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Peace Corps Volunteer
2 years, 3 months
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Up to 12 months
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Virtual Service Pilot
3-6 months
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Douglas C.

“I appreciate that for my current engagement the discussions have become increasingly valuable as we’ve become better acquainted and as I’ve learned to be more of an active listener.”

Douglas C headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps, specifically the VSP program?

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and a personal request from Peace Corps Mexico post staff to help pilot Virtual Service inspired me to participate. I was looking for more connections, as we were all isolated during the pandemic. I also felt comfortable working online. I wasn’t able to participate in the first round of virtual engagements because my wife and I were in the process of moving. I participated in the second round by supporting a public research center. My project was to strengthen the English skills of graduate-level students.

2. What projects are you working on?

From April to October 2022, I supported graduate-level students in strengthening their English skills. I requested that each of us share a short biography and picture, so that we could get better acquainted before we collaborated online. We established a separate WhatsApp chat for everyone to stay connected and practice written English communications to complement our weekly calls. I prepared and facilitated language support sessions, uploaded related content and materials to a cloud-based folder, and reviewed the students’ work to provide constructive feedback.

For my current virtual engagement, I partner with a local university to provide an English conversation and cultural exchange for the staff. I started this past September and requested to continue beyond my initial end date. With my counterpart, I co-facilitate two conversation circles each week. Our conversations have gotten increasingly memorable as we’ve gotten to know each other better. Knowing their personal interests helps me select articles, music, videos, and other content for discussion. We’ve also discovered ways to incorporate humor. I often invite friends and colleagues to join as guests, leading to topics such as “Partnerships for the UN Sustainable Development Goals” with Dr. Michael Peel; “More bilinguals” with Dr. Lyda Herrera; and “Archery, Architecture and Art between the U.S. and Mexico” with Dr. Sandra Bernal.

Douglas C with students in Mexico
Douglas met with students in person when they were visiting the U.S.

3. What is a highlight of your VSP experience so far?

One highlight is how the connections made during virtual engagement have resulted in meaningful, lasting relationships. For instance, two of the students who attended my virtual workshop for a conference eventually met me for lunch when they were visiting family nearby. All the biotech doctorial students from my first engagement and I also meet every 6 months for an hour to discuss what’s new even though that virtual engagement with ended.

I appreciate that for my current engagement the discussions have become increasingly valuable as we’ve become better acquainted and as I’ve learned to be more of an active listener. The individuals who repeatedly showed up were so committed to practicing!

4. How have you met the challenges of a short-term, remote experience?

The biggest challenge that I’ve experienced is establishing a personal bond with the Mexican participants online. Spending time to get to know each other in a less formal atmosphere is much easier in person. Virtual communication also relies exclusively on access to reliable internet and computer technology, which can be a challenge for communities in Mexico. Many Mexican schools and homes have weak or intermittent Wi-Fi signals. To overcome this challenge, we have tried turning off our cameras and using a less data-intensive audio connection.

I learned during my first engagement the importance of making online sessions fun and interesting to help the students overcome their fears of communicating in English. Rather than a typical academic approach, I incorporate a wide variety of short TED Talks, music, poetry, movie trailers and podcasts to actively engage the participants. With help from my counterpart, we developed a simple, before and after self-evaluation questionnaire. This will help us evaluate how everyone has improved their English skills.

In my current engagement, I have the unique opportunity to collaborate with not only my counterpart but also a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, who is working on a similar Education assignment with the faculty. I believe that collaborations that integrate various ways to serve offer benefits for both the host country partners and the Peace Corps. The on-the-ground Volunteer shared that having my support has made them feel less homesick during their service. I’ve also offered to help the Volunteer apply for a Fullbright fellowship after his service. In return, the on-the-ground Volunteer agreed to serve as a guest speaker at one of our recent online workshops to lead the discussion on why it’s important to study indigenous languages.

5. What benefits are you gaining from your participation?

Participating in the Virtual Service Pilot initially helped me feel not so isolated during the pandemic. I also felt like I was personally contributing to building better bridges between the two countries. This was especially important to me given that there seems to be growing political disinformation and prejudice. I’m doing virtual engagement because I believe connection is valuable for everyone involved.

6. How has your previous Peace Corps and/or professional experience influenced your VSP experience?

My 30+ years of professional energy experience helped contribute to my initial Peace Corps Response assignment. During the ‘70s, I was struck by the economic and political disruptions created by the Middle East oil embargo; this motivated me to learn more about energy conservation and renewable energy sources. I previously worked with several top Mexican computer scientists applying artificial intelligence to efficiently operate energy microgrids, which can ensure uninterrupted power if the main grid goes down due to natural events such as earthquakes.

Efficient and smart energy planning is important as we are facing existential problems with global warming and climate change, which are only getting worse. We are all contributing to the problem, but there are tangible changes that we can make. Together, we can all find creative solutions that work for everyone.

7. What will you bring away from your experience as a VSP participant?

I feel grateful to have more personal connections with my Mexican friends and colleagues. As a founding member of the Friends of Mexico (FOM) NPCA-affiliate group, I think that returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) can help recruit Volunteers, mentor current Volunteers and Participants, and expand the Peace Corps’ impact through more collaborations with organizations like Rotary International.

Virtual engagement is an easy way to feel less isolated and more involved in developing creative solutions during a difficult time for all of us. I’ve been inspired by the teachers’ and students’ commitment to learning English; it makes me feel more motivated to improve my Spanish. Together, I believe that we are actively working to combat “otherness,” and we’re learning how to grow old more gracefully in the process.