What do you do as youth and community development specialist for the United States Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps is an independent agency of the US government, which could be described as a cross between foreign service, diplomacy, development work, and cultural exchange. It has been around since the 1960s. My job here in Thailand is to live and work in rural communities, especially with the youth, to help and foster development. In developing countries, we see a lot of aid going to main cities. Not much goes into the rural areas. We focus on programmes such as life skills, peace-building, healthy living, occupational trainings, HIV and AIDs education, sexual health, reproduction, gender equality…
What determines whether or not you carry out a programme?
I go with programmes that I can get buy-in from my community first. The goals and the indicators for PC Thailand’s youth in development framework are pretty broad. That's a good thing, because it allows me to see the temperature in my village, what already exists, what does not and assess what my Thai national counterparts are most passionate about. Besides that, there are three goals of Peace Corps. The first one is development based and the other two are culture and exchange based. I do a lot of knowledge exchange based around culture in America (and other countries as well) and then share Thailand's culture respectively.
Why did you decide to join Peace Corps?
I heard about Peace Corps when I was 13. I had grown up in a religious background so the majority of what I was hearing about development aid was religious based. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer came to speak at my school that year. He spoke about a far-off country, where he lived in a hut among villagers, just to help, with no agenda other than to have a human connection and be someone who stands for those who don't have many other support avenues. When I heard about that, I thought, "I want to do that." I had it in my mind since I was young, went through high school, university and afterwards it was almost the next step.
Did you choose to move to Thailand or did Peace Corps decide where to send you?
Up until last year, applicants could not choose where they were placed. The Peace Corps just changed that stipulation which resulted in a huge applicant surge. I applied before this shift, so I did not choose Thailand - I just got lucky.
How did Peace Corps determine where to send you?
Peace Corps have quite a process for that. They have recruiters and they have placement officers. Under the old way of application, it was a very long process. It took me about a year and a half for the entire application to nomination to placement. They really go in with a fine-tooth comb, see what you're about, what your skills are, where you thrive, and then they match you with what the country has programme openings for.
What would you advise to someone who'd like to join?
Peace Corps will take into consideration what you want to do so it’s important you take a stand for that and present your background skills. Now that you can choose to which country you’d like to go, there's more onus on you to really connect with that place and to dive deep into technical aspects of the chosen programme. Because personal choice is involved, I think there will be a better retention rate for service completion. Many applicants still choose an open selection, then find themselves falling in love with countries they would never have picked. There's something to be said for taking that leap.
You've been in Thailand now for the two years. What are you planning to do next?
Right now, I am a volunteer. I am not in a paid position. In Peace Corps, you help countries toward development as a service. It is a 27-month commitment: three months of training and then two years in the village. Afterwards, you can choose to extend by one year or you can choose to just complete your service. Then, you may reapply for another tour if that’s what you want your career path to be. You can also apply to work for headquarters in America or at a country post. Each country has a hub in the big city where they support volunteers.
If you're not paid, how do you support yourself?
The Thai Government hosts our agency to operate here. In order to open a post in country, Peace Corps must be welcomed by the Government. TICA, the Thai International Cooperation Agency, supports our village housing stipend and the Peace Corps is in charge of our living expenses. We live here in the rural villages on a bit more than 200 US dollars per month.
How have you been finding working out of Thailand?
It was confusing to me, at first. Similar to any international development position, the number one awareness is to go in, not with the idea to change or to have your own agenda, but to just see what is needed, what stakeholders can be connected and what the capacity may be for an untapped idea. The culture here in rural Thailand is very unique. Hierarchy is probably what I expected least in terms of everyday operations. In order to get a project done, there are many different steps that I have to go through in an indirect way, considering relationship always over productivity.
Initiative and sure-fire Western ideas that I had about maybe getting things going do not work here. Thailand is a very high context culture, as opposed to the low context one that I'm used to operating in. It's definitely a different working style. I'm very interested in the sociology side of people so that's been a huge treat to be able to see how things connect behind the scenes.
How are you finding being away from home for so long?
I'm the only foreigner within 50 miles; I'm completely on my own in this village. Peace Corps did a great job during training preparing us for this reality. I speak Thai. As far as integration goes, Peace Corps is phenomenal with what they know we need to do to be able to integrate. Most of our training staff in-country are Thai nationals. At the same time, levels of relationship I find differ within another language. Even though I can speak Thai at a high level, there is still this kind of ceiling that I hit as far as deepening relationships outside of work. Inside of work, I feel prepared and successful with communication though sometimes still miss cultural cues and meanings behind things.
I lived with a host family for seven months - this was an invaluable way to deepen my understanding of Thai rural life and simultaneously gave me a life-long second family.
Was the training in the US or in Thailand?
In Thailand. We arrived as an incoming group, the 126th in the 52 years of Peace Corps Thailand. There are about 50 people in my group, and we’re with our Thai training teams for three months intensive before we go off on our own.
What kind of things did you study in training, aside from the language?
We did a lot of cultural training - learning the history of Thailand, learning the traditional Thai culture. In the cities of Thailand, Bangkok and places tourists are used to visiting like Chiang Mai, and Phuket, it's very Westernised. In training, we learn how to use a squat toilet, learn how to hand wash our laundry and the appropriate way to hang it. We study about Thai holidays, dances, religion and structure. The Thai culture is very structured, but also relationship-based. If you break-face in a relationship here, it's very hard to recover. We were provided with the whole framework of what Thai culture is so we could integrate better.
