My Job As A Peace Corps Volunteer

October 17th, 2007

playa la entrada

Playa La Entrada, near Rio San Juan

So, as some of you might have guessed, I am indeed a Peace Corps Volunteer. A few of you might even know I'm an IT/ED (Information Technology for Education) Volunteer. Great. Now what does any of that mean? I mean in a concrete way. Sure, when somebody says "Peace Corps," images of huts and ambiguous natives and sub-standard sanitation abound. Believe me, I spent just under a year waiting for the extremely efficient Peace Corps administration to assign me my post, letting just those kinds of images dance around in my head. And in the end, they weren't erroneous imaginings. Not in the strict sense. Ask my parents about my shack and the latrine that accompanies it.

But if you actually take the time to read my humble website, I think you deserve a more realistic account of my work here. So here it is. What is a Peace Corps project? What is my Peace Corps project? Not even the most fantastic imagination can beat reality.

As I mentioned, I am an IT/ED Volunteer. Peace Corps Volunteers are broken into sectors, usually based upon some prior experience or expertise, though not always. I'm a Computer Science major so the fit for me really wasn't a bad one. In the Dominican Republic, two training groups enter the country each year (while two other groups are leaving). The group sizes vary, but generally include 30-50 volunteers split into four different sectors. I think 30 volunteers entered with my training group. Seven other IT/ED Volunteers entered with me. Though the eight of us varied greatly in terms of experience with IT and Education, our stated project goals were (and technically still are) the same. So what is an IT/ED Volunteer supposed to get done? Not much, or a lot, depending on how you look at it.

The Secretary of Education in the Dominican Republic, the official administration of the government's public, basic (K-12) education program, has computer labs installed in many of its schools (both elementary and high schools). The problem is, the office of the Secretary has difficulty maintaining these labs due to it's centralized administration and lack of funding. The Secretary's solution to this problem is actually rather ingenious. Instead of having hundreds of labs in cities, towns, and villages around the country completely dependent on one central office in the Capital, each lab will be required to be an autonomous entity: mostly self maintaining; looking to the Capital only for the major things (inverters, batteries, new computers). This is where the Peace Corps Volunteer does his or her thing.

IT/ED Volunteers are assigned to a lab (city, town or village) where they work to realize this self maintaining lab. This is what is called "autosostenabilidad," our ideal, should we be so inclined to have one.

But I shouldn't say it that way, with that hint of sarcasm. In truth, the self sustaining lab is not an impossible dream. I truly believe that all eight of us IT/ED Volunteers have had some success with at least partially self-sustaining labs. The principle is simple: We turn the lab into a small business, directed by a committee of community member volunteers, managed by a paid lab coordinator, sustained by profits made on services rendered to the local public. These services may include general computer use (searching homework topics in Encarta, typing up an assignment in Word), gaming, Internet use (for those labs that have connections... read on), printing, burning CDs, typing services, and others. Some labs can also offer computer repair services if their lab coordinator is sufficiently knowledgeable. Labs are also encouraged to offer classes to the local public which, especially in my case, has proven to be the main money maker.

In my specific case, our lab has been able to offer all of these services with varying success. We offered Internet for a time, before the cost of the connection surpassed our monthly income after other costs. The Secretary of Education has been able to offer Internet connections to some labs around the country, though many currently lack this basic service unless they are willing to take on the challenge of providing a connection for themselves. Our attempt was unsuccessful.

As I mentioned, classes have shown to be the main source of income for us. My counterpart (the lab coordinator) and I both give classes, usually introductory computing courses based around managing the Windows environment and using Office to do homework assignments (with an eye towards applying these skills in the workplace in the future). I have also been able to give an advanced course dealing with computer maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair. For the upcoming school year we're planning Photoshop and typing courses. The lab must constantly struggle to extend educational options though it is limited in knowledgeable, capable and interested docents (of course, part of my job is to help train such people). We can always offer an introduction to computing, though, in a town as small as mine, after a few enrollment cycles, the classes have become difficult to fill.

There is an obvious lack of computer education opportunities in my area (even counting the mandatory computer classes students 6th grade and higher receive). Most students will never be exposed to topics in advanced computing (web design, graphic design, programming, networking, etc.) while a select and interested few will go on to study "system engineering" at the university or enroll in technical courses in one of the large cities. The classes we can offer as a tele-center encourage interest and offer affordable opportunities to primarily youth in my small town.

But my work does not end with the tele-center. In fact, more of my (self-defined?) success has come in working with youth in a more informal way. We started with eight but the group has grown and dwindled over the last year-and-some. "The Crew" really revolves around 3 kids who seem to want to know about every angle of computing. We started with web design, moved onto repair and troubleshooting, took a peek into programming, and have taken many a detour along the way. You can check out some of their work here.

Usually our meetings are more like "class": We continue from the previous lesson on whatever topic. I let them guide me. Topics can change abruptly if things start getting stale. Other times we hang out and visit web pages or talk about video games or play video games or watch Japanese animation in Spanish or swap movie downloads. You have to keep it interesting. The kids have created websites for local groups and businesses and have also collaborated to give introductory web design courses to their peers. While they're most definitely normal 17-18 year old males, I can't remember doing anything like that when I was that old... In short, I'm proud of them.

Peace Corps volunteers always end up doing other things too, some related to their main project, others not even remotely related; some of which the volunteer is qualified for, others in which the volunteer must rely solely on chutzpah or their tolerance of embarrassment to get through. I've dabbled in "English discussion groups," meeting protocol, child care, manual authorship, public speaking, web mastery, computer troubleshooting for the masses, and trash burning. The list goes on.

And of course, there's that other part of the Peace Corps Volunteer's work; that part most people begin imagining after they get over the vague natives and lack of plumbing. Believe me, the standard image of "Peace Corps Volunteer sitting in hammock reading book while cat naps on lap" was also dancing around in my head as I awaited my post assignment. While Peace Corps may be a 24 hour job, I'm certainly not working that much. Never in my life have I had such an opportunity to plow through great books or work on my finger-picking technique, or heck, learn about web design. The frequent lack of electricity and absence of television and Internet as diversions leaves me to entertain myself in more "refined" ways and I hope to bring that discipline back home with me.

Work finds me here, though at times I must go looking for things to do. Projects start, transform, slow down, and disintegrate at varying paces. This can be incredibly frustrating at times but can also give me the opportunity to try my hand at different things. I always wish I could be doing more. The work is fulfilling and interesting, though not always successful. This aspect of development work gives many a volunteer something to go home at night thinking about. But when one project begins to slow, there's always somewhere else to go and other people to see.

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