Molly O'Brien posted an articleAn RPCV reflects on the holiday season and her Peace Corps service. see more
An RPCV reflects on the holidays she spent overseas and how those shared moments nurtured a sense of belonging with her, her host families, and fellow Peace Corps friends.
By Molly O'Brien (Jordan 2014–15, Thailand 2016–18)
The holiday season always reminds me of my Peace Corps service. Within a month of arriving in my first country of service, Jordan, we were celebrating Thanksgiving. It was my first time away from my family for a major holiday. Although I felt a little homesick, the experience nurtured a sense of belonging with my new Peace Corps family.
Then, next thing I knew I was a newly sworn-in Volunteer a few weeks later, arriving at my site two days before New Year’s. Even though I couldn’t share the day with my PCV family, I was introduced to a new community and family. My new neighbor and boss made sure to stock my fridge and sneak me some mead to celebrate the occasion. How crazy is it that someone you’ve just met will make sure you’re taken care of, fed, and made to feel genuinely welcome in your new home? That’s Peace Corps for you.
Due to an unexpected evacuation from Jordan, I commenced my second Peace Corps service almost nine months later in Thailand. While there, I worked with the community on youth development projects. During my second year, my program manager, who I bonded with over a shared love of cats, came to my site to visit. I was excited to welcome her into my house (which my host family built for me) as well as introduce her to our many cats (at one point we had 12) and best of all, my family. It still brings a smile to my face to think of my host mom telling her that she had four children: her daughter, son, me, and her other son. She added me to the age order of her children. For me, the holidays are about family, and my Peace Corps service was also about family.
Perhaps some of my favorite Peace Corps memories are sharing holiday traditions with my students. I was always able to celebrate Thai holidays with my community, so I wanted to share part of my culture with them. For Thanksgiving, I resurrected an activity from my childhood — we made “turkey hands” and shared what we were thankful for. During moments like that, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for my students, the teachers I worked alongside, and the community that had embraced me. At Christmas time, we made paper snowflakes and bead candy canes while writing letters to Santa and watching the Polar Express to get into the holiday spirit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible Volunteer family I made while in service. Spending the holidays with my fellow Peace Corps friends was so special and fun. One year, we celebrated Friendsgiving and had the challenge of trying to find holiday ingredients that were similar to what we had at home. Our shared meal included a few dishes that ended up with a Thai spin on them. The following year, our Close of Service (COS) conference kicked off with a Thanksgiving meal at the U.S. Embassy, followed by several days together at the beach. We found ways to spend the holidays together around trainings and conferences. From ramen to hot pot to pizza dinners, we celebrated by being together. And if you have never been to Bangkok in December, I highly recommend it. The entire city is decked out in Christmas lights, reindeer sleighs, and my personal favorite, Christmas Cats — something that can’t be missed.
I experienced a lot of highs and lows during my service. From a heartbreaking evacuation in Jordan and a few hospital stays in Thailand to connecting with an amazing family, my special students, and fellow PCVs, my time in the Peace Corps was never dull. And whenever the holiday season comes around, I find myself reminiscing about my favorite times of the year and what Peace Corps has meant and still means to me.
Steven Saum posted an articleAn extended conversation with evacuated Volunteer Sierra Drummond see more
A Constricted Heart
“I left behind my Thai family and community and my work. That’s everything.”
Thailand | Sierra Drummond
Home: Thousand Oaks, California
I was in Peace Corps Thailand, in the northeast region, sort of on the border of Laos. I had been there 14 months and was a part of a project called TESS — Teacher Empowerment for Students Success — as an English teacher alongside a Thai teacher. It was a mutually empowering teacher training experience.
I came back to California for a visit primarily for my cousin’s wedding — and my brother just had a baby! So to see everyone. It was supposed to be temporary.
I found out about the evacuation through the cohort Facebook group message. I had some anxieties about this happening. But Thailand has such a strong healthcare infrastructure that our Peace Corps country director really believed that Thailand wouldn’t evacuate. It made sense that Mongolia had evacuated, and other countries. I was worried that I wouldn't get back in time to say goodbye if the evacuation was put in place. When it was announced, I was angry with myself — that I had been irresponsible and coming back when I did.
What I left behind
I think I left behind my current life. Right now it sort of feels like I'm trespassing on an old one.
