Peace Corps Related
The U.S. Peace Corps is a government organization designed to provide trained volunteer professionals to countries in need; those volunteers help to implement grassroots programs that will be sustained beyond their departure. If that sounds vague, it’s because volunteers serve in six sectors throughout more than 50 countries. It’s a little hard to encapsulate.
In practice, volunteers tend to be idealistic twenty-somethings fresh out of college, and their work strikes a delicate balance between service programs and cultural exchange. I encourage you to check out the Peace Corps website to get a better idea of how the organization projects itself and how it works in the big picture. The Peace Corps Wiki provides a somewhat more critical perspective and focuses on helping volunteers to educate/advocate for themselves (though unfortunately this site has a LOT of dead links and broken coding).
How long are you going to be away?
27 months, give or take a few weeks. That accounts for three months’ training and two years on-site.
Why so long? The Peace Corps assumes it’ll take quite a while — as much as a year — for a volunteer to integrate into their host country community, and longer yet to foster changes that will flourish even after the volunteer leaves. Think about how long it takes to implement changes in your workplace, or to develop a new program in your community. Realistically, how much can you accomplish in six weeks or even six months? And that doesn’t account for having to learn a new language, bond with a new group of people, demonstrate to this new group of people that you are a competent professional, etc. etc.
There is a short-term program called Peace Corps Response. But it’s a high-impact/emergency response program, and as such it’s only really open to trained medical professionals and returned volunteers.
Do you get paid?
First of all, it’s worth noting that Volunteer is a key part of the job title. You don’t apply for the Peace Corps expecting to make bank. You cover costs related to the year-long application process (I’m looking especially at the extensive medical screening requirements, which can work hell on someone without good insurance) and you aren’t permitted to work for outside pay during your service.
However — and unlike most volunteer-abroad programs — Peace Corps does cover cost of living throughout your term of service; transportation to and from your host country and site; any medical conditions related to/caused by your term of service; and a “readjustment allowance” after service, to cover your first few months’ food and rent while you look for a new job (or apply for grad school, or…whatever you intend to do). They also account for additional expenses they expect you to incur under their care (a bit of food/walkaround money during Staging, a lump sum to cover the purchase of winter gear in Mongolia, etc.) and offer deferrals for some college loans.
What do you do?
For a general answer, I recommend checking out this section of the Peace Corps website, which covers the six sectors Volunteers serve in and the qualifications for each. The specific job descriptions within each sector vary from country to country.
Specifically, I’m an English teacher (TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language) at a secondary school (ages 10-17) in a Kazakh minority region of Mongolia. I work with the teachers at my school to develop their methodology and English, help out with extracurricular events and inter-school competitions, and co-teach the concourse (graduation exam) prep courses for 10-12 grade.
Whatever their primary sector, Volunteers are expected to engage in secondary projects to develop their community outside of the classroom (or workplace, as the case may be). Over the past year I’ve done community English classes/clubs in a couple different incarnations, and worked with the other PCV in town on some non-English-related projects; for my second year I hope to do an (actually successful) community English club and reach out to some community organizations to help out with non-English after school activities. There’s also a couple of seminars and camps I could throw into the mix.
What’s the weather like?
Cold. Very cold. Colder-than-Buffalo cold (colder-than-northern New York cold!).
Okay, but not like that.
Mongolia does in fact have four seasons, including a fairly hot summer; I will not be wearing a parka in July. Great Lakes/New England friends, you’re at the same latitude as southern Mongolia. However, Mongolia is a landlocked, high-altitude country subject to Siberian weather patterns: that means bitterly cold, extremely dry winters. It only snowed four times last year.
Where do you live? How are living conditions?
In Mongolia, most PCVs live either in aimag centers (provincial capitals, population 10,000-40,000) or soums (provincial villages), with a few located in the three major cities, Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan, and Erdenet. Housing can be an apartment, a wooden/mud brick house, or a ger (гэр, Mongolian word for yurt). I live in an apartment. Apartments typically have running water (sometimes hot) and central heating, while ger and house dwellers fetch water from a well and heat their home with dung/wood/coal fires in a metal stove.
All of us have electricity, and if we don’t have internet at our home or school, we are able to buy a router/modem/SIM card either in our aimag centers or at the capital.
For more details about my daily life, check out this tag. If you have specific questions my blog doesn’t answer, feel free to ask.
<uncertain verbal shuffling> So the language — it’s Mongolian, right?
Yes, it is. Everyone seems embarrassed to ask this question. I’m not sure why: literally no one I’ve spoken to has made an offensive or awkward comment about language, whereas I’ve had some remarks re: daily life and people that, umm, had to be handled with grace.
I suppose it’s that few U.S. natives have heard of the Mongolian language. It’s not closely related to English, or to any of the languages you study in school; its closest relative is Turkish (and that at a stretch). I suspect not many of you are familiar with Turkish, either.
Mongolian does not use the Latin alphabet. It has its own vertical script, and uses Cyrillic characters in everyday contexts. Transliteration from Cyrillic to Latin letters is…not phonetic for English speakers. Also not terribly consistent. For example, the capital city, Улаанбаатар, is written both as Ulaanbaatar and Ulan Bator, and frequently misspelled as Ulaanbataar. The actual pronunciation — as closely as I can render it — is Oh-LAHN-BAH-ter (to hear: click the audio next to the Cyrillic text).
After my training, I was placed in a region where Kazakh is the everyday language. The Kazakh language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet, with attendant Latinization difficulties; it has about 50% overlap with Turkish, and 90% with Kyrgyz. Most educated professionals in my community are fluent in Mongolian, but do not speak it in their daily lives; most of my students — most public school students overall — are not.
After a year at site, I’m moderately competent in Kazakh (which is still a medium-difficult language to learn), but attempting to speak Mongolian produces an extremely weird Mongol-Kazakh garble which only Kazakh people can understand.
What about the food?
Important elements of the Mongolian diet, highest portion to lowest: grain products (steamed/fried dough, rice, bread, pastries); red meat (beef, mutton, goat, the fat and innards thereof; horse in the winter/among Kazakhs); dairy products (milk, yogurt, dried curd; cream and cheese among Kazakhs); sugar (candy, cakes, and cookies); and root vegetables (carrots, onions, potatoes).
Coming from a nomadic herding culture, the bulk of the Mongolian diet is based in livestock — meat and dairy. This means the food is very rich and tasty, but there’s not a lot of nutritional variety. Given that the summer is very short and the land very dry, agricultural options are limited; for most of the year, fruits and veggies are imported.
You can read a bit more about my experience with Mongolian food here.
I am aware of the risk. I took it into account when I chose to apply. I can only ask that you trust I’m not as naive as I look. 🙂
How can I keep in touch with you?
This blog is probably your best bet for regular updates. I’m on Facebook (but it is a semi-private space and I only accept friend requests from people I know) and also on Twitter. If you know me personally and want to be penpals, shoot me an email (reneenmelton at gmail dot com) with a contact point — email or physical address. Questions or comments related to this website can be sent to the same address.
*My experience of Mongolia’s economy and politics has been through a language barrier, in the context of a non-political professional sphere (education) that is nonetheless heavily impacted by the government. In addition, I’m technically a U.S. government employee. As such, I’ll refrain from sharing my personal experience/opinions about Mongolia as a political-economic entity.