A-100 Calorie Slice of Humble Pie

Today was our last full class of A-100. I honestly cannot believe it is already over. It feels like the longest and shortest 6 weeks of my life. Just like during my Peace Corps training, I’ve quickly made some wonderful friends. I’ve been so impressed with my new colleagues, it is hard to imagine going through this experience without them. I want to share with you a story from today.

This morning we had a discussion summing up everything we’ve learned in class and how we plan on applying it. Something that really struck me from these last six weeks was the focus on “me.” My employee review, my bid, my post, my future, my boss, my impact. While we touched on teamwork, especially during our offsite retreat, I felt like the emphasis was more on the individual and less on the team. And it makes sense, that’s what most interesting and sought after during a training. How does this affect me? That was my impression of the sessions. My takeaway from the class was just that though – teamwork. Yesterday and today, it really hit me that this isn’t about me. They’ve given me the tools and knowledge to be a better cog. But this is about the team. In the last two weeks, I’ve really felt the “me” mentality in class. I think that’s what made it all the more clear to me. Sometimes we learn by observing what’s missing and not what’s right in front of us. Today really allowed me to step back 10 steps and see the big picture. I am not a single Foreign Service Officer serving my country in a far off land. I am part of a team working to create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. We are a team. The 178th A-100 class is a team. The men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service are a team. Every employee of the Department of State is part of the team. We may all have different personal goals, career objectives, areas of expertise, and regional specialities, but we share one thing in common – our mission. Together we are stronger and make this world a better place.

Teamwork was my key takeaway from my A-100 experience, but I’d like to share just one more quick lesson learnt.

Before I joined the Foreign Service, I would label myself as an 11 on a scale of 1-10, 10 being insanely competitive. I knew coming into the Foreign Service that this trait often leads to poor morale and unnecessary comparisons. This was something I’ve been trying to work on for years. During my first week of A-100, I was served a giant slice of humble pie washed down with a big gulp of get over yourself. My colleagues were smarter, funnier, prettier, more experienced, and generally way cooler than me. I was no longer fighting to be taken seriously. Suddenly, I wasn’t Miss Perfect. I felt like I was the bottom of the barrel in our class. And you know what? It was so incredibly good for me to feel that way. Even though that first bite of humble pie was hard to swallow, as soon as I kept it down, the rest of the pie tasted so sweet. I needed to not be the best at something. I needed everyone to be better than me. I also found through this process an incredible group of people who supported me. I found that it is easier to climb out of the bottom of the barrel, when a few people reach their hands in and pull you back up. Because, this is all a team effort. My competitive streak has turned into but a half erased pencil marking. I can’t kill a bad habit in just six weeks, but I’ve found that my perspective has changed. I am no longer looking at myself and what I can do, I’m looking at everyone else and wondering how we can all work together.

Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before A-100

A-100 or as I like to call it “Diplomat Training: or how to look awkward in a suit” is the 6 week training course all U.S. diplomats take. A-100 was a mystery to me before I stepped foot in Arlington. I still have no idea what I will look like in 4 weeks when I’m sworn in (bags under my eyes are a given though). But in the past two weeks, I’ve discovered a few things that I wish I would have known beforehand. So, as I often do, here is a list:

1. Suits are hot. Long sleeves under suits are hot. Pants are hot. Skirts obtain optimal airflow. When you are packed in like sardines into a small room with everyone wearing a suit, it gets hot. Somehow, I’m still cold though, sometimes. The Ghanaian in me still has a firm distaste for air conditioning. Lesson learnt: wear skirts and deodorant. 

2. You will never sleep during the week. On the weekends, you will sleep like a teenager. My shuttle to the Foreign Service Institute leaves at 7:15am, even though classes are generally at 8:15am. After work, there are happy hour events, trivia nights, and socializing up the wazoo. You get home after an event and still have to check email, do homework, and make sure everything is ready for the next day (read: ironing). The adrenaline and whatever else is making my body still function seems to not turn off when I get home. I’m often up till 11pm or midnight just because I can’t fall asleep. The sun blasts in around 5:30am and it is time for round two. Lesson learnt: caffeine is your friend until you build up a tolerance in the second week. 

