11 things I’ve learned in PST

By Sarah Jones
Dec. 2, 2017

On Friday, October 27th I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer! Our swearing in ceremony was wonderful and it included speeches made by volunteers in both English and Kyrgyz as well as volunteers dancing the Kyrgyz national dance. Overall it was an exceptional event!

That being said, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is not an easy task, including the rigorous and competitive application process and 11 weeks of intensive language, cultural, technical, medical, and safety and security training, the road to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteers is a long one. Anyways since I finished PST, I thought it would be great to write about some things I learned throughout training.

1. Kyrgyzstan is amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful!

In tourist blogs, Kyrgyzstan is commonly described as “the Switzerland of Central Asia” and while I cannot corroborate that, as I have never been to Switzerland, the landscape is incredible. Even though I am from a state with many mountains (Alaska) I am continuously blown away by the amazing views this country has to offer. Aside from the natural beauty, Kyrgyz people are amazingly beautiful themselves. Everyone I have met in this country so far has been nothing but determined, kind, and hospitable towards me and my fellow volunteers.

2. Everything can be fixed with a cup of tea

This is one of my PST host families’ favorite sayings. Needless to say drinking tea is not a mere part of Kyrgyz culture, but rather a way of life. I am continuously offered at least two cups of tea at each meal. If you don’t refuse the tea, it’s possible that you could end up drinking 6+ cups of tea in one meal. While I’m not sure everything can be fixed with a cup of tea, it is rather warm and comforting and does make you feel better after a long day.

3. Taking time to drink tea with people is extremely important

As stated above, it’s not just the tea itself that is important, but also taking time to sit with people and talk over a cup of tea. Although this can seem really different from American culture, taking time to go over to someone’s house and drink tea is how relationships are formed and how work gets done. You cannot expect to do meaningful work in this country or have deep conversation without having a cup of tea along the way.

4. Food is the (one) of the best ways to share culture

Trying new food and discovering your favorite food in a new place is wonderful. Conversely discovering that you can eat soup for two meals a day for seven days a week is also really cool, as it teaches you patience and resiliency. Regardless of whether you love or hate the food you’re trying, food is a great way to experience culture. Making food from home to share with your host family is also a great way to bond and a great cure for homesickness. Overall, sharing food is one of the best ways to experience, share, and enjoy culture.

5. Learning a language takes time

While this one is a bit obvious, it’s a lesson I seem to forget quiet often. Whenever I travel abroad after spending a significant amount of time in the U.S, I always forget how hard it is to not be able to communicate and/or have important conversations with people. I always think that I’ll pick up the language quicker and that it’ll be easy to learn. And of course, I am always wrong. While language barriers can be incredibly frustrating at times, it is also incredibly humbling. Remembering that it takes time is probably the most important thing when learning a new language and a great reminder during difficult days.

6. It’s important not to compare yourself to others

Along with the language, I think this is another really important aspect of being in Peace Corps. Everyone learns languages differently, everyone has different host families, and every site is different. While it is easy to logically know these things, it can be harder to remember them on tough days. Everyone comes to Peace Corps with vastly different experiences and expertise. Every country, every site, and every host family is different. Instead of thinking how to be more “like” someone else, think about what you can do for your host family, counterpart, site, etc. It is much better to focus on the things you have control over (and be an awesome PCV while doing it) rather than focusing on others’ experiences and what others are doing.

7. Taking time for yourself is necessary

Pre-Service Training (PST) is one of the most, if not the most intense part of Peace Corps service. I can’t speak to this from personal experience yet, but it is very draining. While it is important to study the language and do what technical training and other training is necessary of you, it is also important to remember to stop and breathe and do things you enjoy. Reading a book and/or watching a movie helped me so much more than studying the language. Also talking to friends and exercising can be really helpful too. In PST everything moves so quickly, it’s important to remember to take time and slow down. Spending time with people and enjoying conversations can do more good than constantly worrying about language and/or technical progress.

8. Saying yes to things can lead to great experiences

Every Peace Corps country does PST differently, but as I have written before, for ours, we were all within two hours access to Bishkek. While it is tempting to go into the city every weekend, spend money, and hang out with fellow PCVs, it is also equally if not more rewarding to spend time with your host family and do things with your host family. Of course the relationships you develop with other PCVs are important as well. I guess more of what I’m saying is that it’s as equally important to “stay in” some weekends and spend time with your host family as it is to spend time with other PCVs. Regardless though, saying yes to excursions (with both host families and PCVs) can lead to amazing and unforgettable experiences.

9. Getting sick is a part of Peace Corps

Although this is commonly known about Peace Corps service, reading about getting sick in Peace Corps and being sick in Peace Corps are two vastly different things. I have been lucky so far as to only have had some mild stomach problems and a cold throughout PST. That being said, most if not all of our cohort has experienced about the same, if not worst. Nevertheless, if you accept a Peace Corps invitation, expect at some points in your service to feel really really awful.

10. Managing data is hard

This was not something I expected to deal with in Peace Corps, but here we are. Data plans in Kyrgyzstan are pay as you go, meaning it is incredibly simple and easy to change or switch data plans as well as it is providers. Although data plans are easy to navigate and cheaper than in the States, that still doesn’t make paying for them any better. Unlimited data plans do exist here, they are more expensive, which is why in PST I had a 8GB/month plan. Considering my extremely bad Netflix habit managing with 8GB/month has been challenging. That being said, I have had more time to read and spend time with my host family because of it. Having limited internet access has been both challenging and rewarding, while I have more time to read and engage in the world around me, it can also be frustrating not to know what to do when I want to relax, as watching Netflix was my way of relaxing in the U.S.

11. Building relationships and integrating is never easy

I hope that this is what this post has been leading up to, but building relationships and community integration is not easy. It’s possible, but like with language it takes time. Again it is easy to think that it’ll be easy or not as hard as the last time, but in truth I think this is the hardest and most important part of Peace Corps. That being said, PST has left me with very important questions, such as how am I going to create meaningful work when I can’t communicate with people? How do I know if I’m successful? How do I know what the community needs? How much of this experience is about me and how much is it about helping others? Of course these are questions I don’t yet have the answer to, but questions I only merely started thinking about in PST, and maybe that was the point of PST all along. Regardless, I have two years to find the answers. Here we go!

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