April 30, 2010

Respecting Actions

I have received respect in Peace Corps since the moment I stepped off the plane and I've been trying to earn it ever since. It's hard to pinpoint where the respect comes from in the first place, but I'd venture to guess it's includes ideas like American, man, white, tall, government, wealth, power, visitor, foreign, different and outsider. I am many things, of course, but I am also only one thing: a human trying to make sense of this world and do the right thing. That's the real trick, and where the respect will be earned, doing the right thing. This takes focused attention on everything I do: respecting everyone I interact with, helping everyone I can, thinking about indirect actions and how they impact the world. Smiling at the lady I buy a shirt from and asking her how her day is. Knowing where the shirt comes from, what materials are used, how the workers are treated and on and on. It's daunting not only in scope but in importance. Respect for every action helps me understand how much of an impact I truly have on the world. Every moment matters and, especially in Peace Corps, people notice.

"Action expresses priorities." Mahatma Gandhi

April 27, 2010

Music Therapy

Leslie Chamberlain is a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area of Community Youth Development with a Masters in Music Therapy from Temple University. Throughout her service as a Volunteer in Mongolia (2008-2010) she has provided workshops in music therapy around the country ranging from one-hour sessions to 5-day seminars. She has educated hundreds of people including doctors, nurses and health care providers in hospitals, school social workers and teachers in every level of education (including kindergartens, primary and secondary schools) and children center workers on the benefits and practical application of techniques such as relaxation therapy and lyrical analysis. She has often partnered with other Peace Corps Volunteers in areas like Health to provide these seminars. To find out more visit Leslie's blog, her profile on our Advance Humanity community, or check out some of her pictures on Facebook.

April 25, 2010


Staying focused can be challenging, even an art. Whether you are meditating silently for 10 days straight or just trying to make it through the morning, distractions are everywhere. Everyone and everything seems to be fighting for our attention. I really like how Leo talks about it on ZenHabits and Minimalist, ultimately it's up to each of us to remember what we care about most and put our time, energy and focus into that. The people I admire the most do that in a superhuman way. They seem to always do what is best and most meaningful for their lives, whether they are running marathons, building banks, traveling around the world or writing a book or two. It's something I am trying very hard to practice every day and I appreciate the inspirations all around me, including the most incredible people I have ever met.

April 22, 2010

Free, Helpful and Awesome

I wanted to share some fun things I have really enjoyed this month. First, taxes. For my fifth year in a row I filed my state and federal taxes online, for free, in under 10 minutes. It's a luxury I am provided by the Freedom Edition of TurboTax given my state of residence and my low income and it might be something you qualify for as well (especially if you are a Peace Corps Volunteer). Check it out here to learn more...

Second, signatures. I found out about this cool way to sign your emails with neat little icons and even updates on your most recent blog posts if you want to. It's called WiseStamp and works with all major email programs including Gmail and Yahoo. Check it out here to learn more...

Lastly, an awesome button. I recently added this to both Advance Humanity and the Advance Humanity Blog featuring one of the most awesome people I know, the Dalai Lama. It is inspired by the Hyperbole and a Half blog which is hilarious and awesome. You never know what it'll point to, blogs, things like Wisestamp, the Dalai Lama himself, who knows! It's going to be a crazy awesome ride. If you're afraid of awesomeness don't click it.

April 21, 2010


PCVL means Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. Although in this case it is a title, as we all know, leadership is a choice not a position. After a year of thinking about this (as my friends and family can attest to last May) and after months of applying, I received a call from my Country Director yesterday to inform me that next year I will be a PCVL alongside my fellow third year Peace Corps Volunteers Kyle and Amber. I feel very honored and privileged to have this opportunity and the choice that comes with it.

What is PCVL?
PCVL is a relatively new position in Mongolia, only existing ten out of the last twenty years, and it's a position still only available in select Peace Corps countries. In fact, in our region of 20 Peace Corps countries there are only 4 PCVLs and 3 of them are in Mongolia. However, as Peace Corps expands globally and doubles in size, the role of PCVLs is increasing around the world. In many ways we are not only serving as PCVLs here in Mongolia, we are serving as models for a position around the world.

PCVLs have many responsibilities, but basically they fall into four categories:
  1. Providing assistance and counsel to Peace Corps Volunteers
  2. Helping Peace Corps Staff work better with Peace Corps Volunteers
  3. Helping Peace Corps Volunteers work better with Peace Corps Staff
  4. Informing Peace Corps Volunteers about important information and resources
PCVLs in Mongolia work part-time in host country agencies (I will be working with the World Health Organization or WHO) and part-time in the Peace Corps headquarters. We are Volunteers who have decided to extend our service beyond 27 months, to become third year Volunteers. 

