Archive | October, 2014

Holy Research Batman! or Peace Corps Master’s International

30 Oct

For two years I researched, wrote, procrastinated, researched, procrastinated, wrote, procrastinated, and finally submitted my thesis. But wait, what? I’m in the Peace Corps- they make you write theses now? Not exactly.

I am a Peace Corps Master’s International candidate. About a decade ago, Peace Corps and graduate schools started to pair up to create Master’s programs that put you in the field, were grassroots practical, and popped you out with more than two years of international service. More than three years ago (oh my God) I started the PCMI program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in the International Development Program (MA).

Each school and program is different, and for my program I finished up all my coursework before I began my 27 months and had the two years to write and submit a “substantial research paper” preferably about my country of service. I came in to Ethiopia with two other MI students – one from John’s Hopkins (Masters of Public Health) and the other from the University of Montana (Masters of Youth Development). They both had different versions of MA integration – for JHU, she basically finished her degree, wrote a thesis on something completely random (but very interesting I’m sure) and then started Peace Corps. For UMontana, she had to actually develop and implement a project proposal during her service. I was somewhere in the middle – typical thesis, but sorta, kinda attached to my service.

There are two ways a Peace Corps service can help with a graduate degree – the MI program is one way, where you study, and then are placed to serve being able to test out that theoretical knowledge and practical grad degree skills on the ground. The other way is the Paul D Coverdell Fellows program , which if your school signs up, gives anyone who has completed Peace Corps some sort of break (from as little as waiving the application fee to as awesome as a full ride – depending on the program).  The Coverdell Fellows aid is good for life, so for the RPCVs a few years out you can still access that support. The University of Denver hosts the most fellows of any graduate school, and I had some colleagues who finished their service over 15 years ago.

Personally, the MI program ended up saving me about half of my expenses. It covered 18 out of 90 credits, but because I was able to overload some quarters, I finished in half the time saving me rent and living expenses as well (though probably took a small toll on my sanity). Most of the MI students in my Korbel cohort finished in 1.5 years, a more normal pace.

So what did I ultimately research, write and procrastinate about?

The title of my thesis is…


Mmmm Sexy and Academic.

Basically, in 50 pages I outline that behavior change programs (in America think public health campaigns like anti-smoking) in Ethiopia (think condom use or women are equal) work best when mass media (which provides a larger national conversation and a context) is used concurrently with small group peer education sessions (which create personal accountability and can move groups from informed to action). Was that run-on sentence long enough for you?

Social behavior change programming has held a fascination for me since it is the cross section of communications and development. And let me nerd out here for a minute, I have been able to be at the grassroots implementation level for many a prevention program and topic over the past two years. I have had a front seat to see what works well, what works, and what does not work. While I am a little grassrooted out right now (I would love a hot shower), I plan to take these lessons with me into my career.

Clearly I just can’t do one thing. This has been a curse since high school. AP classes? That’s for sissies, IB for me. Undergrad? Why not get two Bacherlor’s degrees? Grad school? I should probably work full time too. And Peace Corps? Let’s write a thesis while we live in sub-Saharan Africa, that sounds fun.

So there you have it, between hugging groups of African children, watching too much Battlestar Galactica, and the occasional international trip, I finished my Master’s Degree. Now someone please hire me.


Bootyshorts to Burkas and Everything in Between – A Quick Stop in Dubai

8 Oct

On my way to Morocco I had a quick (read 12 hour) layover in Dubai. If that wasn’t culture shock, I don’t know what is. There was gold on marble on gold on shiny lights and Gucci and stuff… in the airport.

We decided to venture out into the city, since it was midnight, and still 100 degrees; I really don’t think you could walk around in the daytime. We saw the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) next to an Astin Martin dealership, the other tallest building in the world, a Las Vegas type fountain show thing and rode in a metered taxi… that was an Audi. But I think the most interesting part of my few hours exploring the night of Dubai was the metro ride into the city.

In the 20 foot space of the metro car I heard 15 languages (I think), saw more nationalities, and every possible dress style. Now to be fair I have been living in a very homogeneous place for the past two years, but I thought I had seen diversity. I mean, I worked in Geneva. But this one metro car had more types of people than I had ever seen in one place at one time. Dubai really is an international city.

