A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

COS Conference

The last week of April was my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference–aka the start of the home stretch of our Peace Corps service. It was also (at least for my cohort) the last time we would all be together.

I don’t know how other Peace Corps countries work, but in Mongolia, they typically have each cohort COS over a period of about 3 weeks so as to not have a horde of PCVs descending upon the capital at once and all trying to get their COS appointments and paperwork finished at the same time. And even though my cohort’s official COS date is August 16, 2016 (exactly 2 years after we swore in), Country Directors can move a group’s COS date up by no more than a month, typically to accommodate PCVs who go straight into graduate school at the end of their service.

So the first COS week is the second-to-last week of July, which got further complicated by the fact that Mongolia is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Conference in the middle of July, and it’s a huge deal! The Heads of State of 60 countries are coming into UB for the conference, pretty much all other transportation into and out of the city won’t be running, and the Mongolian government has kindly asked all UB residents to go out into the countryside for a week or so to stay out of the way. The only transportation that will be running is the train line, so the 18 or so PCVs who live along the train line were told ahead of time that they had to leave during the first COS week. For the rest of us, we had a “lottery” at the beginning of the COS Conference for either the second COS week (the last week of July) or the third COS week (the first week of August), and we could trade dates among ourselves. I drew the third week, which is fine for me since–unlike many other people in my cohort–I don’t have grad school or a job or anything lined up for right when I get back to the US, and I would have traded with someone who needed an earlier date had I drawn the second week anyway. The way I see it, we’re all technically going home early, so I can’t complain about being one of the last to leave.

The conference itself was held at a very nice hotel outside of UB, although it was so far outside of UB that it was in the middle of nowhere.

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Hotel

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

But the hotel was the nicest that we’ve stayed in for any of our PC conferences, probably because they pull out all the stops for the “survivors” who make it the full two years (about 70% of our cohort). The food was amazing: our first meal when we arrived was hot pot, which is surprisingly uncommon outside of major cities here considering hot pot apparently originated in Mongolia many, many centuries ago. Breakfast and lunch each day was a buffet, and we had 3-course dinners every night. And on a non-food-related note, the hotel even had a sauna, which we obviously took advantage of.

The conference consisted of sessions for reflecting on our PC journey,

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providing feedback about our PC service, looking to the future (e.g., networking, resume writing, job search resources for RPCVs), and learning about the logistics of COS itself (which is three days in the capital packed full of things like closing our Mongolian bank account, having our last medical appointments, turning in our Description of Service [the official record of what we did during PC], and meeting with the Country Director, our Regional Manager, and other admin people). We also had our final LPI to prove how much (or how little) our Mongolian improved ver two years.

On the last day, the US Ambassador to Mongolia came to have lunch with us, and in the afternoon our Country Director handed out certificates of completion to each of us.

I have no idea what I'm looking at...

I have no idea what I’m looking at…

Then we took a group photo, the last one with all of us together:

The Survivors, M25

The Survivors, M25

Our flight back to Uliastai was the next day, but after sitting at the airport for almost five hours because our flight kept getting delayed due to a snowstorm that was right over Zavkhan, the airline finally decided to cancel the flight and have us just come back the next morning. So we spent another night in UB, and even though the same storm came over the city that night, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Zavkhan, so we were able to fly back without any additional problems. Such is life in a place where no month of the year is immune to a random snowstorm messing up your schedule.

I now have a little less than three months left in Mongolia (I can officially leave the country any time after 6pm on August 3). I am excited to go back home, but there’s still a lot for me to do here in Mongolia: I need to finish up my practicum project for my Master’s International program so that I can graduate with my master’s degree in August; I need to write my DOS and update my resume to reflect the work I’ve done in PC; and I need to start focusing on job-hunting and my future career.

Peace Corps gives COSing Volunteers two options for returning home: you can either have Peace Corps purchase a plane ticket for you to send you straight back to your “home of record” (with no input from you regarding dates and airlines) or you can take a flat $1400 and arrange your own way home. I plan to travel some more after I COS, so I decided to take the money and run! Which leaves me with another thing to add to my pre-COS to-do list: planning another trip!

