Monday, September 21, 2009

83: COS (Part II: The Sessions)

COS session

For some it might seem a little strange that we are having our Close of Service conference so early, when we still have three months left to go in our service. The COS conference is more than just a Close of Service conference (it was explained to us) but also a Continuation of Service conference. It is a time to not only talk about the details associated with leaving the country, but al the details associated with finishing up our work in in country and preparing to meet Peace Corps third goal (...to strengthen Americans' understanding about the world and its peoples") when we return to America.

Cale and I spent the night at Erik's place, so we wouldn't have to wake up so early to get to the Peace Corps office by 8am (which was when I had in my mind for the beginning of the conference). That night Cale, Erik, Max and I went to see
District 9. It is a pretty good movie and I recommend it. It gets a little melodramatic at the end, but still something new.

Thursday morning comes and Cale and I stop at McDonald's for breakfast. Our agenda for the conference claims breakfast from 8:30 am to 9:00 am, but we would rather take the opportunity to have an egg McMuffin. We are lucky we did, when we arrive at the Peace Corps office we discover breakfast had been cancelled, though we had not been informed. Some people had not eaten yet and Lissa ran next door for some oranges and masi popo (coconut biscuits) because she is that sort of super nice person.

We thought we would start in the conference room, but that area is currently occupied by the new language trainers the office is getting ready for the new group who arrives Oct. 7. Until last year, the office kept four language trainers on staff, full-time, year-round. However, with budgetary cutbacks and the switch from one intake group a year instead of two, three of the trainers had to be let go. The hope was that they could return part time each year for the new groups, but I am sure the office knew that it wasn't going to be possible for everyone. Unfortunately, none of the old trainers could return, so the office is training a new group.

The sessions were supposed to start at 9am, but since everyone was already there and breakfast was cancelled, we started at 8:30am. Fata (our APCD) did a little welcoming speech and then we moved into Fono's (Safety and Security Officer) presentation, where he asked us to provide feedback on how to improve things for the next group. Teuila (Medical Officer) was next. She covered our close of service medical requirements, which includes a mandatory HIV test, and our options for Corps Care (health insurance) that is available to us short-term upon our return to the states. She also reminded us to fill her in on any issues so they can be recorded and so she can give us referral sheets if necessary. Our final session in the office was from Sena (interim Administrative Officer). Sena is from our country desk in DC. She is filling in as AO until the new AO can arrive in about four weeks. You may remember me mentioning that our former AO, Ana retired. Sena talked to us about money. Cale and I are going to try to meet with her later to figure out the best way to get our 2/3 check in a reasonable amount of time. We learned it was supposed to take a max of 60 days (even that is sort of outside our time frame for our trip), but we know RPCV who have taken even longer (five months or more).

Next we all piled into vehicles and headed to Coconuts. We got there early and our rooms weren't ready yet. So we had lunch and waited for the rooms.

Our first session at the resort was "Reviewing Your Peace Corps Experiences." We all wrote down our accomplishments and lessons learned on newsprint and talked about them. When you join the Peace Corps, you must be prepared to do a lot of writing on newsprint. Next came "Future Opportunities (Resume Writing, Networking & Interviews Techniques, Graduate School)." This session was more broad overviews and hand outs of useful web sites and job search engines. RPCV have access to a lot of fee-based sites for free and that is really nice. The main point appeared to be, it is not what you know, but who you know.

On Friday we had a session on "Providing Feedback to Post," which was mainly what to change for the new groups. Mainly we were against the constant playing of icebreaker games in training. We also talked a lot about emphasizing professionalism from the beginning with training. Many of us felt that PST starts a cycle of volunteer dependency by treating it like summer camp and the trainees like children. Even after PST ends, many volunteers continue to look at their service as an extended vacation and to the office as surrogate parents. We encouraged putting the smack down on that from the beginning. We also talked about increasing the accountability of the host country agencies for which we work. We all seem to agree that we were seen as free labor and nothing more, which agencies not committing much to the development process.

Our next session was on writing our DOS (description of service). This document is the only official record of all our work in the Peace Corps. It must be less than four pages, written entirely in the third-person and use lots of action words and concrete number. You need your DOS to get the non-competitive benefit of government jobs later or to apply for Peace Corps fellowships with grad schools. Some jobs specifically hiring RPCVs might ask to see it as well. It is a good idea to keep meticulous notes, journal or blog through out your service so you have something to look back on when writing this document.

After lunch we had "Readjusting to Life in the USA," where I was surprised to discover some of our group are very nervous about going home. I don't know why, the it hasn't really been worrying me. I know that I will be poor as hell (or broke as a joke, both my and Cale's answers to the fill in the blank question "In regards to money, when I return to America I will be .......), but we have friends and family and we will get jobs before we try to go back to school in August.

In the evening on Friday I also sat my end of service LPI (language proficiency interview). Seeing as how I don't speak a lick of Samoan anymore, it didn't go very well. The interviewer started asking me questions that I could not even begin to comprehend and eventually resorting to prompting me to recite the days of the week and asking me what color things were (I could say red, mumu, but I could not do black). Finally, we both agreed he was able to assess my complete lack of language skills. You may remember the first time I took an LPI, at the end of training, I failed. However, not because my language skills were so poor, but because of this.

According to the agenda there was supposed to be a Group 79 slideshow at dinner that night, but no one in the Group or on staff had any idea what that was about.

Saturday morning we talked about survival techniques to pass on to the new groups, which eventually went into a long conversation about living situations. The general consensus seems to be that volunteers need to be placed with a family to help facilitate integration into the community. However, the volunteer should not live inside the family home, but instead in their own fale on the family compound to help facilitate volunteer sanity. We also talked a lot about how hosting a volunteer can be a big burden on a family. For volunteers who live in Women's Committee fales or on school compounds, entire villages take turns caring for them. However, when you are living with a specific family, no one else in the village feels the need to pitch in and help. It is a stress on the family and extremely costly for the volunteer, who does not want to burden the family. So we recommended this should be addressed as well.

Finally we talked about what we could or planned to do upon returning to the states to meet the third goal and what are all the things we still have to complete in country before we can leave.

That in a nutshell, a large nutshell, were our conference sessions. More on accommodations and having fun to come later.

— Sara

PS.
The Way Back Machine

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