I still remember arriving at the Marriot hotel in Philadelphia on Sunday, June 11th, 2017 for what would be two days of intensive orientation detailing what the Peace Corps Pre Service Training in Madagascar would be like. With out a cloud in the sky, the day was blazing hot, summer was finally making its entrance into the eastern part of the United States. During our orientation sessions it finally dawned on me that this will probably be the last time I will be indulging in western world luxuries. These two days of orientation would be the final days I will have the chance to drink an iced green tea matcha lattes from starbucks, the last time I would have the chicken lettuce wraps from California Pizza Kitchen and my final strolls through the aisle of Target. I remember Najima Bawa and Shannon McBride our two workshop facilitators reiterating to us how important our role as Peace Corps volunteers would be to the United States, Madagascar and the overall state of the world. During a time where the roles and values of the American people are at question, we as Peace Corps volunteer are at the forefront of representing our nation. As a Peace Corps volunteer I feel like it is my personal responsibility to show the world how diverse America is, the beauty that our multi-cultural citizens have brought to our nation and to show the world that there is more than one face to this prosperous yet complicated land and we call The United States of America.
After two days of intensive orientation we were shipped off to begin our journey to become Peace Corps Volunteers. After travel time that lasted well over 20 hours we arrived at Ivato Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Right after clearing customs and grabbing all of our luggage we were greeted by our very beautiful Peace Corps country director Vanessa Dickey, our TEFL program director Xavier Louie, Peace Corps Media Gabe Degong and our Peace Corps volunteer leader Michael Kunkle and our two Peace Corps driver Ely and Marc. Vanessa expressed to us how happy they were to have us here in Madagascar and that the fiercely proud Bolivian Mariana Andrade-Bejarano, who was also responsible for our initial invitation to serve in Madagascar was waiting for us to arrive at the Peace Corps training center. We then got into the Peace Corps vans and embarked on a 2-3 hour drive to the Peace Corps training center in Mantasoa, Madagascar. When we arrived we were greeting by well over 30 + Peace Corps employees who were very happy to have us in their training center. That day although I was extremely jet lagged and could not make sense of half the things people were saying to me that night, I knew I had made the right decision andthis was the journey I needed to be on. That night I was truly happy stepped out of my comfort zone and jumped into the unknown and I was excited to see what lied ahead of me.
The 12 weeks of training that followed proved to be challenging yet rewarding in many ways. Although I was born and raised in Boston, the blood of my Afro-Dominican ancestors have not escaped me. The brutally frigid and rainy days I experienced in the cold mountains of Mantasoa were unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Everyone that is close and dear to me KNOWS I am not a fan of cold weather... having the ability to overcome the cold, rainy and gloomy days proved not only how resilient I am, but also how important this Peace Corps assignment is to me. In Mantasoa, as Peace Corps trainee I did not have regular access to wifi, electricity, and running water. These were all luxuries we had to plan well in advance for and were not always guaranteed. The weeks that followed included hours upon hours of intensive language training, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) technical training, Medical Safety training and safety & security training. Many of our training days were cold, super intensive and at times felt very long...Unlike in the United States, here in Madagascar winter season begins in June and having to go through another 3-4 months of cold weather after just finishing up with 6-7 months of the brutal New England winter was not fun.