Peace Corps Expansion
We stand at a dynamic time in Peace Corps Mongolia's history, inheriting 20 years of procedures, experiences and resources before the post doubles in size over the next three years. During our service as PCVLs we will see three separate inputs of Volunteers, three Pre-Service Trainings and an estimated 180 incoming M21s and M22s. This is unprecedented. It will require expanded office space, increased staff hires, and increased quality in Volunteer support. For years we have heard the concerns many people (including the Senate) have about growing Peace Corps and one of the most often cited concerns is that quantity should not increase without quality. PCVLs can be essential in this role not only in Mongolia but in global Peace Corps operations.

As Peace Corps expands rapidly nearing its 50th anniversary, global operations is seeking to implement effective strategies across more country posts including opening more PCVL positions and groups like Volunteer Advisory Councils (VACs), which have been demonstrated to be very effective at improving the quality of a country post from within. I think we will demonstrate throughout our service just how clear and effective the role of PCVL can be. I know I'm a little crazy, but I think we could be some of the best PCVLs in the world and this would be a great service not only to Peace Corps Mongolia but to the entire Peace Corps operation globally.

The Choice
So, as always, the choice remains. Leadership is always a choice. It is the ability to influence others, to find your voice and help others find theirs. It isn't about titles, positions or being different from anyone else. It's about being the same, seeing the potential that we all have to make change, to help others, to become better. That choice presents itself every day and I'm very excited to be here with my fellow Volunteers to accept the challenge. We will be working today, tomorrow and the next day to lead as Peace Corps Volunteers and I look forward to spending the rest of my service earning the title.

April 19, 2010

If I Were Me

I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to explain this, but sometimes things come to me and I just want to write them down. One recent thought was: if I were me.

The old saying is "If I were you..." right? It means, if I was in your body, in your position, in your life, this is what I would do. Well I was thinking, sometimes I look at myself in third person and realize I could be doing something way better than what I'm doing. I look at myself and think, "If I were you..." Crazy huh?

Maybe not so crazy if you believe there is more than one part to a person. Personally I believe there is me and there is my mind and my body. My body does what it was build to do, flex, move, digest and so on. My mind does what it is in the habit of doing, worrying, thinking, analyzing, being efficient, judging others, interpreting situations, and so on. Me however, that's the tricky one. I, me, my, spirit, soul, inside, subconcious, higher self, buddha nature, this is something else entirely if it exists at all. My mind judges someone, but my soul just sees them. My brain tells me to do something, but my higher self tells me there is a better way. My mind is afraid, my spirit is excited. One sees the way the world is, the other is constantly seeing the world in a new way. Basically my mind is limited by itself, but I am limited by nothing.

I say all this because I have found it very helpful to retrain myself, to meditate, to reflect, to take in new information, to read, to write, to open up my mind to the possibility that I can and should learn new ways, seek advice and wisdom from amazing people, and never stop exploring what I could be. Life takes on a new meaning to me at that point, it is no longer about meeting basic needs (pleasure, pain) or even perceived needs (pride, wealth, power) but instead my life takes on the more difficult and much more important needs of the world (something much larger than my body or mind). When I decide to focus myself on that greater good, I become more like a captain with a good boat (body), a good crew (mind) and a good direction (spirit). If I were me, I'd give it a thought or two.

April 15, 2010

Something Better

I know a lot of people who want something better.

They want better clothes, a better computer, a better apartment, a better car, a better job, a better life. I understand, of course, because I've thought like this too.

More recently, however, I started just being better instead:
  • By realizing that spending more quality time with my family, friends and myself was all I really wanted, I needed entertainment and shopped less. I spent less and got more.
  • By learning to eat less and exercise more, I stopped wanting a different body and got into the best shape of my life. I lost over 65 pounds and feel so much better.
  • By learning to accept the reality I am faced with and choose a positive outlook, I've seen opportunities where before I only saw disappointment and problems. I am amazed by and thankful everyday for the projects and work I am able to do.
  • Maybe most of all, I've interrupted the endless cycle of wanting more and spent more time realizing I have more than I could ever want. I'm the happiest I've ever been.

