Notoriously known as one, of the many, challenges one will face during service is PST. The duration of this training will depend on country of service, for Colombia it is about 3 months. It is to be noted, that my Community Economic Development program is a pilot, meaning we are the first volunteers to experience every aspect of this service. PST is a stressful time as regulations, project descriptions, relationships, and expectations are established. My weekly routine consisted of Monday, Wednesday and Friday language and cultural classes. Tuesday and Thursday were reserved for the technical component such as familiarizing ourselves with the frame work and getting to know the national partner. In Colombia, it is a requirement for volunteers to live with host families due to various security and social factors. This is the short version of PST, for a more detailed and actual account of events keep scrolling.
First off, I want to express my gratitude for the staff of Peace Corps Colombia, I can not imagine what a difficult task it must be to orchestrate such a project. That being said part of the reason I even felt compelled to write a post about PST is that in virtually every blog I come across has a picture perfect host family story where things worked out smashingly and everyone celebrated the new gringo in town! It isn’t to say that many volunteers, if not most, get matched with families who help them assimilate into the community and leave a positive memorable impression. I just felt a social responsibility to be part of the other percent of volunteers who didn’t have the best experience yet stayed strong and pulled through a challenging situation in order to put service first.
To start off, when you first arrive to a country of service you are tested for language ability. They will usually have a mandatory level all trainees much reach if they wish to swear into service. As a native Spanish speaker, I placed 2 levels above the requirement for my program. One of the largest frustrations between staff and higher level Spanish trainees was the amount of time we had to dedicate to learn a language we already spoke with instructors called, Language Culture Training Facilitators (LCTF). Where as lower and mid level speakers were eager to learn and practice 3 times a week, higher level speakers became resentful and irritated with the amount of time we had to invest into this part of training being as we already fluently spoke the language. There was a growing disconnect between us and the LCTF as our PST concluded. This was one level of frustration I felt during the beginning of my service.
I was placed in a small town, about 45 minutes away from the major city of Barranquilla, called Palmar de Varela. Now, I first was dropped off at my host family house and things were going well. I was definitely in one of the more modest homes in my site with no windows and mice around, but nothing I was managing. I had an amazing site mates who I would often spend most of my days with. I had a host little brother who I grew very close too as I spoke much better than any of the other volunteers he had met, I had always wanted a little brother so I was fairly happy. About a month into service there was a security risk at my original house placement so administration decided to move me. This caused tensions with my current host mother as she would cry to me daily not to move, and asked for additional money to compensate for me leaving early. Another obstacle was the pueblo chisme, or gossip, that occurred about why the American had to move houses. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for putting any family through that, and was a huge toll on my emotional state just a month into PST.
The new home was far on the other side of town, which locals were surprised to hear since it was not the best part of town. I roomed with my new host mother and her youngest daughter who was gone most of the day studying or working. Her eldest daughter lived right next door with her husband and daughter. Because of this sudden change of houses, my second host family did not have a lock on my room door so I could lock it when I left my house. In addition, I never received keys to the entrance of the home so I was often locked out. Keep in mind, I could have gone to administration at any point to complain, but so much attention was already on me as a member of the community for moving houses so mysteriously I really just wanted to finish my PST in peace. This family would go into my room daily to “clean” and often help themselves to my clothes, make up, lotions and other personal items. It was a very stressful time that I kept to myself and was just trying to make it through.
I was reprimanded at some point by administration for being resistant to language classes and for having a much different demeanour than when I arrived. Moral of my PST service is that I learned it is a PC volunteer responsibility to put everyone in the community and the program before my own personal needs. Obviously, if something was of PHYSICAL harm to me the administration would’ve acted immediately. That being said, I do feel there was less sympathy for me because I am a proudly Colombian-American woman, and the adjustment shouldn’t have been as hard for me as some of my other mid-western counter parts. PST can be a very different experience for each volunteer, but thats part of the cliche sung out to you every day “each volunteers experience is unique”. If you are finding yourself in a similar PST experience, just hang tight do not let these seemingly long 3 months define the rest of your 24 month service.