The last 4 weeks of training got even more intense, the long days began to wear down on us volunteer. Our need for wifi intensified, our desire to have autonomy over our daily activities emerged, our longing for freedom was very evident. For me, being surrounded by Americans for extended periods of times and not having enough personal space was especially difficult. There were days where I definitely dreamed of the baobab tree at the end of the tunnel. I dreamed of swearing in and becoming an official volunteer. I dreamed of the day where I will have the freedom to experience Madagascar on my own terms. The final weeks of pre service training were really hard, the cold rainy days did not help liven up the mood either. But being with my loving host family helped get me through those hard days. I loved being around my host family and many times when I was with them it felt like I was back home with my family in Boston. They were very encouraging and reminded me of the importance of the work I was doing here in country. Keeping my eyes on the prize and thinking about the connections I will be making with the people of Madagascar kept me goingduring training. My commitment to serving the Malagasy people was also very important to me. Dreaming about the opportunity of experiencing the beautiful flora, the fauna’s, the scenic beaches and culture of Madagascar made the cold, wet and dreary nights worth it. Having the chance to empower a person to believe in their dreams, their destiny, and to take control of their future made the long days of training worthwhile
As volunteers, devoting AT LEAST 2 years of our lives to serve in a community with different customs, values and limited resources is not the easiest commitment to make. For me, leaving my amazing mother Dominga Casiano, my beautiful nieces/nephew, and my sister Lily was no easy task. Leaving my friends behind and having to face the reality that I may be missing out on important events such as weddings, baby showers, birthdays and graduations was hard to fathom. Leaving my life of comfort and a job I adored back home in Boston was not the easiest decision to make either. Giving up the days of making music with the amazingly brilliant students at Charlestown High School was amongst one of the hardest things I have given up in order to be here. However, my calling to serve my global community has grown stronger over the years. I could no longer ignore the urge to learn more about this beautiful mysterious world we live in. So I decided to be vulnerable and jump into an the unknown oasis that being a Peace Corps volunteer is.
On Friday, September 8th, 2017 at the US Ambassadors estate in Madagascar, in front of Peace Corps Madagascar directors, US Embassy officials, and Malagasy government officials, I took an oath to represent the United States of America and serve the people of Madagascar. I vowed to accurately represent the United States of America and its diversity to my community in Madagascar. I also vowed to try my very hardest to integrate myself into my Malagasy culture by learning their language, and staying open to experiencing their customs and traditions. I took an oath to use all of my skills sets and resources to serve alongside my community in Madagascar. On this day, I officially became a Peace Corps volunteer. Although there are many sacrifices I made to be here, I wholeheartely believe that the experiences and the wisdom I have shared with my people back home in Boston will aid me throughout my service in Madagascar.
There is a saying that goes “It takes a village to raise a child”, well, that saying rings very true to us Peace Corps volunteers. In fact, it takes several villages to develop a Peace Corps volunteer. Getting through pre service training was not a walk in the park and there are many people that work long hours preparing training sessions and cultural excursions to help us transition into becoming a volunteer more smoothly. I personally would like to take a moment to thank all of the people that have been instrumental in getting me through pre service training. I would like to personally thank Queen Ursula, Dr.Jaotombo and Master Steph and all of the LCF’s for continuing to push me with language even when I did not think I could absorb anymore information. I would also like to thank Nick Radanielina who is our safety and security manager and did an amazing job of teaching us mitigation tactics to stay safe in country. Dr. A and Dr.Shanon who are our Peace Corps Medical Officers and gave us amazing workshops on staying healthy during country. Our TELF programming leaders Xavier, Jemima and Mialy for getting us through practicum and always staying positive even during the tough times. Our Peace Corps Volunteer leaders Lynette Tillery, Stephanie Sang, Rachel Thomas, and Edgar Rodriguez for being super supportive and insightful during our difficult 3 weeks of practicum. Patrick McElroy, who is our director of programming and training and gave excellent sessions on resiliency, allyship, and cultural competence. Michael Kunkle our Peace Corps volunteer leader who lead amazing resiliency sessions and always made himself available during the tough times to get us through our 3 months of training. Mariana Andrade-Bejarano and Rado Radiomanana who both served as our training managers and were at the forefront of dealing with all aspects of our training. Our Peace Corps drivers Ely and Marc for always being positive and encouraging me to keep going. Cornelia the Peace Corps training center financial manager and secretary for always smiling and being wonderful. I would also like to recognize Vanessa Dickey our country director for being an amazing leader and making Peace Corps Madagascar the amazing program that it is. Lastly, I would like to thank my family, my former students, and my community back home in Boston for continuing to motivate me virtually.
During the most stressful times when I was hard to deal with these people continued to motivate me. I could not have made this far if it were not for their supportand I am grateful to you guys to have had the opportunity to connect with each and every one of you. As I move forward as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar, I will cherish our times together and will take every lesson I learned during training and put it to good use at my permanent site placement.