Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I am Geli: How the Peace Corps Changed Me

When I first moved to my little town in Panama, the community came together to pick a Ngöbe name for me.  After some debate, a name was finally chosen and I became "Geli Quigavo" for the two years I lived in the village.  Although it took a little getting used to, before long I was easily introducing myself by my new name and even began to identify as "Geli" just as much as I had ever identified by my given name, "Abby."

When I left my site for the very last time,  I almost cried when one of my best friends, Virginia, said to me, "Now you won't be Geli anymore, will you?"  At the time, all I could think about was how much I was losing by leaving this way of life and these people who I had come to view as family. 
I was so excited to finally be going home and starting the next chapter of my life, but I was brokenhearted at the thought of everything-and everyone- that I was leaving behind... including Geli. 

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that while she's partially right in that I will no longer hear that name called out to me, I will always be Geli Quigavo.

Geli is strong, both mentally and physically.  She's not afraid of hard work, and is not above any type of manual labor (though if we're honest, she's probably always going to be happier in the kitchen).  
She knows the value of community, and devotes time to building hers up.  

Geli knows that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet, and that relationships are built on asking people about their lives and genuinely caring what they have to say.  She understands the value in putting herself out there in order to start those relationships, and that a few minutes of awkwardness is well worth the friendships that can come from introducing yourself and starting a conversation.  

Geli loves to travel, but she knows that every town is someone's home, and has learned that just getting to know people and spending time with them (especially when cooking/food is involved) is just as good, if not better, than visiting any tourist attraction.

Geli thinks about the future and makes plans, but she knows that life happens.  When last minute changes pop up, whether it be a roadblock stopping your bus or being asked to lead a workshop starting right now, she'll make it work.  She knows that little things are just that- little things, and if you can't change them, they're no use stressing about.  

I became Geli when I lived in my rural Panamanian village, but I'm not leaving her there.  As Geli, I became a stronger, kinder, and better person.  I learned important lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and now whenever a new friend asks my name and my story, I will tell them about Geli and the people that have built her into me.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Post-Peace Corps Career

Life as a Peace Corps volunteer can be weird for many reasons, but one of the principal ones for me was knowing that everything had an expiration date.  Ever since the beginning of my service I knew the exact day I would be, all at once, unemployed and internationally relocated away from my friends and community.  When you first move to site, that day feels like a million years away, but, poco a poco, that day marches closer and closer until all of the sudden you’re only a few weeks away from COS (Close of Service.)

Though my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer made me a much more relaxed person overall (Once you spend three years waiting on meetings and public transportation that almost never start on time, there’s really no way not to be more relaxed…), deep down I still feel a sense of satisfaction and relief from having a plan, especially when it comes to my career.  

The great news is, Peace Corps can be great for your career and you actually can plan your next steps and even find your future job while still in your country of service.  

I served as a PCV in Panama from June 2013- August 2016 and signed my dream job offer in May of 2016 (to start in September of that year).  Here’s how I did it:

