My first hour stateside in a year was spent in customs, assuring everyone who looked at my plane ticket that I didn’t have ebola. My second hour found me at the Brooklyn Beer Garden in JFK’s terminal 2, sipping the smallest Dogfish IPA I could order (the things living in a Muslim country will do to your tolerance) and demolishing a plate of chicken wings. There was a football game on and although I can’t tell you who was playing or what the score was the whole trifecta gave me the warm and fuzzy feeling of being American and knowing I was home. I was on my way to the Peace Corps’ Top Bloggers Tour in DC, in mid September, for the winners of the Blog It Home competition.
If you remember, the Blog It Home competition happened in the beginning of August, after eight winners were selected from a group of 20 finalists in an online voting decision. A huge thank you to everyone who voted for and shared this blog with others. It ended up being an incredible week in DC with some very special and talented current and returned volunteers. I arrived late on Sunday night, the 14th of September, to Dulles International Airport and was met at the baggage claim by some of the faces I’d missed the most in the last twelve months: my mom, dad, and Grandma Trudy. I had all of Monday to catch up with them over good food and hear all about my brother Mitch’s individual successes and team domination at his woodsmen’s team lumberjack competitions. My best friend since childhood, Sara, also flew down for my last day in the States and after my initial freak-out, so-happy-to-see-you hug it felt like only a day we had been separated. Seeing them and hearing about home did my soul some good and reminded me what a strong support network I will always have no matter where life takes me.
My roommate for the week was fellow winner, the hilarious and genuine Sara Laskowski of Peace Corps Guinea. She was evacuated from Guinea in August due to the spread of Ebola but has spent her time since educating people about the beautiful culture of Guinea, rocking complets in a way that I will never be able to, and combating Ebola hysteria with a level headed and realistic outlook. Over daily, early morning coffee and egg and spinach wraps at Starbucks over the course of the week we traded stories about West Africa and marveled at the similarities in the places we call home. The work (and the fun!) started Tuesday morning at the Peace Corps Headquarters building near the Georgetown area of DC. Once there, we met the staff who had helped organize the competition and all the headache of flying back nine volunteers from all over the world, not to mention coordinating their movements all over DC for four days. All returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Eileen, Kate, Meleia, and Ryan made us feel right at home and had an incredibly exciting itinerary in place for the next few days. Best of all, they had set up a conference room for us to work out of for the week and stocked it chock full of enough candy and snacks to make any doctor cringe. I may or may not have consumed a year’s worth of Peppermint Patties but I argue they got me through several early morning and late night presentations.
Over the course of the week we made our way around DC, giving interviews in foreign languages, meeting with top social media and digital communication experts, teaching at public schools and libraries about the culture of the countries we serve in, explaining our roles in development work to our representatives in Senate and Congress, and exchanging ideas with influential NGOs about increasing access to information about global poverty and human rights issues. Instead of repeating a prepared and memorized, and probably monotonous, speech about Senegal hour after hour and day after day, I found myself swapping stories about friends in my village or funny cultural stumbling blocks encountered in the course of the year and being constantly amazed at the thoughtful and provocative questions people asked about my country of service.
One of our first events was a tour of the broadcasting headquarters for Voice of America, the international public broadcasting institution of the US government, and interviews on our corresponding radio stations. Myself, Julia (Uganda), Anna (Cameroon), and Sara (Guinea) gave interviews live in French on the West African programming station to millions of listeners. After Voice of America, we headed to the White House where we met with the Digital Strategy team who keep up the social media accounts of the President’s administration. Brian Forde, a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Nicaragua and current Senior Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer, gave us invaluable career advice and reminded us to appreciate and expand on the innovations and impacts of our current experience. We also had the opportunity to visit ONE headquarters and meet with US Executive Director Tom Hart and members of the communication team behind their incredibly successful and powerful blog promoting action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. The international campaigning and advocacy organization has brought crucial attention and support to the African continent in particular and talking with Hart and the communication team was a mutually beneficial conversation that I came away from feeling re-inspired to talk about my work and share information.
More fantastic meetings with Smithsonian Magazine Chief Photo Editor Molly Roberts and US Diplomat in Residence Terry Davidson followed later in the week, after a myriad of presentations and public forums. My favorite presentations were at the two middle schools I visited in DC. The nine of us were split up between several schools over the course of a day to talk about the unique culture of our countries to classes of anywhere from 20 to 100 students. The best question of the day went to a confident 7th grader who asked me how to say “twerk” in Pulaar. I told him there wasn’t one yet but I’d be happy to bring it back to Senegal and see if we couldn’t find one. The results of that have yet to be determined. A public night at MLK Library and a group presentation with individual country tables after for over 100 Girl Scouts rounded out the cross cultural sharing. At both events there were enthusiastic future Peace Corps volunteers, some currently going through the application process, and it was so fun for me to remember that exciting time and answer their questions. I admire their desire to challenge themselves and open their worlds just a little bit more. It will be worth it! I can promise you that.
I loved sharing Senegal’s culture and my work here with everyone we met over the course of the week. I also greatly enjoyed exchanging ideas with some of the most innovative and successful people I have ever met. Both of those parts of the Top Bloggers Tour were rewarding and re-inspiring to my service, making me more excited than ever for my second and last year in Senegal. The best part of the week for me, however, came from the connections made with the fellow winners and with the returned volunteers working at Peace Corps Headquarters. I came away from our five days together with new ideas of what my service could mean to me and my community. I also took away the appreciation that no matter what country we serve (or served) in we’re all just finding different ways to achieve the same end: to make this world a little better every day with hard work and a smile. It is this that first attracted me to Peace Corps and this I remembered through the friendships formed that week. And as much as I missed good beer, spicy chicken wings, and football games, I realize trading them in for rice, instant coffee, and donkey chases has made me happier and more fulfilled than I ever thought possible.
Find links to the other winning blogs here and read along with their adventures to learn about their own sometimes hilarious, sometimes challenging, time abroad.