Longtime Peace Corps partner gives virtual service a try

By Peace Corps
Aug. 1, 2022

Luis Enrique Macario Ajcá’s infectious passion for youth development is rooted in the belief that if given the opportunity, youth can make a difference in their communities.

As technical coordinator of the Middle Level of the Departmental Education Office of Totonicapán in Guatemala, Luis has partnered with the Peace Corps since 2009. For over six years, he has served as an esteemed member of the Program Advisory Committee of the Youth in Development program.

Recognizing the Virtual Service Program (VSP) as a distinct opportunity for Guatemala’s education as a whole and the Department of Totonicapán in particular, Luis was quick to sign up as a partner.

How was the process of preparing for the Virtual Service Pilot different than preparing for in-person volunteers?

One of the best things about virtual service is how fast things went – that’s the main difference between a regular Volunteer and a Virtual Service Program Participant (VSPP). While in-person Volunteers must complete weeks of training, Virtual Service Participants can start as soon they complete a short orientation. This meant we could cover the needs right away.

Will you continue participating in virtual service after in-person Volunteers arrive in Guatemala?

Definitely. We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of the virtual service. It makes sense to take advantage of the virtual world to connect someone in the U.S. with someone in Guatemala – it benefits everyone. Now that we have a better understanding of how virtual service works, we’re starting to think of how we can complement the service of regular, in-person Volunteers by working with VSPPs at the same time to meet the community needs.

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Luis Enrique Macario Ajcá has partnered with the Peace Corps since 2009.

What were some of the challenges you've faced during virtual service and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was syncing the different schedules; not only the local teachers but also the U.S.-based participants due to time zone differences. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to work it out together. Working within the virtual world that the pandemic pushed on all the teachers was something we also had to overcome. The teachers needed to use new digital tools that they previously hadn’t needed or used.

Was it difficult to find teachers who wanted to collaborate with American VSPPs? What was your process for selecting teachers to participate?

It was a good thing that I’m close to school principals in Totonicapán. When I called them, they told me their teachers were very interested in participating. They knew the Peace Corps offers high-quality training and is a respected organization.

I was in charge of choosing the teachers to fill the nine available spots, which was hard. I could have easily filled double that, because we have 21 middle schools here in Totonicapán.

Now that we have a better understanding of how virtual service works, we’re starting to think of how we can complement the service of regular, in-person Volunteers by working with virtual volunteers at the same time to meet the community needs.

What feedback have you received from the teachers?

It's a little bit hard to organize meetings due to the time differences but, other than that, feedback from the teachers has been positive. They keep learning – the VSPPs are helping us deliver Youth in Development programs in a new way. This new service model fosters a relationship with counterparts that’s unique from the relationships built with regular Volunteers. The participant is thousands of miles away, making clear and regular communication all the more important.

Can you share some tips on how other host country partners can select teachers to participate?

First, it’s important to know the staff and who has the necessary skills to be part of the VSP. You have to filter through the interested staff members, because if you select a teacher who may not be equipped to participate, they may feel discouraged during the engagement.

Second, find individuals who are motivated to learn. As long as there is willingness to learn, any barrier can be overcome.

Third, apply your learnings. What is not practiced is forgotten, there must be a process of accompaniment, so that those who benefit from the initiative can apply what they have learned.

Finally, motivate everyone to participate this unexplored world and see the benefits of this initiative.

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