Thursday, June 30, 2011

Diagnostic Survey Part 5

After our first survey we proceeded in similar fashion to drift from one stairwell to the next surveying everyone who would let us. While relatively few people were home, those who we met were generally quite friendly and welcoming. When we had exhausted our little wing of Euripedes, we still had three surveys to go. Luckily in the little park adjacent to the development we met three teenaged girls who were happy to accomodate us.

Of the four pairs that went out surveying, all four collected six surveys from community members. In addition, I had the surveys the scouts themselves had completed, giving me a total of more than 30 surveys. Not bad for a couple of hours' work! If all five days of surveying go this well, I'll have more than 150 by the end of the week.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Diagnostic Survey Part 4

On Monday at three in the afternoon, I got to the clubhouse. It was the day that troops Maura and Cuervo were to help me and some of them were actually early. Having worked giving a survey with the grocery store at New Columbia during my VISTA year, I had pretty good idea of what to expect. To my delight, about eight scouts showed up and I started by having them fill out the surveys themselves so they could ask clarifying questions and so they would know how to explain the survey to other. Next, I roleplayed good and bad examples of how to approach someone to survey them. After that, there was nothing for it but to go forth and conquer

I decided we would begin with Urbanizacion Euripedes, a nearby apartment complex with several mixed-income buildings and retirement homes. I put them in pairs, remember from my days as an outdoor school counselor that nothing is quite so intimidating when you have a partner. I decided to follow around Maria, an outgoing teenager who had shown initiative before during the olimpiadas when she helped me run the minigolf station, and Luis, a member of another troop who had jumped in today to help me martial the scouts when he could see I was struggling to call them to order.

Timidly, we approached the first door and knocked. We weren't quite sure what to expect, and nobody answered, so we went to the next floor and knocked on the next couple of doors to no response. On our way back down, the first door opened to reveal a women with her phone to her ear. Maria hopped to and explained what we were doing an that we would only need five minutes of her time. Graciously, she excused herself from her phone conversation and invited us in. I explained the survey questions as best I could and the scouts jumped in whenever I struggled with the Spanish.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Diagnostic Survey Part 3

Before I began to give my survey I observed weekly scout activities and generally let myself sink into the patterns of daily life at the clubhouse. I wanted to be perceived as part of the group and to gauge what would be an appropriate approach in terms of logistics and of the organizational culture. Each week before Saturday activities, I gave a breif announcement on the survey to get the kids used to the idea and I consulted with Pablo as to the best way to go about having the kids fill it out and also survey community members.

The whole process sort of came together in slow-motion and I think it's going all the more smoothly as a result. Last Saturday, I called meetings of the Caminantes (the scouts old enough to no longer belong to a troop) and the Guias (the leaders of individual troops). Through a relatively informal process, I divided up the eight troops among four different weekdays (two per day) to come help me survey. The Caminantes will help me next Saturday. At this point, I couldn't help feeling more than a little excited and nervous. I had a survey and a schedule, all that was left was to execute.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Diagnostic Survey Part 2

During training when we are first exposed to the diagnostic concept we are given the idea that it is a general tool for gaining a holistic perspective on the community's general situation. We are encouraged to find out things like how many children and adults live in each household and what a typical meal consists is like. Aneudy, however, said questions like these are too personal and insisted that we stick to the topic of classes to provide at the CCI. Since this concerns my primary project and I need his buy-in, I decided to let it be fine for now. I'm confident that needs pertaining to secondary projects will emerge in due time.

Thus, my survey collects basic identification information about the respondant and proceeds to ask for information about prior exposure to computer education, a self-assessment of understanding of various programs, a selection of desired classes, and an indication of what days and times the respondant would be available to take a class.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Diagnostic Survey Part 1

Today, after a month of preparing and winning the scout community's trust and support, I put into action the plan to gather information that will help me decide the direction in which to take my service. As I've mentioned before, every Peace Corps volunteer performs what is called a community diagnostic where he or she gains perspective as to the community's needs. The design of the diagnostic is entirely up to the volunteer and in smaller communities in the DR it can be a matter of visiting literally every home in the community and having an informal conversation with the inhabitants.

Mine, however, is not a small community. There are surely more than a thousand residents in the four barrios (neighborhoods) that are the focus of my service, and while it would be lovely to sit and chat with each and every one of them, that simply wouldn't be appropriate given the community's size and suburban culture. Instead, I've determined to use the scouts help me survey a sample of the greater whole. My principle tool in this endeavor is a survey.