I don't think enlightenment is something that happens overnight, but I think each of us has enlightened moments every day. I spend time trying to string those moments together by reminding myself of a couple of things whenever I can:
  • Realize the cycle of wanting doesn't stop when you get what you want, it stops when you don't want any more. Chances are, you already have everything you need for happiness. Food, shelter, clothing, people you love, meaningful work and a calm mind.
  • Helping others does not limit itself to only a few professions. You don’t need to change jobs - just help others any way you can. Help your colleagues succeed. Be there for your friends and family. Encourage others. Play with children. Improve your community in small ways, even starting with the trash on the ground.
  • Instead of wanting better friends or colleagues, be one. Being a better friend and being a better colleague takes time, but it's worth it. Be considerate, friendly, positive, kind and honestly listen to those around you.
  • Think about those pictures of happiness in your mind - the serene rooms, the pristine landscapes, the simple belongings - and realize that having more stuff doesn't add to those pictures of happiness. In fact, having less gets you closer to experiencing those things.
  • Turn off your mind and try to appreciate what you are currently experiencing - eating, showering, walking, working, doing dishes, talking, listening, writing, drinking water. We often miss out on the depth of our experiences because we are somewhere else mentally. 

When we realize that getting something better isn't as important as being something better, I think we end up getting what we wanted all along.

April 12, 2010

Unofficial Future

Originally I thought the ideal situation for a helpful Peace Corps guide was for it to be given to every Volunteer once they signed up for Peace Corps - maybe in their invitation packet or during their interview. It would provide advice on how to make it through Peace Corps and improve your quality of service, much like the A Few Minor Adjustments pamphlets Peace Corps has created and distributes each year. However, as I continued to collect questions and answers throughout my Peace Corps experience, I realized we needed more than a pamphlet and that people needed it before they even started interacting officially with Peace Corps. Being an Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook allows us the freedom to do that and more:
  • Help people interested in Peace Corps before and after they prepare, apply and serve
  • Raise proceeds that can be given back to Peace Corps to fund projects worldwide
  • Comment collectively on many areas of the Peace Corps experience as applicants, trainees, volunteers, returned volunteers and staff
It has been said that Peace Corps service starts when you become a Volunteer and ends with the rest of your life. This handbook can be an important part of that lifelong journey and community conversation. It will be an ever-changing handbook that grows with the organization, one that is updated every year by honest, reliable and knowledgeable PCVs and staff who want to help others enjoy years of happy, healthy and meaningful service. Peace Corps belongs to the world, to the millions of people whose lives it has changed, and this handbook is be part of that worldwide community. It starts the conversation with people who want to serve the world through Peace Corps and ends with people who have continued serving long after their 27 months are over.

April 8, 2010

TED Talks (Ideas Worth Spreading)

I was first introduced to TED talks by my good friend Chase three years ago. He was a huge fan and even wrote a compelling post on how incredible TED is, but it was really this summer in Mongolia before I started to understand what Chase has been telling me about for over a year now.

TED is a yearly conference that brings together most of the greatest minds of our time. They talk about the future of our planet, the incredible things that we can accomplish together, and the things they have done in their specialized fields which they find most exciting and life-changing. Some of my favorite speakers so far have been Al Gore, Bill Clinton, J.J. Abrams, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Clifford Stoll, Yves Behar, Hector Ruiz, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Tony Robbins, Rick Warren and Richard Dawkins. There are many ways to see the videos of these incredible speakers, but my favorite is through downloading the video podcasts on iTunes. You can also view them on TED.com.

The beauty of TED is that it brings together people from almost every field in the world and gives you, the viewer, a chance to see them all together in one place. You can watch presentations by world famous professors, producers, theoretical physicists, spiritual leaders, politicians, architects, CEO's, ecologists and even a rock star or two, all while eating a slice of pizza in your boxers and house slippers. Nice life huh? Such is the power of the ambition, telecommunications and a belief in the power of the human spirit...not to mention a love for pizza and the internet. Speaking of which, why hasn’t pizza made it’s way to Mongolia yet? I need to write Papa John or DiGiorno an e-mail.

April 6, 2010

Awarding Hard Work

I'm usually not a huge fan of competitions in Mongolia since they usually come with a lot of cramming. Instead of studying English all year long, students wait and then study two weeks before an annual competition. Instead of practicing sports all year long, teams wait all year and then practice every day for one week before an annual competition. I've been watching it for a few years now and I've seen the competition mentality pervade every sphere from studying, to learning a new language, to playing with children. I don't believe in occasional, as I mentioned before, I believe in consistency.

