After having a post of mine featured on Hard Corps, a community blog sharing stories of Peace Corps Volunteers, my conversation with Hard Corps’ Creator, Kristen Hare, became a featured interview on her site. I was excited to share ideas on technology, service, and Kyrgyzstan with her readers.
I’ve copied the interview below, and the original is posted here.
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Madeline Stoddart starts a recent blog post with the above photo, and this: “My six-month mark passed with little fanfare, many shots of vodka, and a reminder that my time here is moving much more quickly than I could have imagined.”
During the start of the government shutdown, I shared Madeline’s blog and her thoughts about the experience from a Peace Corps Volunteer’s point of view. And I snooped around. In that snooping, I discovered some vivid writing, stunning photos and a video that took me into a yurt. After sharing one of her pieces a few weeks ago, I asked Madeline if she’d talk with me about her experience. She’s the first volunteer featured here who is still in country. Via e-mail we talked about the role technology is playing in her experience, why she joined, and where she thinks she might be when this all ends. All the photos here, by the way, are hers.
Hard Corps: You have had a ton of adventures already, from working for the president’s reelection campaign to working as an admissions officer in Cairo to interning with the State Department in Syria. Why did you join the Peace Corps?
MS: I’ve talked a lot about my reasons for joining the Peace Corps – from the professional opportunities it provides, the desire for adventure that lives within, I think, all people, even my naive idea that I might that I might still become a princess – but what it really comes down to is this: this is a way that I can serve my country. I have been incredibly lucky to have been given so many opportunities in my life, and this a way that I can not only give back, but also explore my interests in community development, empowerment, and engagement.
I am a big believer in the idea that those who truly love their country will work hard to improve it, and my hope is by empowering and developing countries in my service, I will be better equipped to do so when I return to the States. Peace Corps is my way to do that, and it is incredible to think about joining this legacy of over 50 years of individuals dedicated to their idea of service. Peace Corps is an amazing opportunity; no other organization offers an experience with so much support and training and investment in their volunteers, but also allowing your two years to be incredibly individual, so much about your community and your understanding of what progress means for your site and yourself. It is a challenge to be the best version of yourself, but also to find new pieces of yourself along the way. That’s why I joined – to be challenged and to serve my country in a way that makes sense with who I am as an individual.
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Hard Corps: Your blog has all these wonderful pieces of your life there, from gorgeous portraits to essays and videos, but also your own social commentary on what’s happening back home, such as the shutdown or the Trayvon Martin case, and issues you’re discovering in Kyrgyzstan, such as bride kidnapping. Do people in your community have access to the internet, and do you know if they ever read what you’re writing? One of the interesting things that’s happened over time is we’re seeing much more into the lives of volunteers through their own blogs, and I’ve wondered if their communities are tuned in to them.
MS: I think Peace Corps service has changed drastically with the level of internet penetration in the communities in which the majority of volunteers serve. We have this level of connection with home and the things going on there that is unprecedented, and offers so many opportunities to understand our service in context of something bigger. I am interested in policy, public service, and communities – so I can reflect on my ideas about all of those things as I experience them here and understand them from home. Whenever I am writing, I try to keep in mind what I would want to be reading, and I never wanted to have it be this daily rundown of “I did this, and then I did this and it was sooo interesting.” My generation has kind of been pegged with this oversharing obnoxiousness that I am always uncomfortable with (but admittedly sometimes play into) and I wanted to talk more about my experience holistically. Articulating that experience in context – of being an American abroad, about serving my country, learning about myself and this new community every day, and being able to communicate what I learn to open up Kyrgyzstan to the rest of the world – is as much a tool for me to make sense of my service as it is for updating people on what my life is like here.
Often, I don’t feel like I have anything really interesting to write about. There is this trap that exists when you talk about living abroad to someone back home. For the most part, your life here is just as mundane as anywhere – you get up, you drink a cup of coffee with breakfast, you go to work, you go to the market, you drink beer with your friends, you walk in your city’s parks, you think about bills or what is happening in the news or what you will make for dinner tomorrow – so much of it seems commonplace. You can sometimes slip out of it and forget you live somewhere entirely different. Except, perhaps, when you take a marshrutka (a local mini-bus) to work and have to share your seat with a sheep. It’s moments like that you realize, right – maybe I do have something to talk about.
Because I live in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, there is a pretty high level of internet access. It’s all relatively new; smartphones, internet clubs, and free wifi in cafés have grown exponentially in the past couple of years. Outside of Bishkek, I think that is less true – the villages and farther-flung oblasts are still newcomers to the internet party. I don’t know how much of our blogs as volunteers get out to Kyrgyz people, although I know Peace Corps host country staff regularly reads them. I think an equally large issue, beyond internet penetration in Kyrgyzstan, is the level of English language knowledge. Learning English is a big thing here, both as a marker of social status and an investment in economic opportunity, but is fairly limited and only really a hallmark of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. And, as with most Post-Soviet Central Asia, there is a push to reduce Russian influence, including language. The internet, egalitarian and magical as it may be, is not really set-up for Kyrgyz speakers. So many of the resources on the internet are predominantly in English, not to mention almost every volunteer’s blog being exclusively in English, I’m not sure how much of it is read and absorbed by our communities. I think it’s definitely an interesting conversation to have, and a question that I plan to ask other volunteers. And maybe, over the next two years of my service, that will change dramatically. We’ll see.
What has been really interesting is insight into other volunteer’s experiences, both in Kyrgyzstan and in the 76 other countries where Peace Corps serves. It’s another opportunity to put my service in context, and offers new perspectives on challenges I am facing here. I’ve even been working on developing a potential project based on a project launched by Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua, sharing their project on a blog and being able to email them and ask a questions about it. I think if it were even 10 years ago, this type of conversation would be close to impossible, and it all comes down to being able to share our experiences and build this sense of online community as we are building community at site. It is exciting to think about the opportunities that that will provide for future volunteers.
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Hard Corps is a blog curated by Kristen Hare, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Guyana 2000-2002), featuring stories, interviews, and photo-essays from Volunteers around the world. You can contact Kristen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her blog at hard-corps.blogspot.com.