I began drafting the survey during the week after I arrived and have been at odds to make it worthy and well-suited to its audience. It was important to me during the design phase that I involve stakeholders like Alvaro (the youth who accompanied my project partner, Pablo, when he came to pick up from Santo Domingo) and Aneudy (CIO at the local hospital and likely to be a key figure in keeping the Community Information Technology Training Center-CCI for short-in working condition after I am gone). I think their co-ownership of the process will be key to the CCI's success.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Class Session Win

A couple of weeks ago, when I announced my Manejo Basico (basic computer use) class, the response was not exactly overwhelming. Of the sixty-plus scouts who had come for weekly activities that drizzly Saturday, only one had asked to have his name added to the sign-up sheet. But as the days went by and I generated buzz among the regulars at the computer lab, the eight slots slowly began to fill. By the time I was about to give the class yesterday, I was a little worried that I would have to turn some kids away. But absenteeism and group mentality came to the rescue; while only about half of those people enrolled actually showed up, the open seats were filled by scouts who happened to be present and decided that they wanted to be included.

The class presented an interesting set of challenges. Students ranged in age from 20 to 9. Some were adepted at installing software and browsing the web, while other struggled to type and use a mouse. One had the audacity to get on Facebook a mere minute and a half into class in a lab the size of a small bedroom. Luckily, I had installed a piece of software that allowed me to disable his computer while I made an example of him. He became my assistant. Since the lab lacks a projector, I used every monitor to display my slides simultaneously. The students took turns reading from them and answering critical thinking questions about the subject matter: hardware, software, data, bits, bytes, input devices, output devices, and so on.

In the coming week, I will have to work on how I will address some of the issues I encountered which include slow computers, students talking over one another, and especially how to establish a closed environment. Kids kept coming up an knocking on the door to the lab which is usually a public place. I even had them opening the windows and sticking their hands through to greet my students. In the end, however, I think the students enjoyed themselves. After half an hour of computer basics, we switched gears and I had them use a typing program they like as a reward for paying attention to the presentation and participation. When our time together was finished, they didn't want to leave. They even told me they want to meet more frequently, so now the class is Tuesdays and Thursdays! Win!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Class Session Fail

Last Thursday, at the request of my project partner, Pablo, I hosted my first class session. It was to focus on the topics of computer basics and typing, and I arrived hours ahead of time to prepare. As I worked some of the networking issues in the lab and scouts came and went, looking up friends on Facebook between basketball games, I noticed an unfamiliar face. The new guy wasn't a scout and he spent a few minutes visiting with them before walking over and handing me a ten-peso coin. When I gave him a puzzled look he explained that he had been told to pay for the use of the computers. When I said that this was a public lab and I was not even allowed to accept money, my scout companions set to whining and exclaiming that I had just ruined their fun.

Shrugging them off and returning to my work, I was interrupted a moment later when a commotion arose from behind me. The scouts pointed and shouted, "You broke it! It's screwed! You've really done it now!" Turning around, I found the poor newcomer seated in front a blank screen, looking bewildered and self-conscious. A second's investigation revealed that his only sin had been to leave the monitor off after pressing the power button on the computer. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Another favorite thing to do in the lab is for a scout to announce his arrival with a shout at the top of his voice to see how many of his peers he can startle. Nevertheless, I was ruffled. If they treat everyone this way who comes here from outside the group, it's not hard to see why the place doesn't get much use.

About an hour before my class, to my dismay, it began to rain. It was an ill omen; any amount of rain is often enough to deter a Dominican from leaving his or her home. By the time my class was scheduled to begin, the rain had grown to a bona fide storm, the likes of which even I wouldn't venture out in. Thunder crashed deafeningly overhead and the clatter of rain on the metal roof of the clubhouse was enough to drown out anything less than a shout. Needless to say, day one of class didn't happen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Staying Active

One morning as I powered through a typical, generous breakfast (two whole plantains, three fist-size helpings of yucca, a half-dozen silver dollars of fried salami, and a couple of ten-ounce slabs of fried cheese), I reflected that if I was to continue my present level of calorie consumption without any kind of regular exercise regimen, I would soon be bursting the seems of my business casual slacks. The next morning, clad in basketball shorts and running shoes, I proceeded to run the mile that separates the Henriquez home from Plaza Megatone, a shopping center near the edge of town that boasts a grocery store, electronics outlet, and Gold's Gym. Before long, I had recruited my 20-year-old host cousin, Angel as my running companion who was quick to introduce me to his Uncle Roberto.