One of the misconceptions I get day in and day out here in Ethiopia is that all Americans are white, except for Beyonce and professional athletes, never mind every other hyphen-American. America is one of the most diverse countries in the world, in general our immigration and refugee policies have created a mixed salad of life. The food I miss most here isn’t pizza, it’s other ethnic foods! Pad Thai, pho, fajitas, dahl, and hummus. I could punch a baby for some feta. But Dubai was something else entirely, though New York probably gives it a run for its money.

At some point I’ll see Dubai for more than a few hours outside the airport, but until then, I’ll just jump at the chance for some frozen yogurt in Terminal B and a chat with the German-Vietnamese woman sitting next to me.



The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world



The Few, The Proud, The Curse of Iteya Town

5 Oct

Since I’m finishing up soon, you are going to be reading a steady stream of sentimental blither – just a heads up.

On the theme of reflection, I wanted to dedicate this post to the Iteya 9, most of whom did not make it to the end. My group (G8) stepped off the place with 54 people. We are leaving two and a bit years later with 40, which isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of Peace Corps statistics (average attrition rate is around 27%). During training, we were split into 6 villages where we got to know a few volunteers pretty well. My village was Iteya, and of the 9 that started, only 2 of us are finishing. Oof. So of the 14 people who had to leave, half were from my village. Why? Because we were cursed, obviously.

What it really goes to show is that you never know what life will bring. We sign up for 27 months, but that’s a really long time. In this group we had people leave for personal reasons, professional reasons, family reasons, security reasons, plain ole get me the hell outta here reasons and a probably mix of all of these reasons.

We had very hard working, dedicated, crazy people in this group. Of those who left early, we had one who had done Peace Corps for four years! before, one who planned a huge national gender conference, two who hosted congress people, one was a trained RN, another graduated from Harvard. These were tough volunteers. You can’t predict what will send you home.

The fact that I am still here is a mix of willpower and luck. No one in our group was administratively separated (aka fired) and no one was medically separated (until very recently, but that’s actually a really happy reason, not a scary one). My group has the highest rate of extensions (though not a path for me). Everyone’s service is different, but statistics are interesting. Poor Iteya town, had the worst luck of the training villages, but some great volunteers 🙂

All you can do is try, work hard, and hope that events out of your control don’t get you. For some they did, for others they made tough choices to leave on their own. Your service is what you make of it. Everyone’s time is different, and yet you can have have the same conversations with a volunteer from Vanuatu and Senegal and Ethiopia and China and Armenia and Peru (they all have to do with pooping and eating and awkward cultural moments). So here’s to finishing! And here’s to those who left early! For a million reasons, we all come back a little crazy anyway.

The crew at about Week 5

The crew with our language instructors at about Week 5

The crew at Week 104

The crew at Week 103 – hanging in there!

My Cotton Anniversary – Two Years in Ethiopia

3 Oct

Two years. Two very long, very short years. Two years of what the hell? yes, I’ll eat that, don’t you dare, oh shit, this is fantastic, can I hold that baby? no I don’t want your baby, just 1 spoonful of sugar, you want more injera? No, that chicken won’t give you HIV, what are you doing here? are you Israeli? you are fat, you have good Amharic, you disappeared!, how much? no contract please, this is a work phone, did I get a package? I’m proud, I’m so frustrated, was that a gunshot or a car? that’s my window seat lady! WOW! and I think I need a nap.

So what did I do over two years? Now that I’m coming to the end of my time I finally sat down and looked at every project, mentorship, relationship and “program” I did. But how do you measure two years? In daylight? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee? (Yes, Rent, that last one would probably work for Ethiopia). Well, here is my last two years – by the numbers:

I worked with 1308 beneficiaries and service providers, four organizations (3 NGO, 1 government), two educational institutions (University and Teacher’s College), trained 230 Peace Corps volunteers, and wrote a Master’s Thesis.

Here’s a short breakdown:

HIV- Reached 244 students with prevention programs such as Grassroot Soccer (4 interventions) and ARC awareness programs. Trained 12 HIV + women in income generation activities such as soap making and product marketing. Many of my nutrition programs also covered Orphans and Vulnerable Children and HIV+ beneficiaries.

Malaria – Reached 555 students with bed net demonstrations, 86 girls and 91 boys with targeted malaria behavior change communication (C-Change materials) and trained 230 volunteers in malaria work (bed net transformation, Audacity software, and malaria science). Served as Amhara Regional Stomp Out Malaria Coordinator.