3. Your health is important. Okay, I was smart enough to get into the Foreign Service, but seriously it took me two weeks to figure this out. You don’t have to go to every social event. You don’t have to drink. You don’t have to guzzle coffee (especially after your tolerance builds up too high). You don’t have to eat take out. You can choose to do any of these things, but moderation is key. As annoying as it is, getting regular exercise and drinking plenty of water is incredibly important to maintaining your sanity. I converted my spare dining room (isn’t that a nice thing to say in DC) into a yoga room. Now I don’t have an excuse to not work out. After 45 minutes of yoga and 20 minutes of meditation I feel completely recharged and ready to take on the coming week. Plus, how cool is it to have a sunroom/yoga room in your free apartment?! Lesson learnt: take care of yourself first. 

4. FSI cafeteria food is, hmmm how do I put this diplomatically…lacking in originality and finesse. I tolerate the sushi, just because it is the right balance between carbs and protein to keep me awake in the afternoons. Generally, the food is not so tasty and expensive. The iced coffee is pretty good though. Don’t eat the sandwiches if you plan on staying awake in the afternoon. The insane amount of bread hits your stomach and BAM, your eyelids start to droop and your neighbor is elbowing you. Lesson learnt: bring your own lunch. 

5. This experience is everything you want to take from it. I spend half the day in awe that I made it and that this is real. I spend a few minutes choking up, as I am now, and embracing the duty. Yes, some of the sessions are long and sometimes exhausting, but guess what YOU JUST LANDED YOUR DREAM JOB. They are teaching us the skills and knowledge to be real bona fide diplomats, ready to represent and serve our country. Do you know who else was a diplomat? Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson. Madeleine Albright. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Lesson learnt: It is okay to be humbled. 

6. This is way cooler than I thought it would be. Lesson learnt: I picked the right career. 

Of secret gardens

Think of a dream you have or had. Did you want to be a firefighter or rocket scientist? Did you dream you could fly? Did you want to become a superstar or win the lottery? Everyone has dreams, whether they are just dreams or real goals. I had a dream for 10 years; I wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer. This past week that dream came true. Though it has only been a week, it is everything I wanted and more. It is truly a dream come true.

I’ve worked for so long with this goal in mind. Since I was 16, I’ve had a path laid out in front of me, by my own choice.  I’ve seen the path in front of me with one giant gate at the end. Though the path was often overgrown with weeds and rocky, I never gave up my trek. For a while, I lost sight of the path, but it turned out I was just walking parallel, my view was blocked by a wall. As soon as I could I found the path again I continued on my journey. I had to walk through muddy puddles, infested with mosquitos, and hack down the tall grass blocking my way, but I soldiered on, always with view of the gate ahead. When I returned to America, I saw the gate get closer and closer, while still seeming so far away. But one day the path shortened quickly and the gate grew near. This week I had the distinct honor of turning the knob on that gate door. As I stepped through the gate and into the secret garden I’ve coveted for so long, I found the flowers and foliage even more beautiful than I could have imagined. Your dreams can only imagine so much, for we don’t know what we don’t know. Having spent just one week in the garden, I’ve discovered that there are over 200 paths leading from the garden. Each one has it’s own set of obstacles and beauty to enjoy. But, each path circles back to the same garden. The flowers may change from year to year, but the garden will always be there. But no matter which path I take, I will always stop to smell the roses.

Living in the Gray Area

There exists this place where you are neither here nor there. A constant state of transit with no real timeline. A world lost between extremes, cultures, and norms. This place exists only to confuse outsiders. You are both part of a group and a fleeting thought in the wind. You are only here for a short time, but you don’t know how long that time period will be. You are always just passing through.

It can be hard to reconcile the need to feel accepted and part of a group, with the desire to be constantly on the move. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve had difficulty leaving my Peace Corps family for my own. It has been over six months since I’ve returned and I still have trouble finding where I belong. People don’t understand Peace Corps, how can they possibly understand me? The people I knew before Peace Corps remember the old me, the person before I had this life-changing experience. The people I’ve met after Peace Corps only know this quirky person who went to Africa to do something in a village and who is now moving on to do something overseas again. I feel like when I say Peace Corps these days it’s a curse word. I’ve stopped trying to explain my experiences. I’ve stopped talking about them, period. I live in the grey area where I am both still here and moving away permanently at the same time.