Roberto, a retired baseball player, owns and operates R & C Gym where, for the last couple of weeks, Angel and I have worked out every day following our morning run. One morning as we were leaving the gym, I noticed an aerobics class had just begun. Curious, I pointed it out to Angel who told me they have it every morning. So now my morning routine consists of a mile run, fifteen minutes of weights, and half an hour of aerobics, followed by a short floor routine concentrating on toning my abs. While the aerobics class is quite popular, there is only one other guy who comes regularly. He lived in the United States for 31 years and speaks decent English, and I think he's pretty stoked not to be the only guy any more, because each day he greets me with an enthusiastic fist bump followed by, "How you feel today?"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Finding One's Way in College and the Peace Corps

I was scanning the IE3 Alums Facebook group wall today when I noticed an interesting article posted by Giustina Pelosi. In Live and Learn: Why we have college, Louis Menand reviews two critiques of the current state of higher education while exploring different theories as to its purpose. Among other insightful ruminations, the article contrasts the ideas of college as society's proving grounds for specific career readiness and college as a means of gaining exposure to material that enlightens and empowers, whatever career one ends up choosing.

In the article, Menand reviews a book entitled "Academically Adrift" by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which offers research that supports the thesis that completion of college is proving ever less sufficient as a measure of having progressed intellectually. While he does not hasten to agree, Menand does engage in a more fine-grained analysis of Arum and Roksa's findings, and he points out some interesting distinctions. Of particular interest to me was the comparison between students who major in liberal-arts fields (sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities) and those who major in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health.

Arum and Roksa found that liberal arts students tend to show more improvement on a test that measures critical thinking and problem-solving skills than did non-liberal-arts students. Despite suggesting that there may be flaws in Arum and Roksa's research, Menand goes on to relate the (admittedly anecdotal) findings of another author who goes so far as to suggest that students who aren't majoring in a liberal arts field shouldn’t be exposed to subjects such as literature and creative writing. In the end, as one might expect from an article in the The New Yorker, the place of the liberal arts education as the great bastion of intellectual development is afirmed.

As I read the article, and the many fascinating statistics it cites, I couldn't help but reflect on how its conjecture and the arguments of the books it reviews might be applied when considering the motivation and relative success of volunteers in the Peace Corps. While the obvious reason to give for Peace Corps service is to have a try at improving lives and to promote mutual understanding between the United States and the peoples of the world, it is perhaps equally valid to acknowledge the opportunity it gives the volunteer to become a more complete person who has a variety of life experiences.

Neither of these motivations is specifically in keeping with either the more vocational path of college education suggested by Menand or, conversely, with his supposed intellectual enrichment path, but it seems reasonable to imagine that someone more interested in what joining the Peace Corps would do for him or her in the context of a specific career might fit more neatly into the former category while a person who is more of an open-ended seeker of adventure might be more closely aligned with the latter.

What makes the Peace Corps interesting in this context is that it treats both types of volunteers the same. Whether you join because you are giving serious thought to a career in international development or because you want to take a couple of years to examine your life and interactions with others, the result is the same. After ten weeks of training, you are assigned a community and tasked with doing whatever needs done to improve the lives of its members. After two years, the status you have to show for it is no different from any other person who has chosen to spend two years of their life in this way.

For my own part, I think this lack of differentiation played a major role in my decision to join. At some point during my college career I came to understand that a liberal arts degree from a small private college was the ticket to a peer group to which I wanted to belong. Unlike the the Groton boys in the article, however, I did not belong to a priveleged class inhereting the legacy of their fathers. Likewise, I was not the beneficiary of the GI Bill or part of the first generation in my family to attend college. I was merely an obedient kid who did as he was told and enrolled myself at a university. Like so many things in life, it wasn't until I had already begun that I discovered the path I wished I had taken.

In the end, it was probably for the better. I wound up in a cooperative program that afforded me some work experience in my major which in turn financed a six month trip to Guatemala to finish my Spanish language minor and experience life in another country. I took my life in a rewarding direction that would not have been available to me without the college career I had chosen. And I did it without saddling myself with a lifetime's worth of debt. It is in the same spirit of intrepid pragmatism that I have taken the leap of faith into the Peace Corps.

