Once a month we like to share a story we find really interesting from a volunteer’s blog. This month we share one from The Thai Tea.
Natalie Heinitz, 131 YinD
Today, I officially swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer! After ten weeks of language training, ten weeks of biking 15 km a day in the merciless Thai heat, ten weeks of technical training, self-assessment, more group work than I ever did in all my years of schooling, plus two very unexpected days in a Bangkok hospital, I can officially say that I am a Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer.
My next step? Moving to the province of Sisaket in northeastern Thailand, right along the Cambodian border for the next two years. I leave in two days! Even though moving to my permanent site is the true beginning of my service, the past ten weeks in pre-service training has been an experience like no other. I’ve been trained on everything from technical development skills to basic cultural integration (i.e. using a squat toilet and eating with a spoon AND fork at the same time) to teaching elementary school kids in a foreign language. I feel like I’ve shed and gained many layers at the same time. I think I’ve always pictured cultural integration as diving into a new culture, but I think it’s more about letting it wash over you instead. It’s allowing yourself to tilt your head back and feel the current pull on your hair and allow the wave to wash over your face and surrendering just the right amount of control as you anchor your fingers into the sand. It’s unclenching the grip around your world views, the way you speak, the way you listen, your mannerisms, your habits, your facial expressions, body language, and your most instinctive reactions. It’s observing instead of doing; listening instead of speaking. It’s holding yourself up to the light and asking, “Is this part of me innate, or is it just learned? I never realized I did that.”
To integrate is to surrender, but to surrender is not to lose yourself. During pre-service training, I have laid myself bare. I have stripped myself down to my most valued and crucial identities and surrendered the rest to the chaos of this new life and this new culture. I now have intermediate high proficiency(!) in a new language after two and a half months of study. I’ve taught English and life skills, organized a camp, and facilitated a volunteer project with Thai sixth graders over the course of a month and a half – all trial runs for what I’ll be doing at site in just a few days.
I’ve learned about analyzing youth development and building it back up with empowerment and life skill applications. I’ve learned how to be a strong mentor, how to manage a classroom with a language barrier, how to organize a camp that involves Thai teachers and staff while also just trying to fit in. My job as a youth in development volunteer is to facilitate empowerment for Thai youth. My goal during service is to provide Thai youth with as much exposure to and application of essential life skills like leadership, confidence, and teamwork as humanly possible through class, clubs, camps, and mentoring.
At the same time, my work is not sustainable unless I am facilitating my lessons, my clubs, and my camps alongside my Thai counterparts at my SAO and my schools because youth development must inherently involve adults who are committed to helping guide youth to opportunities for growth and leadership. And guess what? I’m leaving Thailand in two years. And also… it’s very difficult to teach purposeful lessons with my very limited Thai without a counterpart. Youth development is providing opportunities for kids to flex the muscles needed to feel empowered in their own abilities and identities. Those muscles are self-confidence, empathy, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, and more.
It’s easy to get lost in the theoretical stratosphere when talking about “youth development,” but I found that looking back at my own upbringing allowed me to see how critical my constant exposure to these skills have been to my own confidence and capabilities. I learned leadership and emotional maturity through sports. I learned confidence and self-discipline by playing the violin. I learned basic teamwork and problem-solving at the camp I went to every summer. I learned the value of service through my youth group in high school. And, most importantly, I had at least one adult per activity who was solely committed to my success and growth.
Individually, my childhood experiences may not seem like much, but layered together, they developed the life skills I needed to be the empowered adult I am today. They allowed me to activate my different interests and sculpt a personal identity. I could not have done it without the committed adults across all of my various activities who were committed to seeing me succeed. This is the purpose of my service – to serve as another adult solely committed to Thai youth’s personal development and empowerment. And I get started in just a couple days.