So when we had our first-ever English competition in the hospital at the request of two of my closest colleagues, Altansuvd (Head of Nursing) and Munkhzul (Hospital Director), I told them I had an idea. I knew they wanted to give awards to the best English speakers in the hospital, but we already knew who those people were. Giving them awards wouldn't encourage anyone else. In fact, even if people studied for months they couldn't compete with Tunga, Altansuvd, Munkhzul and several other doctors and nurses. First, I told them they shouldn't be allowed to compete. Haha  They were a little disappointed, but they smiled and admitted it was the right thing to do. Second, I told them we should have two groups for awards: awards for people who have been studying English for a while (advanced) and people who just started learning (basic). Third, I asked them to give me a couple of months before the competition to teach anyone would wanted to learn. They agreed and we started a three month class in January, telling everyone that at the end of the class there would be a competition where anyone who just starting learning English could win. Fast forward three months and I am grading papers and speaking tests, with the help of my fellow Volunteers Alex, Todd and Alex, grinning from ear to ear. I'm going to miss these doctors and nurses and I couldn't be prouder of them.

Here is the little speech I wrote while I watched them take the test today:
I'm so proud of each of you, you have improved so much in the past two years. English is not easy, especially when you are a busy nurse or doctor, and mother and friend. I know it is difficult for each of you, to work all day and all night and yet still you study, you learn, you practice and you improve. You improve yourselves, you improve your families, your hospital, your community and your country. I know you are learning for your family, yourself, and your future. I am honored to be here with you.
I have made certificates for each of you (I will give these out tomorrow when we give out the awards) because I want you to see how much you have improved. It takes months, years, to learn a new language. The language scale we measured you on for this is an international test - the same test I was measured on when I prepared for Peace Corps. I studied Mongolian every day, twenty four hours a day for three months and I improved three levels on that scale. Since I met you two years ago, some of you have improved one level, two levels, even three or four levels. You did that and you can't study English every day, twenty four hours a day. You can only study at most a few hours a week. And still, you do. I am so proud of each of you. I hope you are each very proud of yourselves.

It will be hard to leave these wonderful people, they are great friends and very inspirational people to be around. It's very moving for me to see dozens of great people conversing comfortably and energetically when two years ago they were afraid to even say "hi." English opens a thousand doors, especially in health care, and I'm glad to be handing out keys and certificates.

April 5, 2010

To Him That Was Crucified

MY spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do
    not understand you;
I do not sound your name, but I understand you,
    (there are others also;)
I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you,
    and to salute those who are with you, before
    and since—and those to come also,
That we all labor together, transmitting the same
    charge and succession;
We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes—allowers of
    all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but
    reject not the disputers, nor any thing that is asserted;
We hear the bawling and din—we are reach'd at by
    divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over,
    journeying up and down, till we make our in-
    effaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and
    women of races, ages to come, may prove
    brethren and lovers, as we are.

Walt Whitman  (1867)

Thank you Todd for sharing this

April 1, 2010

From Conference to Summer Camps

Bagi, Me, Tunga, Gana and her little cousin
The Conference last week on Children's Camp Leadership was incredible, I am amazed by the energy and excitement of the Peace Corps Volunteers (12 M20 Volunteers) and their Mongolian colleagues (20 workers from health departments, children's centers and much more). I had incredible interactions with wonderful people and feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and teach alongside everyone else. Tunga was also a trainer during the conference and she really enjoyed it, I think she did great. It was a lot of fun to be together in the capital for the first time and we even got a chance before and after the conference to spend time with her best friends Gana and Bagi who Tunga only gets to see every few months.

Tunga and Me Outside During Training
As we finish up the conference and approach this summer all of the participants are designing projects to be implemented during and following summer camps this year. Each community has roughly $1,500 dollars to spend to send children to camp who might not otherwise be able to go, to develop better lessons and summer camp activities, to implement life skills clubs after camp and much more. It's up to the Mongolian participants, Peace Corps Volunteers and their friends to decide what their projects will accomplish. Yesterday morning, for instance, Alex Yang and I met with Tunga, Enkhnara, the Tumee, Children's Center Director of Summer Camps to finalize our plans for our community's project. It's an amazing opportunity and we are very excited. We are planning to provide a great 10-day summer camp for 60 children and scholarships for children who could not normally afford to go, provide training for local social workers and teachers interested in teaching life skills to children, boost the impact of existing life skills clubs for children at the hospital and also offer a free day camp  series for children in the city. We have a busy summer ahead of us!

Julie, Me, Molly and Tunga after our Extravaganza
Lastly, to help us all better prepare for the summer, we are working together on Facebook and our Wiki to develop a PDF Summer Camp Toolkit in Mongolian and English. We are very excited about all the lessons, activities, games and suggestions it will include for summer camp workers. It will be distributed out to all provinces electronically and might also be printed as well. If you want to join us, please jump in! We're excited to have you join us any way you can!

All Our Incredible Extravaganza Participants