Some days it feels like I am making memories, just have them slowly erased in a few months. An old school movie reel slowly starts to crank up. The black and white movie appears on screen after a few seconds. The sound is blaring and the picture is punctured with splotches where the reel was slightly damaged. As the movie plays, at first it is in bright contrast. As the movie progresses, the picture starts to wash out, to fade, until suddenly there is nothing left but reel after reel of grey tinged screen in front of you.

So I live in the grey area. A place where I try, but also accept defeat. A place where I am always looking forward, yet still peek backwards from time to time. A place where I am both a person and a job title. A place where I belong, yet don’t.

For the next few weeks I’ll continue to live in the grey area. I will transition to a new grey area with new contrasts. I can’t wait to see what shades of grey are in store.

The Good Old Days

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” As I sit here vacillating between excitement over going home and sadness about saying goodbye, I remember all the stories of my service. When will I have an opportunity like this again? When will I be able to experience such highs and such lows? As I heard that quote from my favorite show, the Office, tonight I shed a tear. I’m in the good old days. I’m in those memories of adventure. I want to go home, but I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to give up my dream job working on my dream project doing things that matter. I don’t want to say goodbye to my best friend. And I surely don’t want to give up this amazing healthcare. Yes, there are things I will not miss like strange tropical diseases and being covered in filth after a 100km ride in a totally unsafe vehicle. But there are things I will always look back fondly on, that I will carry with me like a badge of honor.

Here are some of my favorite memories:

Just this past week, I attended the African Cashew Alliance World Cashew Conference. Also in attendance at this event was the Chairman of the Wenchi Cashew Association. I didn’t know he was going to be there and when I found his name on the list I instantly broke into cold sweats and I felt myself close up. Suddenly, all the bad memories from my old site came flooding back and I thought I would have a panic attack. Then I saw a white truck and I thought I would just crumble into pieces. Instead of succumbing to my fears, I decided to become a secret agent and do everything possible to avoid him at all costs. I actually had fun suddenly finding hidden alcoves and learning to spin quickly on my heel and duck behind a plant when I saw him. Despite me seeing him, he never saw me. I became a master of hiding and camouflage. I went the entire week without him even recognizing me. I’m very proud of my sneakiness and ability to overcome my fears.

And over a year ago, I remember so vividly hearing the news that the President of Ghana had died. I was in Richie’s tiny village. We stood on a rock with the phone in the air trying to get service so we could verify the villager’s claims on the internet. The next day was full of such craziness that I still can’t even believe what happened. We walked through 5ft tall grass looking for the sacred hole, sacrificed for the ancestors, drank spirits in their honor, and found wild orchids. I will never forget singing Lion King songs on the way back and showing up in town to find the entire place dancing. We literally emerged from the bush and danced our way through town. Apparently, the villagers still remember me for that very reason.

I remember the Fourth of July in 2012. We didn’t have a grill for our steaks, so we improvised and purchased burglar wire. We broke a set of pliers shaping the wire into a grill that would fit over two coal pots.

I remember my initial site visit when Sam came to meet me. He talked to me about the SAP project and set me up for an amazing next two years.

I remember the first Peace Corps party I went to. While many parts are fuzzy, I still remember dancing into the wee hours of the night and returning around 4am. I remember the fence was locked and someone scaling it to unlock it, despite the fact that we didn’t have a key.

I remember the look my Tess’s face when she saw me crawling to the bathroom for the umpteenth time during the last part of my typhoid. It still cracks me up.

I remember opening the door at Richie’s house to find an entire gaggle of students who should be in class, instead they were delivering us a chameleon.

I remember sitting on the hard concrete ground looking for shooting stars with my Ghanaian family.

I remember rolling through town with my Ghanaian brother and Richie screaming Kwabena at every guy we saw.

I remember standing on my rickety table thinking “oh god this is bad news” and hearing the table crack in two. I still remember the slow and gradual fall as I grabbed for the rope hoping that 1mm of flimsy rope would save me.