Like my college experience, the two years of service ahead of me offer a kind of promise that is open-ended and exploratory. Unlike in college, though, my decision not to analyze classic literature or debate finer points of philosophy will not come to bear on the opportunities available to me when I am finished. This time I proceed with the expectation that I will change during years to come in ways that I cannot anticipate. What purpose it serves is up to me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hanging With Dave Part 4

Some sweet counterfeit New Balance 574's I copped at a store in town

As I was leaving, I noticed I had a text from Sabrina. It was timed just right to catch up with her at the art show, where we got to see the now-unveiled works and see the progress of a social practice peice from the night before. Sabrina and I were headed the same way, and since she had failed to give it to Megan, I scored a piece of mouth-watering strawberry-banana bread while we walked to Heather at the supermarket.

Milaris sits in the kitchen at my host house

By the time I said hello to Heather, it was time to go, so I excused myself and went home where lunch was waiting.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hanging With Dave Part 3

Jenie, Dave, and Megan at the art opening

We arrived in Moca at just about the same time as Megan who was organizing an art show to be unveiled that night in what one might call Moca's public square, Parque Duarte. After greeting her and a few of the artists who comprise the collective that is the focus of her primary Peace Corps project, I took Dave to meet my host family. We returned to the art show in time to catch the first hour or so of what would be a typically epic round of thank-yous and congratulations attendant to any public event in the DR.

A show-goer contributes to an installation piece

After leaving early, we had dinner at my place and narrowly missed movie night at the clubhouse. The next morning I showed Dave the clubhouse and we had another internet session before taking the sweaty 25-minute stroll into town to get him onto the Santiago bus. On my way back, I happened by a store that was having a liquidation sale and score some sweet knock-off New Balance 574's for what would be less than twelve US dollars.

Members of the show's art collective say thank-yous

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hanging With Dave Part 2

After having a batida and catching up at little diner near the hotel, Dave and I went to the monumento, a decidedly phalic monument erected by Trujillo on a hill in the middle of town that affords panoramic vistas in every direction. After climbing the hill in the blazing sun, we were refreshed to find a nice draft in the entryway to the monument's lobby where we sat on the stone floor in the shade.

Sitting around at a kukau (cook-out): Milkin, Antonia, Merelis, Flor)

I was pleased to get to hear some of Dave's back story, since he had seemed like an interesting person, yet was someone with whom I hadn't yet spent much time. After perhaps a couple of hours of discussing careers and relationships while school children ambled in and out, we descended the the hill and went down an inviting-looking street in search of lunch. Lunch came in the form of a excellent and cheap chicken joint with three-item menu. We ate quite well for the equivalent of about US$2.70 each.

The cat is pregnant. She's about to pop.

Next stop was an enormous grocery store called La Nacional that felt like someplace you would go in the United States. Having no plans or expectations about how to spend our time, we wound up hanging out upstairs near the bathrooms and messing around on the web for half an hour and taking turns sharing photos (of which Dave has an impressive collection). After a breif tiramisu interlude we decided to head to Moca.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hanging With Dave Part 1

Both David Richie and I each live half an hour from Santiago and on Friday our curiosity and desire to explore the Dominican Republic's second-largest city got the best of us. That morning we agreed to meet at the Hotel Aloha del Sol. Aside from giving me the thrill of navegating public transit in the DR's second-largest city, this gave me an opportunity to find my regional consolidation point given in the Peace Corps Emergency Action Plan.

Medicare brand soap

Unlike Santo Domingo, which has been thoroughly gutted by the construction of an expressway through the heart of town, Santiago does not suffer from a scarcity of civic space or a single-minded devotion to sprawl and cheap retail. While it does have its share of malls and big-box retailers, I feel they have been more gracefully integrated into the urban fabric without costing the city its character.

Four-lane throughfares at street level connect neighborhoods of low-rises throughout the town, broken up by comercial districts that feel like part of the city and parks of the kind only found in tropical climates where enormous trees explode over streets and into courtyards. The city is likewise dotted with enormous private estates whose well-tended jungle greenery softens the oppression of concrete and asphalt.

Hanging out in Moca: Kiko, Chilo, Merelis, and Antonia