One Volunteer explores her passions through community projects

By Kelsey McMahon
March 18, 2024

North Macedonia is known for its generosity. A visit to someone’s home means a seemingly endless serving of tavche gravche (beans on tava) along with a bag of freshly picked produce when you leave. Peace Corps Volunteer Elizabeth Biron is determined to mirror that kindness through educational support.

Elizabeth, ‘Liz,’ first arrived in North Macedonia in 2019. As an Education Volunteer, she co-taught English to primary school students in a small village not far from the Sharri Mountains.

“Everybody deserves to have a good education and it is a privilege to provide that for others. I benefited from a good education and it’s something that I can pay forward. English is a global language and, if you speak it, you often have a lot more opportunities. My goal is to provide students with a strong foundation and build their skills,” shared Liz.

Just as Liz was creating special bonds and feeling at home, the pandemic cut her service short.

“My first service was full of all those little moments of feeling that I belonged that were mostly due to my host family. At first, my host family and I were joking that I’d only be away for a week but, of course, it turned out to be much longer. I remember as we were saying goodbye, I said that I’d be back, and the memories of what we experienced together made me commit to returning.”

A woman sits smiling in a colorful cardigan
Liz takes a break from her in-person projects.

Liz heard about Peace Corps’ Virtual Service Pilot from her mom, who saw a social media post from Peace Corps North Macedonia. There was a short-term virtual engagement available to support an English club at a youth and community center that Liz knew quite well from her Peace Corps pre-service training (PST).

Since it opened in 2018, the youth center has provided local youth with non-formal learning opportunities in areas such as creative expression, leadership, English as a Second Language, financial literacy, politics, and professional development. Although Liz knew about the community center and was excited to support the community once more, she was unsure if an online engagement would be as meaningful as in-person service.

“I [wondered] what is [it] going to be like being virtual? Will it be any different? I think we have this assumption that [the Virtual Service Pilot] will feel more distant, or it won't feel as genuine or real because you're not in the same room. But I truly did form deep friendships with my counterparts and the students. [The relationships I built] didn't feel any less real than the ones I made in person,” Liz shared. “There's a lot of ways to connect with someone a thousand miles away. Service is about the relationships you form, and you can do that no matter where you are.”

For 13 weeks, a projector brought Liz, who was based in Atlanta, Georgia at the time, back to her former country of service. Liz credits her counterparts, Elton Jashari and Renata Smilkoska, for fostering a safe space for students to fearlessly participate and learn.

“My advice for learning English through non-formal education is to utilize a variety of methods to make the classes engaging and fun for participants. We made English learning fun by using games and topics such as music and sports that the participants would be interested in outside of the classroom. When students are having fun, it helps them stay engaged and motivated,” explained Elton.

The club incorporated games to build the students’ English vocabulary and comprehension skills. One popular game involved one student donning a blindfold and letting the other students verbally—and in English—directing them to an object in the room.

Renata shared why the youth center values its partnership with the Peace Corps: “Peace Corps Volunteers and Participants bring diverse skills, cultural understanding, and a commitment to make a positive impact on the lives of others. Working with the Peace Corps is rewarding for our organization and communities as they contribute to development, cross-cultural exchange, and capacity building.”

A bald man stands with his arms crossed across his chest
Elton, Liz's counterpart, believes learning should be fun.

Liz says that her virtual engagement made just as much of an impact on her as it did on the participating students, stating it reminded her of the meaningful connections built during service, particularly with the local youth.

In 2022, Liz returned to North Macedonia to resume and complete her service a Peace Corps Volunteer – this time collaborating with four English teachers at the high school. She also leads an after-school English club for younger students on Wednesdays and is planning to launch a boys and girls summer camp with another Volunteer. The English club she worked with virtually continues today, but with support from another in-person, two-year Volunteer.

Serving in-person and virtually with the Peace Corps not only provided Liz with intercultural understanding but also allowed her to explore her various passions and interests in ways she hadn’t expected.

Take the community’s robotics club for example. Liz will be the first one to admit that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are not her expertise, but like many Volunteers, Liz did not hesitate to support when her current community asked.

Each week, Liz asks the robotics club what they want to learn. She then conducts independent research and prepares a lesson to fulfill that curiosity the following week. So far, she has introduced the students to Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, discussed how mobile apps leverage artificial intelligence (AI), and explored the role of cybersecurity.

“I’m hoping to get some old computers for the kids to practice assembling and disassembling. That would give them practical experience with motherboards and circuitry,” explained Liz.

The community center nearby was also looking for extra hands to establish a garden and build capacity among community members to maintain and grow it. Unlike the robotics club, Liz felt confident in her existing gardening skills. In the U.S., Liz was a certified master gardener, which she humbly states is, “just a fancy title for when you have two city-approved gardens.”

“This week I’ll be teaching the basics of composting and how to start seeds indoors for winter. We’ll clear out the section of where the garden will be, too.”

Liz shares gardening duties, such as watering and regular maintenance, with local adults in the community. She is excited that the gardening group will gather to prepare ajvar, a classic Balkan food much like a red pepper spread.

“We’ll roast red peppers on an open grill outside then peel them and mix with eggplant, garlic, oil, and any other vegetables. When you make it, you make a metric ton, so you can store it all winter.”

Liz knows her time in the community is limited, so she is soaking in each day. And while she’s unsure what the future holds beyond her close of service in 2024, she knows she’ll take a bit of North Macedonian culture wherever she goes next.

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