Profile: Cindy Bestland
I answered the knock at my door and found myself face to face with one of the most creative and energetic women I would ever know. "I heard you were here, and I wanted to meet you! I brought flowers!" With these few simple words, Wiesia Kopiczynska bounded into my apartment and into my life. She would very quickly become one of my best friends in Brodnica, a small town in Poland that will remain in my heart forever.
Like many people I've spoken with, I'd always been intrigued by the idea of the Peace Corps. It frequently loomed in my consciousness as a possible answer to the ever-present, "What next?" Thumbing through the newspaper during a work break, I caught sight of an ad for a Peace Corps informational meeting. Though the ad wasn't large, it seemed to be leaping off the page, demanding my attention. The meeting, as my tremendous luck would have it, was to take place that evening. Any doubts I may have had about Peace Corps faded away with each word shared by the Peace Corps recruiters. Quite frankly, I was enchanted. I began the application process that day, and about nine months later was boarding a plane, bound for my new life.
In considering writing this article, I struggled with how to go about telling my story. I wanted it to be reflective of my time abroad. Yet, how could I convey my experiences over the course of two years, when each day merited a lengthy summary? I thought about answering the question I'm most frequently asked: "So, how was Poland?" But, often I'm forced to respond with "great!" or "unbelievable!", both of which fail to sufficiently impress my listener.
Perhaps the best approach would be to limit my focus to three inextricably interwoven aspects of my time in Poland: teaching, learning and socializing. I taught 20 classes of 20 students at I. Liceum in Brodnica. What this meant, in concrete terms, was 400 unbearably difficult, vowel-deprived names to try to learn and pronounce. I loved the challenge! With the help of my counterparts Wiesia Golubska and Majka Lubomska, I slowly began to learn the ways of Polish high school. They encouraged me to enjoy the very lofty and respected status afforded teachers. They filled me in on the confusing system of grades and exams. Best of all, they adopted me into their families.
I soon became a regular at their dinner tables, reveling in their legendary Polish hospitality. Wiesia's daughters proved instrumental in my language acquisition. Alina, the elder daughter, patiently read to baby Weronika and me. Samochwala was our favorite! Later when I read, Alina sweetly smiled, while Weronika sternly corrected my many errors. I grew to love those girls as my own sisters, and their mother as a dear friend. On more than one occasion, I came to them for a shoulder to cry on, or to share my triumphs of the day.
I wrote in my journal two weeks after arriving at my site: "I'm swamped with appointments and invitations, obligations and desires. Yet, I think I'm finding my way here." So many people took me into their homes and shared their lives with me. (Aside from Wiesia, Wiesia and Majka, there were Dorota, Kasia, Viola and Artur, among others!) I rarely had a lonely or homesick moment due to an endless stream of coffee or dinner invitations. These were my best times in Poland. It was then that I felt an honest exchange of ideas and cultures, well beyond anything that could happen in a classroom.
Two weeks later I wrote: "I can't believe it's the middle of October already! I have no idea where the time goes, nor do I know what I'm doing here, in POLAND of all places!" There certainly were moments of confusion and of feeling overwhelmed. The tendency for me was to take on every project that presented itself. What helped me were letters from home, field trips with my students, quiet and not-so-quiet times with my friends, and endless support from my fellow Poland XII Peace Corps Volunteers. We all had very unique experiences, but we no doubt shared two of the most intensely satisfying, fiercely challenging and ultimately beautiful years of our lives.
But now what? Is there life after Peace Corps? How do we pack up our lives, return "home" and carry on? Well, for me, it was not such a difficult transition. After nearly a year traveling around the world, I've settled into a wonderful job at Lao Family English School. I teach Functional Work English to adult refugees and immigrants. I also have the opportunity to participate in Family English Evenings, a program where whole families come to school to learn and spend time together.
Most of my students come from Laos, but a few are from other areas in Southeast Asia or Africa. They delight me with their enthusiasm for learning and their fascinating personal stories. Every day is eye-opening for me, as I discover what it means to survive in a very foreign culture. Sure, life in Peace Corps was in many ways similarly unsettling, but ultimately it was my choice to embrace this challenge. My students were forced from their countries through war or famine or political upheaval. Their bravery in starting all over again inspires me.
In retrospect, I know that my life has had a distinct path. At times, I felt that my wanderlust would forever keep me unsatisfied. Just the opposite has turned out to be true. It was this longing for new cultures, filled with brilliantly unique people, that has given my life meaning. Everything interconnects as one experience better prepares me for the next. Studying abroad in college opened up my eyes to the possibility of international travel. Volunteering as an English as a Second Language teacher reaffirmed my belief that learning must take place at all ages. Both of these combined to prepare me for Peace Corps, which in turn afforded me the perspective of being a foreigner trying to survive in a new country. My two years in Poland not only made me a better teacher, but humbled me each time I tried to express myself in my new language. This, at times painful, at times hilarious, memory has proven essential to empathizing with my adult students here in America.
Peace Corps profoundly enhanced my life in ways that I appreciate now, but will cherish more and more with each passing year.
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