  • My program was extremely relevant to my desired career path- I studied Marketing and International Business in college and worked as an Agribusiness volunteer in Panama from 2013-2015.  My main focus was teaching basic business and financial management practices to cocoa farmers (I always joked that the only way I’d like working in agriculture was if it involved chocolate!), though as is typical in Peace Corps, I worked on a variety of projects including youth development camps, women’s empowerment seminars, and teaching techniques to improve the quality of cocoa.  You will never in your life have as much freedom to design your workday as you will in the Peace Corps, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.  It’s easy to sit around and add 100 books to your reading list, but that’s not going to help your people or your career. 
  • I extended for a third year- I chose to extend my service a third year and work as the Regional Leader of the Darien province from 2015-2016.  There were so many benefits to extending and I highly encourage it, but the main reasons I extended were added leadership and coordination responsibilities, the ability to travel more, and the chance to move to an area with amenities (internet!) while still living in Panama.  
  • I made a plan- Marketing is such a broad field that I knew I needed a niche in which I could both be happy and best market my Peace Corps experience.  Once I thought about it, it was simple- I love business, I love food, and I worked with cocoa farmers… food marketing!  Food marketing is still a broad field though, and my goal here was to narrow down to the perfect spot for me, so I kept going.  Keeping my personal preferences and experience as a PCV in mind, I knew that I would be a great all-around team player for a small company or startup in which I could have a big impact, that I valued working for a “good” company with a strong mission, and that I would love to work for a company that practices international direct trade (buying straight from the producers and cutting out middlemen), specifically in the chocolate industry.  So there we had it- a small chocolate shop that buys at least part of their beans direct from the source.  That’s about as niche’d as you can get, but with my experience I really felt like it was worth it to pursue potential jobs in that field.  
  • I used free time in year 3 to network- Having internet at my house was really what made all of this possible.  I spent hours upon hours researching chocolate makers that bought beans directly from the source (which is actually much rarer than you would expect as almost all chocolate shops instead skip a few steps and buy coverture- essentially pre-made chocolate chips- which they then melt down and mix with various ingredients to make fancier chocolates.) I narrowed my already small list down to locations I’d be willing to live and ended up with about 5 places I was seriously interested in working and checked to see if they were hiring- only one was.  Though I obviously wanted a job, more than anything I wanted to talk to people- some places may not be hiring, but may have great advice and contact info for a different place I didn’t even know about.  Keeping that in mind, I used LinkedIn to find 5 or 6 people who I felt like would be great contacts.  I reached out to them with a short but personalized message and got a response from all but one! Though most of them didn’t have a job opening, reaching out via LinkedIn proved to be extremely useful.  In addition to just making more connections, I had the opportunity to talk with multiple business owners and Skype with the sourcing manager for a very well-known bean-to-bar chocolate maker to learn more about the industry.  Best of all- it turned out that two of the business owners offered me a job (though only one had an opening posted online). 
  • I turned down the job that wasn’t right for me- This one was really hard.  As a Peace Corps volunteer, no work sounds like too much work and any salary sounds like a million dollars.  So when I received my first job offer, I was ecstatic.  It was right in my niche of direct-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and I felt like it was wrong to turn down something that sounded so much like what I wanted.  However, as much as I hate to admit this, I really had to analyze my cost-of-living and work-life balance.  When I did that, I realized that the job actually wasn’t the right fit for me.  Though I eventually turned it down, talking with the company was still a great experience and I hope to meet them at an industry event down the road.  
  • I used technology to my full benefit- Sure, it is much harder to find a job when you’re abroad than when you’re already state-side, but it is totally doable with today’s technologies.  I used LinkedIn to contact employers and potential mentors, I interviewed via Skype and Facetime, and I signed my contract on an Adobe pdf. 
  • I acknowledged my challenges-  Though technology was essential for my job search, it also gave me so many headaches.  There was the time that my background noise was so loud (thank you, road construction outside my house) that the person I was skyping with asked me to mute myself when not talking, or the time I tried to avoid that background noise by shutting myself in a room with no fans and ended up very obviously sweating through my nice “skyping blouse,” and there was, of course, the moment when my wifi mysteriously went out TWO MINUTES before a scheduled interview.  You can plan all you want, but as we say, Panama happens.  From the very beginning, I was honest with my contacts about where I was and the potential technological problems I had no way of fixing.  It may have felt like I was failing miserably, but you know what- they understood.  
Getting my post-Peace Corps job while still living abroad was hard, but it was so worth it.  I was able to finish my last few months of service without the stress of the unknown and was able to negotiate for a later start date so that I could spend time with my family and friends before moving to my new town.  Though the job search will be different for everyone depending on your background and desired career path, I hope my experience can help give some insight and ease your worries.  If you're a PCV or potential PCV and would like to talk more about job searching post-Peace Corps, send me an email at abbyexplores@gmail.com.  I love Peace Corps, I'm really excited about my new job, and I'm more than happy to talk about them!