What Do You Do?

But Kevin, what do you do there? I have never had a great answer for this question. I do the community development. I try to find meaning for myself in a nebulous vacuum devoid of concrete work or routines. I try to be useful in some way. However, now is a convenient time to answer the question because I have been doing some stuff. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Novus is a really ambitious Peace Corps project spearheaded by our super volunteer. It’s the same guy who created Border2Border, which I worked on last year. I was happy when they asked me to help out because it’s kind of like Michael Jordan asking you to be on his team. The analogy falls apart here because I’m not sure which role player I am. Steve Kerr, nailing clutch 3’s from deep? Or perhaps Luc Longley, lobbing up hook shots from the top of the key. It’s quite feasible that I am Horace Grant, the bespectacled workhorse. Who knows. The important thing is I’m on the team and helping out with a cool project.

We even have a logo

Why is the project ambitious? Well, its goal is to provide 24 business lessons and 12 computer lessons as a college curriculum to host country national college students. The curriculum firms up areas of business in which the students are under-taught or even not taught at all. Not only does it aim to offer 36 two thousand word lessons with PowerPoint presentations, exercises, and videos where necessary, but it is tying that all together through a business simulator. That’s right – one of our volunteers is coding an educational computer game that is used as a tool alongside the lessons. The game lets the user control business decisions for a startup brewery. Oh yeah, this is all done in English but will all be translated into Armenian. And it is designed to be portable to other Peace Corps countries as well. Hopefully you are grasping the ambitiousness by now. This isn’t just a new toilet at the local school (although that is an equally worthy project IMO).

The project is a team effort. Some of our team is from the A-19 group. That’s crucial because my group is wrapping up soon. The end goal is to have local professors buy into the curriculum and use it in their universities. It will also be a powerful resource for new volunteers to use for local trainings. Here the team idea continues. Imagine…you are a new volunteer, confused and frightened by what to do with yourself. One of the experienced volunteers hands you a CD and explains that it contains everything you need to conduct business lessons in the community. That’s the idea behind Novus.

So, I just finished writing my 6th lesson (4 business, 2 computer) for the project. My lessons will be translated into Armenian, and then hopefully many other languages. My words will continue teaching people around the world long after I’ve turned in my water filter.

Strategic Plan
When the YMCA requested a volunteer over 2 years ago, they knew they wanted to do one thing: a 5 year strategic plan. I remember feeling a lot of anxiety when they first told me that because I had no idea how to write a strategic plan. I also had no idea about a lot of other stuff. I told them that I wasn’t ready, which in hindsight was the correct thing to do.

There was so much new that it was impossible for me to step back and critically assess my new organization. I didn’t even know what it was all about. For the past 2 years I have watched, observed, experienced, and thought about YMCA. I have a lot better grasp now what the organization is and how we can make some realistic goals for the future.

We started the planning process a couple months ago, but it stalled for several reasons. Actually that’s normal in Armenia and to be expected. Hence my push to finish this thing off now while there is still a bit of an emergency buffer zone. Now we are rolling like never before.

Last week we kicked off the needs assessment portion of the planning process. I was most concerned about this part because it involves various things outside of my control. We needed buy in from the community to help us. I needed a capable and willing partner in crime to help me. Luckily, everything has been working so far. Our new translator, while not so proficient in English, is eager to work and not scared of walking into a bureaucratic room full of teachers and asking them to fill out our questionnaire. The community was also open, if confused, about our needs assessment. We walked to the 4th school and got input from a class of students as well as some teachers. The next day we went to the college and did the same thing again. We’ve also been interviewing the staff of the YMCA to see what they think. This week we’ll wrap up that process and begin translating everything. Then it’s data analysis time (I’m looking forward to that the most). After that we’ll have a staff meeting to discuss our findings and brainstorm potential goals for the new plan. Then I’ll sit down and synthesize the whole thing into an actionable game plan.

The Most Difficult Question in the World

I’d like to take a ramble down a side path for a moment. The needs assessment. I am learning a lot just through conducting it. For example, I grossly underestimated the time it would take the Armenians to complete the simple 2 page form. I thought it would be a 5 minute affair. In reality it takes much longer. Maybe the questions are more thought-provoking than I realized. But I think the real reason it takes so long is that many of them have never filled out anything like this or even thought about these types of questions before. The first question asks them to list 3 things they like about Vardenis. The question is more painful for them than the fact that there are so few things to like in Vardenis. There is a systemic lack of critical thinking too. There is a mindset of, “How am I supposed to answer this?” instead of thinking creatively to answer the question. I can understand their plight, coming myself from a hometown that a lot of residents would have trouble listing 3 likeable characteristics for. But if Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s how to appreciate what you have, no matter how little it is. Vardenis has water 24/7, is very peaceful, and has a nice mountain backdrop. Boom. Three things. It’s not that hard people. I know this paragraph risks sounding like white development worker in shining armor syndrome (they just don’t understand, whaaaa, etc.). I’m not claiming that it would go perfectly in America either. But it’s been eye opening.

Cultural Bridge
Now is the time of year where the YMCA deploys me as a temporary bridge to connect two different cultures. Part American, part Armenian (by now). West meets East. English meets Armenian. We just had a flotilla of Danish guests come visit. Several of them spoke English at a level far beyond anyone in our office. During times like this I can chat them up and charm them just like any good businessman while taking the pressure off of my colleagues.

Hanging out with foreigners – is this really a job?

We’ll also be having guests from an American Y soon, so I may be deployed yet again. These same guests came last year. It was quite interesting. It was also good to serve as a cultural guide for them and for the Armenians. It’s hard to explain the feeling, especially without sounding completely full of myself. After all this time here I have a comfort level bordering on the ridiculous when it comes to Armenian culture. And of course being around my own culture is like putting on an old pair of Asics. So it lends me the ability to know how both sides are thinking and then take the appropriate action.

Other Stuff

There is a lot of other smaller stuff that fills in the cracks. Writing this blog, for example, while pleasurable, is still technically part of my work here. I am trying to educate you about Armenia while also learning and reflecting myself. Then there’s the World Wide Schools correspondence with my class back in St. Louis. There’s training the new volunteers (they’re coming this week, oh my God). And of course preparing to leave. I’m also spending a large chunk of free time trying to learn Polish. And then there are the daily minutiae of cooking, shopping, laundry, and cleaning.

So that’s it. That’s what I do.


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