I was heartbroken to wake up yesterday morning and learn that for the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps would totally suspend its operations and evacuate thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The past week has been one of the strangest and most fluid in recent memory. We had a national emergency, a roller coaster stock market, travel restrictions, and the World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic. We even got in a full moon, time change, and a Friday the 13th for good measure. But it wasn’t just strange in an abstract way; witnessing panic-buying behavior and empty store shelves, coupled with news of school closures and rippling nationwide event cancellations drove the potential catastrophic impact uncomfortably close to home for many.
During this past week, I was in the State Department’s Mexico area studies course put on by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). It was similar to the two week Russia/Eurasia course I did in 2014 while preparing for my assignment to Uzbekistan. Most area studies classes at FSI are regionally-focused, but the complexity, depth, and breadth of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship means Mexico has its own dedicated course, and it was both useful and fun. Narcotics, crime, migration, American Citizen Services emergencies, difficulties in determining citizenship, film, art, culture, indigenous issues, trade, mariachi bands, and tacos – what else do you want?
Last week I took my End of Training (EOT) test in Spanish. Although the testing experience was pretty much what I expected, I have to say that the outcome was not.
The last two weeks have been eventful, as I’ve juggled full-time Spanish study, illness, and lots of social events. With only a week left until my End of Training (EOT) test, it has certainly come down to the wire!
This past week of Spanish has been the most arduous for me yet. We have less than a month to go in our 24-week program, by which time we must earn a 3/3 on the End of Training test (EOT) – with the numbers indicating levels of speaking and reading, respectively – in order to go to our foreign assignments. Our instructors and learning consultants are hitting us with so many assignments and activities at once it has made my head spin. The workload and intensity have jumped dramatically in the fourth and final phase. But the instructors aren’t torturing us to be mean. They want us all to make that steep climb to success in the short time remaining. And for that, we have to be constantly reading, talking extemporaneously, and stuffing ourselves full of as much español as humanly possible.
The last five weeks of Spanish since I’ve returned from Ecuador have been characterized by three things: the holidays, getting sick, and the pressure of my formal pre-end of training evaluation.
Over this past holiday season, we have been lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a while, travel out of town, and enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. All of that has meant a lot, since our Christmas ornaments are at a port warehouse in Long Beach along with the rest of our worldly goods, and coming home to Virginia has felt at times more like a way station than anything else. Before our NYE celebrations planned for later tonight, I wanted to send some good end-of-decade vibes out into the world.
During week 13, we entered the second half of our 24-week Spanish program. Since we had changed classrooms, instructors, and classmates the week before, we were more or less still adapting to the new ecosystem. Another adaptation was the start of Phase 3; week 13 was the first week we had two topics to discuss (immigration and narcotrafficking) instead of doing the lessons in our online platform. That meant that we spent even more time debating, preparing structured presentations, and learning new ways to express opinions on these and ancillary issues.
Three important things happened during the past two weeks of Spanish. One, I passed my second progress evaluation. Two, we hit the midpoint of our 24-week program. And three, the Spanish Department shuffled students and instructors to create new classes. The latter two things were painless and turned out great. The first, well, that’s a different story. Buckle up, things are going to get uncomfortable.
Earlier this month, V and I went back to West Virginia for the long Veterans Day weekend, but this time to Harpers Ferry and the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The town is probably best known for John Brown’s 1859 abolitionist raid on the Federal Armory, which ultimately was put down by U.S. Marines. John Brown had been hoping to incite a large-scale armed slave insurrection, but instead the government executed him and the members of his band who survived the fighting for treason – two years before the American Civil War began and only a handful of years before emancipation became the law of the land anyway.
During the past two weeks as we have worked our way towards the end of phase 2, the course has shifted slightly in content and structure, foreshadowing expectations for phases 3 and 4. Since we are getting closer to the halfway point of the 24-week program, we are supposed to complete our “building the base” activities so we can move into professionalization and consolidation of what we have learned. As my second speaking and reading progress assessment looms first thing on Monday morning, this post is a short update before I buckle down and disappear into my preparation for the next 72 hours.
During the past few weeks, the amount of coursework and difficulty of my Spanish class has started to accelerate. Our tasks have become more complex, at least for me. I have found myself more frustrated that my performance in class activities does not seem commensurate with the amount of effort and study I put in. I also feel mentally tired, experience procrastination and brain freezes, and need more alone time to recover. Of course, I am not bad at everything, and I have good days and bad days. I guess it is typical at this point to think you suck when you’re actually doing OK. The whole two steps forward, one step back thing.
I don’t recall feeling as “on” all the time during my FSI Russian class (2014-2015). It wasn’t easier, but our activities felt less intensive. The expectations were also definitely lower. However, I have also been heartened by a couple of special opportunities to help my learning – an invitation to a side course in consular Spanish, and a possibility to travel to South America on an immersion language trip.
Last weekend was a three-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday, and it was also my birthday. Long weekends for me usually mean a chance to bug out of town, especially when I can’t take any time off. So now that our car has been repaired and I trust it more than 15 miles in any direction, we decided to spend the weekend in Berkeley Springs. Berkeley Springs is a little town in West Virginia about two hours from DC, and it was a great break from the city and our daily grind.
During our time there, we went to the Apple Butter Festival, hiked in the forest, visited an 1830s-era canal tunnel, and tried out the local food scene as I marked the beginning of a new year.
If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.