Nutrition – Set up daily meal programs for 26 adults and 10 children through a soup kitchen and day care.

WASH- Trained 13 service providers working with school aged youth on WASH practices and youth-oriented trainings.

Gender Empowerment – Reached 170 women, 40 men in targeted interventions including Camps, Clubs, University lectures, and higher education women’s leadership programs.

English Language Improvement – Mentored 10 boys and 22 women in English improvement through clubs and newspaper editing.

Organizational Capacity Building – Worked with three non-governmental organizations and one government organization on topics such as project design and management, monitoring and evaluation, communications, fundraising (including grant writing), and marketing.

Communications and Videography – Produced three videos for NGO use, and produced other communications for a this blog.

Over two years in Gondar, I was able to attend two Timket ceremonies, one Meskel ceremony, countless coffee ceremonies, family events, and celebrations. I was a bridesmaid and witness for my sitemate’s betrothal to her local fiancé. I summited Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia and introduced my visiting family and friends to the ancient wonders of Lalibela and the source of the Nile. I heard the stories of HIV positive friends, mentally and physically disabled, and the elderly. I had challenging conversations with local doctors and university professors, hung out with street children and got doro wot stains on every piece of clothing.

So that’s two years. That’s what I did. But no amount of numbers or anecdotes or photos can really express the amount of change I have seen in myself, and the community around me. No number of blog posts, emails, or phone calls can really show the amount of beauty and despair I have witnessed living here. So I am finishing. I am coming home. Some in my group left early. Some are staying longer. But I feel finished. I feel I have done what I came to do, and it’s time to move on. I may come back to Ethiopia one day (it is a magnet for those of us working in International Development), but I will come back older, wiser, and for some different purpose. A big part of my job over these past two years was simply living here. Sharing my culture, my thoughts, and learning and sharing back home the culture and thoughts of Ethiopians.

I may come back for work, but I will probably never again experience the intense immersion of the past two years of Peace Corps. It is a unique job. It is about serving others, but it also about sharing experiences. Living in the community, at the level of the community, with and among and integrated with the community. I knew what I signed up for. And I had no idea what I signed up for.

Would I go back in time and apply again? Absolutely. Will I do this again in the future? Probably not. Though Peace Corps Response does look tempting for when I get wanderlust again in 10 years. But I probably won’t sign up for a full 27 month commitment again. This is, as they say, the toughest job you’ll ever love.

Meskel, or Why are People Burning Crosses?

1 Oct

Ah Meskel, a holiday that celebrates the toil of St. Helena who traveled to Jerusalem to follow a bonfire towards the true cross. A cozy family holiday where people eat meat dishes, pick yellow daisies… and burn giant effigies to the ground!

lighting the compound meskel

lighting the compound meskel

The day started at 6am when my compound family knocked on the door to let us know that they were ready to burn a cross! Gathered outside of our houses, we watched and took photos of the meskel (cross) as it went up in flames, then sat down to a typical breakfast – coffee (of course), mutton bits with injera, popcorn, and holiday bread.

Later that day, we dressed up in our Habesha best (white embroidery) and headed up to the center of town to watch the big celebration. UNESCO just designated the Ethiopian Meskel Celebrations as a World Heritage event last year, and considering how many people came out to see a giant cross on fire, I can safely say I’ve never experienced anything like it. Using our “ferenji power” we just walked past the line of police and national military towards the priests. Sometimes it pays to have a nice camera. But once the prayers were said, and the cross was ignited (yes, they doused it in kerosene), all sorts of chaos broke. Chanting, young men grabbing burning embers and running through the crowd, mobs and riots and blessings? It was crazy, and we were in the middle of it! I just kept clicking my camera. Here are the  results:

... reasons why I can never run for office

… reasons why I can never run for office

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

if you needed proof of how tall I am

if you needed proof of how tall I am

a two year struggle - EAT! NO!

a two year struggle – EAT! NO!

gathered for Meskel

gathered for Meskel

the cutest gorsha ever

the cutest gorsha ever

no, no, I can talk...

no, no, I can talk…

a typical family photo

a typical family photo

Priests and their umbrellas

Priests and their umbrellas





Meskel Square, Gondar

Meskel Square, Gondar

small riot

small riot