The last three months I was there I was the most motivated, and I felt like I was doing my best work — everything was falling into place. My co-teachers and I had found the right way to collaborate, and my students were progressing so much more quickly.
I also think Thailand is the most generous culture I’ve ever known. All the people who took care of me — that extended beyond a typical host family, beyond my co-teachers. It was like every community member and every teacher at my school treated me like a daughter. They all called me daughter. Some asked me to call them “mom” and “grandma.”
And so I left behind my Thai family and Thai community and my work. That’s everything.
Teacher and students. Photo courtesy Sierra Drummond
My unfinished business
I had three co-teachers — two women and one man, ranging in age from 30 to 43. I worked with grades first through ninth. My class sizes were usually somewhere from 30 to 40 students.
I was transitioning into a role where my co-teachers were taking more of a leadership role within the class and I was taking more of an assisting role. In a more nuanced way, I really started to understand the differences between all the different grade levels and how to differentiate our teaching for each one. We were at a real moment of transition.
Right before I left I had just helped train the new cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers. That experience, like being a resource Volunteer for their training, gave me a new level of confidence. I also came to understand that there’s no single right way to be a volunteer. You learn a lot from the host country nationals you work alongside. That’s the best and the most unique part about Peace Corps. It’s sustainable because it's mutually empowering.
I’ve been in touch with teachers back there a little bit. It’s been tricky. They’re in the midst of submitting final grades. One thing that’s been hard: When I say that I’ll be back as soon as I can, to make it feel real. This is all so unprecedented, and so much is unknown.
Yet I do think this abrupt end for everyone has really highlighted how valuable this work is. There’s nowhere else that feels right.
How did I get here?
I actually wanted to do the Peace Corps for most of my life. It was something my grandmother really wanted to do. She was a big admirer of Kennedy. And I’ve always wanted to participate in international, cross-cultural work. My parents and family are all musicians; they have always appreciated international music and worked internationally.
I worked in educational nonprofits, and at University of Southern California I studied NGOs and social change — a new major. So it was a natural step from that to work internationally.
Words to express
There was something new about every day in Peace Corps, which is wonderful. You never stopped learning — especially about yourself. I told a lot of people that I almost like my personality more when I speak Thai because I’m so intentional with my words. I love the Thai language; one of the most surprising parts was falling in love with the language. It’s such a poetic and visual language. The way they talk about feelings is in, for example, physical constraints of the heart. The feeling of not wanting to be a burden to someone — they say greng jai, which means “constricted heart.”
To me that describes a lot of my kind of personality at times — because they're such caring people. I wish I could thank my community more. I feel such gratitude towards the people of Thailand.
Welcome ceremony. Photo courtesy Sierra Drummond
Always a need
For everything it has given me personally, of course I want the continuation of Peace Corps. I think that Peace Corps is flawed—take budget constraints and staffing concerns. But it actively tries to make projects sustainable — and again, mutually empowering.
Global communities are so important. Peace Corps provides an outlet for creating a global community, and I think there will always be a need for that. The northeast region of Thailand is the least visited area of the country. It seemed to mean a lot to people that I was there.
I felt anger and sadness when I heard that they were pulling out 7,300 volunteers — out of employment and their healthcare, and sometimes out of communities that are, health-wise, safer than America. Thailand has far fewer cases, and has contained it far better than America has. Yet I understand staff being unable to provide adequate health care if people were to contract the virus. I understand why — and why it shouldn't have been — at the same time.
A lot of members of my Peace Corps cohort have been looking into the Facebook support group, especially for employment opportunities and clarification on Peace Corps reimbursements. I know they are providing that to people who can’t go to their home of residence because there are people over 60, for example. I talked to a lot of people and reached out; that group is a great resource.
Probably the biggest surprise about all this is how supportive the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer network is — just amazing. People everywhere in the world, with shared values and experiences.
Sierra Drummond began serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Udon Thani, Thailand, in early 2019.
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National Peace Corps Association Operations posted an articleBringing the Private Sector and the Peace Corps Community Together see more
NPCA, in partnership with Northeastern University's Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL), has created new opportunities for returned Peace Corps volunteers, while bringing private sector expertise to strengthen the capacity of local humanitarian development organizations in Thailand and other countries. The partnership matches RPCVs with skills-based corporate volunteers from Cigna, a global health service company, to deliver technical assistance to local NGOs, while also enhancing the cultural agility of the corporate volunteers.