You are a huge yoga fan and recently became an international ambassador for Yogamour.
Yogamour is a non-profit organisation that started in the state of Maryland on the east coast. They work with causes in the States and internationally as well. In yoga we call it seva, or ‘selfless service’. Yogamour offers health clinics in vision care and dental care predominantly, because those are the services that aren't necessarily offered in the free health care systems that exist in Thailand- these are held in India as well. My job coming in, besides teaching yoga and getting to assist the tour side, was to provide a framework and programme for the volunteers making the work sustainable and measurable.
Before the Peace Corps, you worked for lululemon athletica. Which kind of skills you learnt working at lululemon that you apply maybe nowadays?
So many! I loved the autonomy that the company gives. Besides the business side and the retail part of the job, I learnt a great deal about leadership from working there. This is perhaps what I use most in areas of my life now. Personal growth and self/team development were almost demanded as a job description. I was part of a team that would offer yoga and goal coaching sessions to corporations and others within our own company.
This has been a basis to remember to live my life in setting goals and to keep striving. For instance working here with the Thai youth, I teach exercises that are geared toward personal growth and self-development under our healthy living indicators. We do goal setting, we do meditation practices, and we work on ways to manage emotions and expand communication. Those are all things I was able to develop, really intensely, through lululemon’s company resources. They gift all employees the opportunity to go to an education-based training called Landmark education, which is all about creating possibility and a life you love.
Prior to lululemon, you worked for the Connecticut General Assemblyfor a while as an intern. What did you do there?
My love for politics and government is strong and that's where I see my career going. To start off there was intentional. I was an intern for the House Democrats Office and worked specifically with a representative. I learned immense amounts from my time there, a lot that was good and a lot not as good. I do still have a love for democracy, the process and the traditions of ways to get policy passed. Working in international development, working in business retail and working in state government is a triangle that has given me separate but connected views on life.
I believe in knowing the different sides of things and being able to draw from each. What I learned from the internship was that relationships are a very important way to get things done, and not always by letter of the law. That was one of the main learnings I had and I certainly use that here in Thailand.
Which kind of job are you looking for after your Peace Corps time?
I applied last year for the Rotary Peace Fellowship. There are six centres in the world hosted within universities. Each university selects ten fellows per year. Rotary International provides tuition for a Master's programme in peace-building and conflict resolution. I was chosen as an alternate for this selection cycle so if someone drops out, I get to go. If that happens, I would attend Uppsala University in Sweden beginning August 2016.
Peace is ingrained in my body makeup. Peacebuilding and conflict resolution is the way that I'll enter the political world. Right now, the lack of gender equality within the peace and mediation movement is staggering. I’d like to focus my immediate career toward rectifying that.
How does the application process for the Rotary Peace Fellowship work?
It's a very intricate process. The application first goes through Rotary International. You fill out your application, first. Then you need to find a local club to sponsor you. I contacted a Rotary district club in Bangkok, which I'm about three hours from by a rickety van.
The local club screens the application and calls you in for an interview. I was interviewed by a man from Scotland, a woman from Japan and an elderly Thai man. Culturally those could not be more different. It ended up being the best interview and the best advice I've ever received in an interview. After the interview, they agree or not to sponsor your application for global submission.
Next, they help you get all of your documents in order. The Rotary club sends the completed application package to America. Everyone from around the world sends their application to one central hub. Each Peace Center sends a representative to America and they rifle through these applications. The university and the Rotary selection committee choose simultaneously.
What did you study for your undergrad?
I double majored in politics and government and sociology. My initial study was international business and then I realised I wasn't as in love with maths as I was with other things.
I began at a state university in California, Cal State Fullerton, and then I went to a community college called Cypress College because I wanted to end up on the East Coast to study at a private university. I'm a soccer player so I knew that I could leverage and get a scholarship to do that. Financially I'd been on my own for a long time. In order to make that goal happen, I spent my second year of study at a community college to save money on tuition, to play with the team there, to then get recruited out to the East Coast on a scholarship for the rest of my schooling. I graduated from University of Hartford in Connecticut.
You are very determined person.
I think that people have choices when they're young during hardships. Instead of staying in survival mode, I decided to switch into the thrive mode.
What's the advice you would give to our readers?
In my experience, setting goals has been huge. Not just having them in my head but writing them down, telling people about them, getting other people excited about them, having people ask me and check in on where I’m at. If I don't write my goals down and don’t look at them every day while I'm brushing my teeth, or glancing at my desk, then I don't keep present what it is that I'm striving for. Enrolling loved ones and supportive people in our lives about what we want to do is my own mantra and best advice to give to others.
The thoughts shared in this interview are Christina Lang's and do not intend to represent the views of US Peace Corps nor the US Government
Christiana Lang | Youth and Community Development Professional, Gender Equality Specialist | US Peace Corps
Four years' experience
CV in brief
Studied Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science / Government and Sociology from the University of Hartford | Associates Degree in Anthropology from Cypress College | International Business at the California State University-Fullerton
Languages spoken English, Thai and Spanish
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, 8 February 2016
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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