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Peace Corps volunteers are trained for about three months before being set loose in their assigned countries. The first step involves staging, which offers a general orientation and a place to meet the other volunteers in their group. “You get your first round of shots and this really quick and dirty cultural training,” Kate Fjell explains. Then they go to the assigned country, where they train intensively for three months. “You learn a lot about the culture, how to fit in, basically, and important cultural clues you should know about,” Julie Feeney laughs, “so you don’t end up getting married by accident!”
This phase is sometimes referred to as “the honeymoon stage,” says Nick Spina. “Everything’s new, everything’s exciting, every experience is the first time. You laugh a lot. You joke a lot because you don’t know how to communicate, so you use a lot of sign language, and you just try whatever you can to get across to people,” Spina recalls. “It’s challenging too, because they dump you with a host family immediately, and you are automatically in a situation where you are completely out of your element for the first time.”
For most of the volunteers, the language training is intense, covering every conceivable topic—“from how to buy things from the market to how to greet people, how to tell people you don’t feel good, and then how to have a conversation about AIDS.” Of course, language learning doesn’t end there. Once the volunteers arrive at their assigned site, the training continues. For instance, Spina had a language tutor, with whom he met once a week: “I would continue memorizing vocabulary and practicing my speaking skills with her, and I steadily improved. Some people work harder at the language than others, and some people learn it better than others. By the end of my service I could communicate whatever I needed to. I could have meaningful conversations. In hindsight, I’m proud of how much I accomplished, but it was a struggle. I mean, Armenian is not a language they teach you in schools, so learning it from scratch was a hard thing to do.”
Beyond language training, which is crucial to the survival of the volunteers, the technical training is also indispensable. “While you’re there, there may be ongoing training that happens throughout the service, depending on your project,” Craig Hutton says.
“We would go on fieldtrips and learn about the soil and different trees,” Matt Rysavy recounts. “We’d talk to different professionals in the government to get their feedback and see how systems worked, to make sure we were on a good starting page, so when we got to the village we knew we had a good background of their local customs, their local culture, and how we were going fit into the bigger national scene.”
“The technical portion was really good, especially for me,” recounts Fjell, “because I had an archeology degree coming out of college. I had done some work in the HIV/AIDS field, and knew the basics, but I didn’t feel very confident teaching about AIDS. The technical training really helped. “