I struggled to write my aspiration statement, so here is an example to help other invited volunteers generate their ideas (with better grammar than what I submitted… lesson learned: always proofread).
January 20, 2015
A. The professional attributes you plan to use, and what aspirations you hope to fulfill during Peace Corps service.
Through my liberal arts education, I know that most successful solutions to problems come from different academic, cultural, and life perspectives. It is important to listen to the community’s perspectives. I know how to think critically, especially when developing effective health programs to benefit the maximum amount of people. If the community is ready, I am willing to support conversations about health behaviors and perceptions to get to the source of community problems. My experience as a peer health educator, peer consultant, and child life volunteer taught me how to talk about sensitive topics (especially individual behaviors) in a compassionate manner. Also, I have basic counseling skills and motivational interviewing training that could assist organizations in, “…Implementing behavior change programs emphasizing behavior change with positives…or developing psycho-social supports for (children)”. Also, because race is a ubiquitous concern in South Africa, the skills I obtained as a diversity facilitator at college will be invaluable.
In terms of general work experience, most of my jobs in customer service, especially my time as a student ambassador and orientation leader, provided me with a basic protocol in how to treat people with respect especially in times of stress. While transitioning to college is not the same level as the AIDS epidemic, both induce distress in an individual. I plan to calmly listen to community members and acknowledge their concerns. As a tutor, I am cognizant of different learning styles and cultural perspectives that can impact the comprehension of concepts. As a camp counselor for autistic children and teenage brain tumor survivors, I found that my rapid pace of conversation did not work with people with a slower processing delay. In all three roles, I had to be creative and change my approach so the individuals could understand me. I am ready to try multiple methods to get a point across in South Africa. Finally my published research in college and time as a technical writing intern provided me with enough experience so I could learn how to compose grants if the host organization requested assistance. While I will not know what attributes I will actually use until I meet with the partner organization, I am confident that I have skills to offer a community if they want them.
My main goal for myself is to obtain as much public health experience as possible. My goals for Peace Corps service is first to at least get community members to contemplate their own health and behaviors. Second is through my actions and efforts to integrate myself into the host community, I hope to instill my confidence in South Africa’s potential. Despite the fractured past due to apartheid, I believe that my community and the Rainbow Nation have the ability to be successful. Third, is to share my experiences with loved ones and other Americans and attempt to break down stereotypes associated with South Africa. In turn, hope my interactions in South Africa break down negative perceptions about Americans and, as an individual on the autism spectrum, people with medical and mental needs I hope at the end of my service to be viewed as team member to the organization and that if I have an impact on a community or Peace Corps it will be a positive one.
B. Your strategies for working effectively with host partners to meet expressed needs.
The organizations and communities I work with will have more knowledge over the AIDS epidemic than I, because they constantly live with this situation. When my term in Peace Corps ends, the community will still have to deal with the epidemic. Therefore my priority is to make sure that any program or solution I support as a Peace Corps volunteer has ideas and concerns from the host community incorporated in it. The most successful health campaigns I supported as a Peer Health Educator in college were interactive displays with community buy in. I was pleased to see a community based assessment (CNA) mentioned in the assignment description because that would be my automatic approach.
C. Your strategies for adapting to a new culture with respect to your own cultural background.
In past experiences, I have been successful through immersion, practicing the language with community members, and having no set expectations. While I cannot control the cultural differences between South Africa and the United States, I can manage my reactions and attitude. As an avid world traveler, I have adopted certain behaviors to reduce my chances of upsetting people such as abstaining from alcohol, relinquishing my vegetarian diet (which I did the day I accepted my Peace Corps invitation), and wearing knee length clothes with conservative cuts. I intend to maintain these actions during my service.
Also, as a foreigner to communities, I anticipate that I will make mistakes. The only way to learn cultural customs is to be vulnerable and try to interact with locals. In my experience, people appreciated the effort I made to speak the language and used kindness in pointing out my mistakes. I have yet to have a cultural exchange blunder due to personal malice; it is always the result of misunderstanding. I will not take things personally and patience demonstrated towards the host community and myself is critical. Practicing this and maintaining my sense of humor have helped me this far and I have confidence they will assist me in South Africa.
D. The skills and knowledge you hope to gain during pre-service training to best serve your future community.
While I am extremely excited for the opportunity to learn and speak another Bantu language, I realize that the goal of fluency in 3 months is unrealistic. My goal is to learn enough of the language (or languages) to interact with the host community and built rapport so locals will feel open to practice with me. Another skill I would like to learn how to bring up sensitive topics in a community with strong Christian ties and in a group oriented culture. Most of my counseling skills and motivational training is from a western-based individualist approach, which may not be appropriate for a group oriented community. Finally, the best way for me to serve my community is to remain well and feel safe. I am eager to follow protocols set by the South African staff to maintain that sense of well-being.
E. How you think Peace Corps service will influence your personal and professional aspirations after your service ends?
I have no idea how Peace Corps will impact me personally, but I think I will take pride in how I tried to help individuals impacted with HIV/AIDS. I will hope that I am a more open minded person. Also after 27 months in South Africa, I will have a clearer idea if I am the right personality fit for long term global health projects.
With the advent of technology many countries I have experienced (including the United States) are in the same situation as South Africa; large economic gaps with the country’s wealth. As someone who hopes to work in global health, it will be invaluable to experience this juxtaposition with extreme poverty and wealth because many countries will probably see this reality in the future. Also while South Africa’s past with apartheid is hard to compare to other instances, I think a concrete understanding of historical trauma will enable me to have more compassion and the ability to develop cultural sensitive strategies towards marginalized populations in the United States and in other countries.
I have no doubt that my time in South Africa will be well spent. I will gain invaluable global health experience with any host partner. I am passionate about global health and have a myriad of interests, including malaria prevention, mental health, stigma reduction, nutrition, gender rights, and HIV/AIDS. At this point, the only thing I know about my desired career path is after Peace Corps is I would like to finish my Masters in Public Health and work in the context of family health, possibly empowering communities to become advocates for their health needs . I feel that my time working “in the field” will give me a better appreciation for the complexities with global health and make me a stronger graduate student.