Facing my Fears in a Sandwich Shop

14 12 2011

In the last post, I mentioned that living with a host family was a concern for me and Tim when deciding whether or not to accept our invitation to serve in Cambodia. Well, that wasn’t the only concern I had. From a professional standpoint, I was also nervous that I would not gain enough experience in these two years abroad.

I knew that working in Cambodia would help me to continue developing so-called “soft skills” like patience, adaptability and multiculturalism, but I was nervous that I would not be gaining the same tangible skill sets that my colleagues would be gaining, as they worked as Field Officers or Project Managers in offices across the globe. I knew that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would have no office, no defined role, and no professional mentors providing daily support or guidance. And because of that, I was nervous. After all, I still need to be able to compete with my peers when I (presumably) return to the States in a couple of years.

This was on my mind when I met up with a friend in Siem Reap last month. Emily is a friend of mine from Pitt who is currently working for a nonprofit in Siem Reap (small world!), and in mid-November we met up for sandwiches in a small shop in the town’s tourist district. We happily greeted one another, but then I dove right in with questions about her work. You see, Emily and I share many professional interests so I was truly eager to hear about the nitty gritty of her job. I soon found out that she was coordinating the strategic planning efforts for the organization and helping to refocus its target population, in addition to her general program management duties. This may sound like drivel to most of you, but my heart was racing with excitement to hear these things.

Strategic planning! Project management! Scaling-up! Target populations! I die…

(I bet many of you didn’t know I was that big of a geek, did you?)

At the Sandwich Shop in Siem Reap

So I drilled her, hanging onto every word. I was sincerely excited for her because Emily is a brilliant and energetic young woman who could do great things for any organization she stepped foot into, but I was also trying desperately to live—and learn—vicariously through her. She had been in Cambodia for a shorter time than I had and was already able to speak in a meaningful way about the work she was doing and the experience she was gaining; whereas, when asked about my work, all I could say was that I was still in the “initial stages.”

“Initial stages?” What I really meant was that I understood less than half of what was being said at site, still couldn’t comprehend really important aspects of how my host organization runs, and still had no clearly identified role or projects.

Now, as I said before, I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the Peace Corps. I knew there would be a whole lot of waiting. I knew learning would be slow and unpredictable. I knew that I was going to be operating in a foreign language and that I might never have a defined role. I’ve done this sort of thing before so I knew. But looking across the table at Emily and hearing how much she had accomplished—and in less time than I’d been here— I was face-to-face with my fear.

That day, I promised myself to proactively look for opportunities to use and build upon the kind of program design and management skills I was hoping to develop. Well, those opportunities have arrived!

Since the Peace Corps health program here in Cambodia just finished its first year of existence, there is an effort to reflect on how the first year went and propose any necessary changes to the project framework. So I will be working on this, along with several other health volunteers, both K4s and K5s. Do I even need to brag about how this means I will get to be involved in the process of evaluating indicators, exploring partnership opportunities and assessing internal communication practices? Be still my heart.

In addition, I’ve also been selected to serve on a PC grant review committee, meaning that I’ll be heading to Phnom Penh this weekend for training. I know, I know—I am truly a geek, but, again, this is great! I like reviewing grants even more than I like writing them. How fun!

So, for now, it looks as though I’ll have plenty of opportunities to gain that professional experience I was hoping for by working on initiatives within the Peace Corps. Hopefully I can eventually take these skills and use (and transfer!) them within my host community. Because although developing my own professional skills is a great thing, I’m ultimately here to develop the skills of my counterparts here at site.





4 responses

14 12 2011

Tell Santa hey from me! :D

15 12 2011
Mike Warner

Here I thought your long-term employment dream was to come back and work at the Index.


1 01 2012

Oh GIRL. You have no idea, but that I’ve had the same kind of worries. In fact, most of my most frustrating moments here revolve around the professional aspect- how seemingly slow-moving it can feel at times, and how I can’t help but wonder what I’d be doing if we had chosen to stay in our respective professions and manager roles in the US. But I think, like you, that the best is yet to come, and even more, the best part of our practical experience here is going to hit us after we’ve done all the hard work and I suspect we’ll barely be able to contain it all on a resume- soft and hard experience alike :)

2 01 2012

It’s funny that you should comment, Kate. When I was typing this post, you definitely came to mind as someone who would relate. Glad to hear I’m not alone! You sound like you have been finding ways to keep busy and build experience too– between the PC committees and that great volunteerism workshop. Keep up the good work and know that I’m always here to brainstorm (or rant) if you need it.

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