By Nirvana Bhatia
Master's Candidate in Human Rights
Josef Korbel School of International Studies
Elena Augustine '11 and Justin Kimmons-Gilbert '10 are students in the Josef Korbel School's Peace Corps Master's International program. Both have completed their coursework and are serving in Kazakhstan. Elena arrived in Karaganda in October and Justin signed on for a third year of service in Taldy Korgan. We caught up with them for a few thoughts on their journey so far.
How did your background influence your interest in the Peace Corps Master's International program?
JUSTIN: I did Semester at Sea in undergrad, where I learned that while I enjoy traveling, spending only a few days or a week in a place isn't really enough to do or to experience much more than the initial colorful shocks and surges of total newness. I wanted to know what it was like to really BE in a different place. After undergrad, I did two years with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, where I learned that I enjoy civics and service learning just as much as traveling to new places. Following that, Peace Corps and the Master's International program seemed like a solid option for me to continue my education and experiences.
ELENA: I grew up in a Foreign Service family, so I've spent my entire life traveling from country to country every three years or less. I grew up in Bulgaria, Belgium, Germany, Russia and Austria. Plus, my mother is German, so I'm a dual citizen. All of my family lives in Germany or Switzerland, with the exception of an uncle in Texas. My existence has been very internationally focused! I was drawn to Peace Corps as soon as I heard about it -- it seemed like a really interesting way to be able to travel and to submerge yourself in another culture in a way not really possible otherwise. I'd known throughout college that I wanted to join the Peace Corps and go to grad school -- in no particular order ? and when I heard about the Master's International program my senior year, I knew I'd found what I wanted to do.
How do you feel about spending time in Kazakhstan? What are some details of your individual projects?
JUSTIN: I feel good about spending time here in 'the big KZ.' I like knowing I've spent a significant amount of time living and working in an interesting place most Americans can't even place on a map. I?m in the Organizational and Community Assistance Program, which has recently been split into two tracks: organizational development and youth development. What we strive to do is basically nongovernmental work of all sorts such as fundraising, youth programming and project developing, monitoring and evaluation -- and all the other buzz words of international development. Specifica'lly, my first assignment was to a village akimat, or mayor's office, where I worked with a small, grassroots organization to help a regional population of the visually impaired.
ELENA: I love Kazakhstan so far! I've already had the opportunity to see two completely different lifestyles here. During my training I lived in a tiny Uighur village -- no inside toilets, no places to go out, no Internet or cell-phone service -- and I paddocked my family's cow several times by myself. Now I live in one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan, Karaganda, in a very nice apartment downtown with a Kazakh family that has Internet at home.
In terms of my project, I'm part of Peace Corps Kazakhstan's pilot youth-development program. I'm working with an HIV-AIDS nonprofit here in Karaganda to develop their Youth Power program. We're opening a youth center to provide counseling and healthy lifestyle activities to at-risk youth from 14-25. Our target population is young people living with HIV and so-called problem youth.
Elena, what are your expectations for the next two years? What's some advice you've gotten from Justin or other members of the DU community? Justin, what advice do you have for Elena? Things you wish you'd known?
ELENA: Justin and I met a few times during my preservice training and had some contact on Facebook before I arrived in country. It was fun to talk about the professors we've both had at the Korbel School and the requirements of the Master's International program. I think the most helpful advice he and the other members of the Univeristy of Denver Josef Korbel School's Peace Corps community gave me about my time here was just to have fun -- it's easy to get stressed in a new country where you don't speak the language and may not immediately know how to go about doing your work!
I expect the next two years to be enormously rewarding in a personal and professional sense. Part of the attraction of the MI program was that it focuses my Peace Corps experience toward my degree program, turning it into a kind of extended in-the-field practicum. I'm working with an international nonprofit on the ground, which is exactly what my International Administration degree is supposed to prepare me to do in the working world. I've also already built friendships with other volunteers and locals, particularly my host families, that I'm sure will last for many years to come.
JUSTIN: I wish I had known just how much my experience was going to depend on what I decided to do for myself, and not solely on Peace Corps' formalized understandings of my assigned village and organizations. Again, this country is huge and there just aren?t enough resources for frequent or in-depth oversight for our activities. Once the initial three months of training is over, we really are on our own and we need to be brave enough to define, maintain, revise and pursue our own goals and concepts of success.
Justin, what inspired you to stay on for another year?
JUSTIN: My first two years were in a small village about three hours from the nearest urban center. While living there was a valuable and challenging personal experience, I did not feel that my professional skills had been as sufficiently utilized or developed as I had hoped when I joined Peace Corps as an MI. The option of staying for a third year has enabled me to relocate into the nearest urban center, Taldy Korgan, where there are multiple organizations with which to work, as well as additional responsibilities to conduct trainings and provide on-the- ground support to the recently arrived new group of Peace Corps volunteers.
What's been your most memorable experience so far? What did you least expect to discover here?
JUSTIN: I joined Peace Corps expecting to integrate into a community, but to otherwise live on my own and rough it without many amenities for two years. I grew up as a latch-key kid and only child in southern New Jersey and I learned young the value of being alone without feeling lonely. As such, I found the idea of staying with a host family for the required first six months to be hugely challenging. As it turns out, I lived with my ethnic-Russian host mom, Toma, for the entire two years of my service. We had no running water or access to many resources in our little home, or even a common language at first as Peace Corps trained me in speaking Kazakh and she only speaks Russian. But I've never felt so comfortable or as cared about as I did as her host son. Having found a second mother in a world where even one good one isn't guaranteed is easily my most valuable and unexpected experience so far.
ELENA: Wow, that's a tough question. I've been having so many memorable experiences every day that I can't possibly begin to remember them all without writing them down. I think one of my favorites was attending my first host dad's 60th birthday party. The entire affair was carried out in the Uighur language, not Russian, and I got to sit in as a family member on a celebration that probably few non-Uighurs have seen. I think I least expected the warmth with which my host families have embraced me -- I've only been with this most recent one for a few days now but already they're introducing me to other people as their daughter!
For more on their experiences, check out Elena's blog at www.elenainkazakhstan.com
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