I remember sitting at the table with my expats eating something delicious with their new neighbor. I turned to him and asked where he was from. I will never forget the shock on my face when he said Oklahoma.

I remember my first trip to Accra, I thought my stomach wasn’t going to make it as I bumped along the Kumasi Accra road. I didn’t care how terrible I felt, I made a beeline for the closest supermarket where I proceeded to purchase 20cd of cheese and ate it all immediately.

How could I forget the countless dance parties that started on a whim? Or the moments with Richie? Or friends who have come and gone. Or the lessons learned, mainly the hard way?

I’ve had quite the adventure and I wish it wouldn’t end. I’m in the good ole days. I’m here. And I’m going to leave soon, but until then I’m going to soak up as much good as I can.

Success and Failure

Why are we so obsessed with success? And who defines success, is it ourselves or our peers? From day one we are taught to do well in school, get a high paying job, and be successful. But why? What makes successful people better? Are they happier? Are they more fulfilled? Is accomplishment a fleeting high that just makes you crave more?

I’ve always done well in school and I’ve worked hard to succeed at everything I do. But why did I do it? I did it because that what I thought my parents wanted. That’s what I thought society demanded. That’s what I thought I needed. Looking back at my Peace Corps service, I see a few great successes, for example the cashew conference I helped administer. It was successful because it a) happened b) was well received c) inspired other PC countries to adopt similar programs and d) didn’t fail. We see success and failure as opposites on a spectrum. They seem like such concrete concepts; they can’t both exist at the same time. I know there are projects that also failed, like my bushfire training. That event just fell straight on its face. It failed because it was sabotaged, undermined, and no one showed up.

Now that I’m sitting in limbo once again, contemplating my service, I’ve found myself wondering if I was successful as a Volunteer. What parameters define success to me? From staging, I always said that if I can impact just one person then I will have been successful. But to other Volunteers, they define success by the number of projects you did or your biggest event or how long you stayed at site. Everyone has a different perception of success, but they impose that perception onto others. So again I ask – why are we so obsessed with success? What is it about success that makes us judge our peers or judge ourselves so harshly?

When you look at success from a macro-level, you see that the developed world is successful. The developing world is not. You see billionaires who have been successful in their careers. You see countries who have failed to utilize their resources. Success is often tied to money, the more money you have the more successful you’ve been. Failure implies laziness – you aren’t trying hard enough. Success implies attributes that our society has deemed favorable: initiative, ambition, creativity, and hard work. It goes back to survival of the fittest: the strong will succeed.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned during Peace Corps is that failure does not make you weak. It does not mean you are lazy or lack the ambition to work hard. It does not mean you haven’t been successful. Failure is not concrete.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Edison

True failure is not learning from the experience. So while I have failed at many things during my two years in Peace Corps, I do not see my service as a failure. There are times when I wish I would have done more, accomplished more things, or impacted more people, but I can’t change the crazy circumstances that have impacted my service. I can’t go back and fix my old site. I can’t make my current situation just disappear. I can’t go back and kill all the parasites that infected me. I can’t undo mefloquine’s terrible side effects. I accomplished what I could given the hand I was dealt. I may never know what impact I had on the people I met. And even if I did do more projects, there is no guarantee that more means a better chance of success.

I know that I will continue to struggle with accepting this year’s seemingly endless supply of hardships and their impact on my work. My failures have been more valuable to me than the successes, because I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned that you can’t control everything, but you can control your attitude. I’ve learned that happiness isn’t measured by money or material goods.
I’ve learned that success is a measurement of your fulfillment with your work.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 reasons why my service was impactful.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

-William Earnest Henley

 


I didn’t ask for any of this to happen. I didn’t want it. I could be upset and angry. I could be defeated. But I’m not.

Every challenge is put in front of us for a reason. Our strength and character are tested and we either fail or succeed, but we always learn. What we learn from our challenges is more important than the challenge itself.

I’ve fallen prey to the cruel hands of circumstance many times during my service, but I refuse to be smothered by chance. I hold my head up high and press on. I cannot control what is out of hands, but I can control my attitude.

And I choose to learn from this test. I choose to be strong, to be upbeat, to be undefeated. In the words of Maya Angelou: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”