Peace Corps Master’s International Program

As those of you who know me personally may be aware, I’m going to be serving in the Peace Corps in conjunction with finishing up my master’s degree, through a Peace Corps program called Master’s International. This program basically combines Peace Corps service and graduate school. Here’s how it works:

  • Certain colleges/universities have partnered with the Peace Corps to offer the Master’s International (MI) program. A complete list of those schools and a search tool are available here. Some partner schools offer several different master’s degree programs through MI, while others only offer one. For example, I’m getting my master’s degree at Tulane University, which has the MI program at the School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine. But other universities may offer the MI Program through multiple schools/departments, like education, business, environmental studies, and/or agriculture. And obviously the degree program you enter will determine which volunteer sector you will work in for your Peace Corps service. So, as a public health student, I’ll be a Health Volunteer. Someone studying social work might be a Youth Development Volunteer. And so on for all the different programs and Peace Corps sectors.
  • You then have to apply separately to both the master’s degree program at whichever university and to the Peace Corps. The timing of when you would need to apply to one relative to the other depends on the master’s degree program. For example, I applied and was accepted to the MI program at Tulane the spring semester before I planned to start graduate school. And then that fall semester–when I actually began classes at Tulane–I began the application process for the Peace Corps. But some master’s degree programs might be shorter or longer than my Master of Public Health (MPH) program and have a different way of handling when their MI students apply to the Peace Corps.
  • As far as what the MI program entails during the actual coursework part of your master’s degree program, you’ll mainly just be focusing on your classes and whatever else is required for your degree. At Tulane, we had monthly seminars where Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) would talk about their experiences and give us MI students advice about what to expect (mostly that there’s really no point in expecting anything specific, because building up expectations about what your future Peace Corps service will be like will probably end in you being disappointed and frustrated when you finally do get to your post). Our MI group also had social events and community service events every semester, along with the ever-present support and guidance of our MI coordinators (who are RPCVs) and the comfort in knowing that many of your fellow students are going through the same long, sometimes irritating Peace Corps application process. And at least at my school, we got credit towards our degree by participating in the MI program (Tulane’s MPH degree generally requires 45 credit hours, but MI students who fulfill all the requirements of the MI program only have to take 42 credit hours of classes).
  • How your Peace Corps service will fit into your degree program also depends on how your school’s MI program works. I’m going to go ahead and assume that most master’s degree programs have some sort of big project/capstone where students apply what they’ve learned in their classes. For example, my MPH program requires students to complete a practicum–a 300-hour advanced field experience under the direction of a qualified, practicing professional in the public health field. So, while most MPH students at Tulane spend a semester completing their practicum in New Orleans or elsewhere, MI students like myself complete our practicum during our Peace Corps service. Which means that, in addition to the work I’ll be doing as my Peace Corps assignment, I’ll have to figure out some little side project to work on in my Mongolian community and submit quarterly reports to the MI coordinators back at Tulane.
  • The timing of your Peace Corps service relative to the rest of your degree requirements might be different as well. I have a feeling most MI programs have students complete all their coursework and any other requirements (except for that final project) before they leave for their Peace Corps service. But other MI programs might have their students go do their Peace Corps service in the middle of their degree program (take some classes, go off to the Peace Corps, come back and take more classes or finish up your thesis/final whatever).
  • Once you complete your degree program’s requirements and finish your Peace Corps service, you’ll have a master’s degree and be an RPCV!

Although I could have simply completed my master’s degree and then gone into the Peace Corps, I really feel like going the route of the MI program was a smart choice. By completing part of my degree requirements and my Peace Corps service simultaneously, I’ll be saving at least a little bit of time. But more importantly, I think having the network of RPCVs and fellow MI students right there with me made the application process easier and provided me with plenty of advice and exciting stories to get me pumped for my coming adventure!