to be reunited with a good friend of mine from college who showed me around the Miami Beach area.

The anticipation and excitement had caused me to lose sleep over these past few days and that built up to a crescendo when I arrived to the hotel on Tuesday morning for ‘Staging’ with the other volunteers-to-be. After a long day of orientation, icebreakers, and getting to know my fellow invitees to Peace Corps Colombia, I capped off the ‘Staging’ event by going to an excellent Cuban restaurant called “La Rosa” which I would recommend to anyone reading this blog. Fantastic food and a great atmosphere.

Finally, the moment had arrived yesterday when we gathered our many bags and backpacks and headed off together to the Miami Airport. After checking-in, going through security, and arriving at the gate, we were on our way to Colombia. Compared to my usual flights overseas, this was extremely easy to handle as it was only a 3-hour flight and the service, hospitality is much improved for an international trip from American Airlines thankfully.

Since arriving, the other invitees and I have been extremely busy with meetings, paperwork, and briefings designed to help ease our transition into life in Colombia. This is necessary for us to all take part in because this weekend, we will be moving out to small pueblos outside of Barranquilla to begin our three months of technical and language training before we can be sworn-in as official volunteers.

I am extremely grateful and pleased with the support of all of the staff and the current Peace Corps volunteers. Those currently serving have been a great resource to us in answering our questions and helping us out. I was especially pleased with how enthusiastically and warmly we were greeted at the airport by the current staff and volunteers here in Colombia.

Barranquilla seems like a very nice city from what I’ve seen so far and reminds me a lot of Miami although much more humid and down-to-earth. Thankfully, there is a very nice wind breeze coming in from the Caribbean Sea to the north of us so the hot weather is much more bearable during this month although this is likely to change in the Spring. This will only be a short-stay here in the city before we meet our Colombian host families for the next three months.

Lastly, I am excited to begin my training to become an official Volunteer and am committed to my mission and goals here in Colombia. It’s been a long journey to get to this point but I am ready for the work to begin and I am very happy to be here.

A New Adventure Awaits

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U.S. Peace Corps in Colombia – I’m excited to serve and ready for this journey to begin.

In just one week from now, I will begin my training to become a Volunteer for the United States Peace Corps in Colombia starting in mid-January of 2016. For my three months of training, I will be living in a town called Santo Tomas, which is about 45 minutes outside of Barranquilla. For my work and living situation, after I’m sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I will be located in a site close to the Atlantic Coast of Colombia close to the cities of either Barranquilla, Santa Marta, or Cartagena. The school where I will be teaching and the community that I will be living in has not been announced yet due to the fact that I haven’t completed my training yet.

This will not be my first time living overseas for an extended period of time. Previously, I lived in Istanbul, Turkey last year as an ESL teacher at a private high school. I also studied for a semester at Bogazici University in Istanbul as well when I was in college. My first overseas living experience occurred when I was 16 years old in Costa Rica where I studied Spanish for a summer there in a language homestay program. I have become quite comfortable with adjusting to a new lifestyle and territory by now. However, it still may take me a few months to adapt to the new culture and hot climate.

My family and my friends have been very supportive of my decision over the past year and a half to pursue service in the U.S. Peace Corps. It’s not easy to be away from your family and friends for a long period of time but they all know about the good work that I will be doing in Colombia. They understand the importance of volunteering and serving. I would not be where I am today without the support of my father, mother, and my brother especially. They have been great to me throughout the whole application and selection process.

My main project while serving in Colombia will be developing, and improving upon the ‘Teaching English for Livelihoods’ program. I hope to work with local Colombian teachers to advance the English curriculum and materials that they are using to teach the students. I believe that with hard work and effort, we can make real progress in creating an effective way of teaching English and improving the English proficiency levels of the Colombian students. I also would like to expand upon tutoring and after-school programs related to English learning and making sure that the students see learning English as fun and useful to them.

I look forward to being apart of a new school and a new community. I am excited to explore my surroundings and to learn about the Colombian culture and their customs. I will be very happy to work with my Colombian colleagues as well at the school and hope that I can make a real difference in improving the English level of the students that I hope to help during my service. I want to immerse myself in becoming fluent in Spanish, learning the local dances, and tasting the Colombian cuisine as well.

My motivation to join Peace Corps was because of a number of different factors. I had a desire to volunteer and serve a purpose greater than myself. I felt that I could contribute a lot to the Peace Corps’ Education sector given my previous background and experiences as an ESL teacher. I wanted to explore a new country and a new culture as well. Spanish was the first foreign language that I learned as well so I hope to use this exciting opportunity to become fluent and to connect more easily with the locals in my community. It was also important to me to volunteer and contribute to the wider world in some way. I hope I can be an example to other Americans who want to be part of something bigger than themselves but are not sure where to begin.

When I leave Colombia, I want to leave behind a school and community that is better off than it was before I arrived. My main goal is to help the local teachers to develop an effective English language curriculum that will last for many years after I depart them. I hope to foster better relations between Americans and Colombians through my actions and my relationships that I hope to build between our two peoples.