For the past three years, Cigna has sent its rising leaders to Indonesia and Thailand through CALL to learn from and understand more on the health care needs of the Indonesian and Thai people. Cigna and CALL interact with health care at many levels including the villages, government, and private hospitals, as well as healthcare NGOs throughout the country. This year, the ITLP program worked in Chiang Mai with various NGOs under the umbrella of the Raks Thai Foundation, focusing on health populations including HIV/AIDS, drug-user groups, refugee and migratory groups, and youth development groups.
Joel Saldana (RPCV Thailand 2012-2014), a second year RPCV participant in the program, shared his thoughts. "It's been a great opportunity to work with Americans from the corporate world who are trying to learn about Thai people. It's most fulfilling to have the 'aha' moments when you have that meaningful exchange through food, smiles, or a simple greeting," Joel is one of three RPCVs who accompanied nine Cigna skills-based volunteers on their short-term assignments in Thailand. RPCVs serve as cultural coaches and also provide technical guidance and support to the work undertaken.
Joel observed that "Cigna is putting their money where their commitments are—in developing a workforce that is ready to take on global challenges, is culturally agile, and is attempting to understand a little part of the world." Cigna participants work with their assigned NGOs to help scale their success in program management, operations, or project solutions. In a very short time frame, they learn how to work with Thai people, understand the organizations needs, and assist with their challenges.
NPCA envisions expanding the program to eventually field over 100 corporate volunteers in multiple countries, particularly linking them to NGOs where PCVs or RPCVs are involved. Forthcoming projects will field RPCVs and corporate volunteers from Johnson & Johnson on short-term assignments in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala.
For more information, please contact our International Programs division: CALLCoordinator@PeaceCorpsConnect.org.
Amanda Silva posted an articleIn June 2016, NPCA in partnership with CALL and Cigna, embarked on an adventure to Thailand! see more
The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is a proud partner of Northeastern University's Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL). NPCA continually seeks out opportunities to increase the impact of the Peace Corps community; with CALL, our organization pulls from the invaluable cultural knowledge and expertise of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) to support projects abroad.
In June 2016, NPCA, CALL and our private sector partner, Cigna, created a team to address the needs of three nongovernmental organizations in Bangkok, Thailand. Twelve Cigna corporate volunteers provided pro bono IT support, while experiencing a crash course in cultural agility led by three RPCVs and Northeastern's Dr. Paula Caliguiri.
Cigna representatives partnered with cultural coaches and Thailand RPCVs Jessica Martin, Joel Saldana Jr. and NPCA’s own J.M. Ascienzo.
With the guidance of RPCV cultural coaches, accomplishments of the Bangkok program include:
Baan Nokkamin Foundation
Cigna volunteers laid the groundwork for website design and strategy for the Baan Nokkamin Foundation, an organization that provides housing and opportunities for over 350 orphans. Cigna volunteers learned about Baan Nokkamin’s holistic approach to providing residents the skills they need to excel, and partnered on the project with Baan Nokkamin staff who first came to the foundation as young children in need.
Employees from Cigna supported the NGO, Childline Thailand, which cares for the country's most vulnerable and abused children, often the victims of child prostitution. Childline Thailand’s hub is a safe place near Bangkok’s Hua Lomphong train station for street children to receive a warm meal, extra schooling, or access to health and legal services. Cigna volunteers worked with staff from Thailand and Russia to design a website called Ya Tee Dek, which translates to “Don’t Hit Children.” The Ya Tee Dek campaign is an anti-corporal punishment resource for students, teachers and community members.
Brighter Thailand Foundation
Representatives of the Brighter Thailand Foundation traveled from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan Region to work with Cigna volunteers on improving its database and finance platforms. In partnership with the University of Missouri, the Brighter Thailand Foundation provides Thai youth with the opportunity to learn and strengthen leadership skills at week-long camps, often in coordination with currently-serving Peace Corps Volunteers.
Throughout the week Cigna employees joined their NGOs away from the office to learn about Thai culture and the challenges local NGOs face. Since returning stateside the Cigna volunteers continue to collaborate with their respective NGOs, and the partnerships will last through December. The Bangkok trip followed last year’s inaugural CALL program in Indonesia.
To support NPCA partnerships that leave a sustainable impact on NGOs abroad, visit peacecorpsconnect.org/missionpartner today!