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Ross Szabo

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Adjusting to My Job as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Posted: 06/ 3/11 09:55 AM ET

The best way to sum up adjusting to my job in the first two months as a Peace Corps volunteer is with a sports analogy. It was like sitting at the end of the bench in my senior year on the high school basketball team, waiting to get in the game, while constantly wondering if the coach knew I had any talent. The most important component in that situation was proving to my coach I could handle playing. Unfortunately for me, the only thing I proved myself worthy of was getting quick fouls at the end of a game.

Every new job has a somewhat awkward time period where coworkers and supervisors try to feel out what the newbie will be able to do. Beginning a job in the Peace Corps throws a lot of intangibles into that already uncomfortable timeframe.

Volunteers in the Peace Corps are given a primary site where they will work for 2 years and are matched with a counterpart to work with. Secondary jobs in the community are highly encouraged, but everyone has a primary assignment.

In Botswana the jobs are at NGO's, schools, clinics and district AIDS offices. Peace Corps in-country staff tries to match people with jobs that they have experience with or interest in. That is not an easy task. Volunteers aren't quite sure of the formula used, but everyone tries to make the best of where they are placed.

I was placed at one of the largest centers for people with disabilities in Botswana. When I came to my new job I really didn't know what to expect. I was a foreigner coming to a place that some of my new co-workers had worked at for 15-20 years. I had a lot of questions swirling through my mind.

To say the adjustment was slow is an understatement. My job in the states was really fast paced. I was always on the road and when I wasn't I worked from home. It was a bit strange that my first "desk" job came at age 32 in Africa.

I spent the first couple of weeks sitting at a large picnic table reading information about the organization and past studies they had done. I watched physical therapists conduct sessions with people of all ages. I sat in on meetings to learn more about the daily responsibilities of all of the staff. I spent my lunches trying to get to know my co-workers.

Peace Corps asks all volunteers to interview staff members, which helps a lot. Yet, my mind raced constantly with frustration and feelings that I needed to be actively doing something. I didn't come all the way to Africa to sit at a picnic table. Each moment of dissatisfaction seemed to lag on for hours, but the days went by surprisingly fast.

Eventually I got the opportunity to do some work. Just like the infrequent times when my old high school coach would utter my last name, I popped up ready to do whatever was asked of me.

The first task I did was help the cooks at the center build excel sheets to track how much food and other necessities they were using daily. It was the most exciting and thrilling experience I will ever have with excel sheets. I taught all 3 of the cooks the basics, how to label pages, shortcuts for copying information and the best ways to input their data. After a couple of weeks these wonderful people who previously had no experience with a computer were proudly showing me what they could do. My new friends told other people in the center what I could do and the tasks grew from there.

Another breakthrough moment came when the center asked me to present to staff members about the Peace Corps. I asked my wife to present with me. We decided it would be best for everyone to learn more about goals of the Peace Corps, what we went through to qualify, why we decided to join and what we hoped to do.

We gave the highlights of JFK's vision. We discussed the medical clearance and how hard it can be to leave family behind. We shared one of our favorite quotes by Lila Watson, "If you've come to help me then you have failed, but if you've come because your liberation is bound to mine, then let us work together."

After the presentation my coworkers better understood my reasons for being here and related to me more. The combination of showing what I could do and talking about why I was there led to relationships being built. That process eventually led to a significant increase in my workload!

I came to Botswana with a lot of nervous expectations that included some large hopes of having an immediate impact. However, I couldn't expect people who had been doing their jobs just fine to drop everything and be excited because the American arrived. The reality is that in most jobs there's a learning process for everyone. Taking the time to discover the systems in place and proving what you can do has its ups and downs. After that initial phase is over, it's time to get to work.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps I am blogging about what a volunteer goes through from the time they decide to join until they leave.