I wish to help as many students as possible with their English language skills whether its through tutoring, after-school programs, etc. so that they can become bilingual and have a brighter future. Above all else, I would like to make new, lasting friendships and to be considered an honorary member of their community by the time I leave.

I leave in less than a week and I’m excited to begin and complete my training over the next three months. All I have left is the final packing of my bags and I’m off to Miami for the staging event!

There will be a change of focus for my blog from this point forward as I will focus on writing about my experiences and adventures living in Colombia. I hope to write about the cuisine, customs, culture, and food of my adopted country for the next 27 months. I hope that you will follow me on this exciting journey. Thank you very much for your continuing viewership and support. (Muchas Gracias y Saludos para todos! Vamonos!)

Expanding National Service

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“Congress agrees…but will that turn into actual legislation in the future?”

If you are a young American thinking about what to do next with your life after finishing high school or college, and you’re interested in serving greater causes than your own personal goals and pursuits, you should seriously consider becoming a volunteer. You may have your own preferences when it comes to serving but what matters is that you choose to do something to give back to those in your country and those around the world who are less fortunate than yourself. Your career goals, your family, and even your friends will understand if you choose to put things on hold for a few years, especially if you’re in your 20s still. You may like your volunteer service so much that you choose to make a career out of it too.

Currently, in the United States, a country which continues to be divided more and more along political and economic fault lines, I think it is vital that young Americans choose to put their differences aside and contribute to bettering their country or the wider world in some measurable way. Volunteering or serving a community can help you to become a better person and a better citizen. There are many options out there if you decide to take the leap and apply for some programs. Not only will you be doing good for a school, a community, a city, etc., you will be helping your own future out with the experience, knowledge, and skills that you will gain from the type of service you commit to.

Contrary to popular belief, joining the Military, while a very noble and brave pursuit, is not the only way to serve one’s country or community. There are many other options for those of us in the United States. The most popular volunteer programs include AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, CommunityHealth Corps, Teach for America, City Year, FEMA Corps, etc. Those are some of the most well-known and reputable organizations and agencies that have successfully made in a difference in the lives of thousands of people both in the United States and around the world. Besides these national programs, there is also thousands of other more local and community-based volunteer service organizations located in different towns and cities across America. While the options to serve are out there in global, national, and local settings, most young people do not commit to any type of service after college and choose instead to go into the private sector and begin their careers right away.

While the number of applications number in the thousands and continue to grow for service programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, there are not nearly enough spots available for all the young people who would like to serve but can’t due to a lack of funding or not enough spaces for them. Demand is not the overall issue when it comes to the issue of national service but rather the supply. Less than 1% of the American population currently serves in the Military and while other national service programs enroll tens of thousands of volunteers and the competition to get accepted is intense, only 25% of adult Americans are known have served in some capacity, which is quite a low number when you think about it.

Senator John McCain of Arizona and U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal recently wrote an excellent Op-Ed article for CNN where they also argued for an expansion of choices and options when it comes to national service for young Americans. They both believe that this issue is non-partisan and should be heartily agreed upon by both political parties and the American public as well. They go on to discuss the idea of a year or more of mandatory national service in order to foster a greater sense of citizenship, mutual investment, and commitment among young people for the country and the world. I agree with their sentiment wholeheartedly.

While there are a great amount of people my age who commit a few years in their 20’s to public and national service, many of my fellow citizens do not have the chance to or do not want to. Mandating a year or two of national service for all American citizens after college or high school would be an excellent policy idea and would be a great benefit to institutions like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, etc. Creating the opportunity for every young American to give back to their community and country is a noble endeavor and can only help the future rather than hinder it.

Overall trust in the American government, national institutions, and even other citizens are at all-time lows. Expanding opportunities for young Americans to serve would be a great way to begin to restore that faith and confidence in our civil society, and to rebuild that national fabric that holds us together as one people. Recent legislative efforts like the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps have been great in expanding national service in certain ways by increasing AmeriCorps membership by 250,000 volunteers per year and focusing on putting more resources towards improving our national parks and forests respectively.

However, none of the legislation thus far has gone far enough to make at least one year of national service mandatory for every citizen and to provide enough opportunities and programs available to make it a feasible commitment. I would hope that the next President and Congress will strive to involve more young people in building a better America and a better world. One or more years of national service from millions of young Americans would make such a positive and sizable impact on the country as a whole. It would be definitely worth the money it would take to make this public policy idea a reality.

As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

Sources:

1.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/why-volunteer-programs-like-the-peace-corps-teach-for-america-reward-children/2012/02/02/gIQAOXl8mQ_blog.html
2.) http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/10/opinions/mccain-mcchrystal-national-service-legislation/
3.) http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/legislation/edward-m-kennedy-serve-america-act
4.)http://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/10_0421_saa_implementation.pdf
5.) http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2015/8/senators-john-mccain-michael-bennet-introduce-bill-to-expand-national-service-opportunities-for-american-youth
6.) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-brown/americorps-funding_b_1280200.html
7.) http://www.people-press.org/2014/11/13/public-trust-in-government/
8.) http://21csc.org/