It has been quite the process and journey of adjustment and triumph. Moving to another country is exciting as it’s a new beginning, leaving nothing but a blank slate in front of you. Being foreign becomes your new middle name. It’s incredibly humbling as you have to learn to trust your gut and the hospitality of strangers around you. Assertiveness becomes your lifeline, by that I mean, you encourage yourself to take more steps into the unknown to make things feel more known. At first, that was incredibly difficult for me as I am naturally very introverted but as I have learned slowly that is also a strength and weakness. A strength in being very observant of what is the status quo. I didn’t have to ask how to get off and on a bus or how to greet someone in a culturally appropriate manner because I have sat back and watched intently. However, being an introvert in a naturally direct and extroverted culture comes with its downfalls. People will label you as timid and take that as an opportunity to take advantage of you. For me, a lot of that has come with prices of food in the outdoor market or bus drivers overcharging me. But slowly, the courage has built up and my feet have become grounded enough to stand my ground.
Outside of culture and adjusting, I have spent most of my time at my service site: Mercy Wings Vocational Center. The center essentially is an alternative trade school for adolescents ages 14 to 25 who have fallen through the cracks of the traditional education system due to learning disabilities, behavioral issues, violence, or socioeconomic issues. Working with teenagers, for the most part, is truly a blessing. It’s such a vital time in a person’s life where they just need honesty and a place to have those honest conversations. That has proven to be incredibly true in my role at Mercy Wings. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have the privilege of facilitating the Adolescent Development Program with the help and incredible leadership of Sr. Denise, a strong and charismatic woman who also happens to be a social worker and a Sister of Mercy. Together we run sessions on puberty, peer pressure, emotional and psychological development, spirituality, parenting, healthy relationships, and the trainees’ favorite subject of sex ed. We also facilitate group counseling once a month (this happens to be my favorite day). As you can imagine with those topics, we have some very interesting conversations. I have found that most of the time the subject matter of the day does not matter but that it’s more important to just be present with these young adults as they explore themselves more deeply in a consistent environment during a very tumultuous stage of their life. These trainees, in turn, have taught me a lot about Guyanese culture, slang, behavioral management, and common misconceptions of what works as contraception. As you can see there are plenty of uncomfortable giggles that happen in ADP. These little shared moments of mutual learning and laughter have become my favorite moments of Guyana. It’s a wonderful experience that sometimes stretches my patience but more than anything has strengthened my soul.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my skills are stretched a little more as I am responsible for teaching two teenage boys who have severe learning and cognitive disabilities. Having a Bachelor of Science in Social Work degree has prepared me for relating and counseling these boys but not for the individual educational instruction I need to provide. Nevertheless, where I come up short there has always seemed to be a way to make things work. With one of the boys, who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, we have been focused on solely learning the letters of his name and letters A-E at face value meaning learning to recognize them in capital and lowercase form. Our goal for the year is to learn the entire alphabet and hopefully throw some Phonics in there depending on progress. So far we have accomplished remembering the letters of his name for the most part, we are at about 75% rate of remembrance at this point. Something I have learned from researching FAS is that in terms of learning the student may need more practice and repetition over a longer period of time to commit things to long-term memory. We are almost there and are hoping to be able to recite the letters of his name soon. As this young man is learning, he is teaching me a great about patience and the strength of meeting people where they are. He knows I have a hard time understanding his accent but yet he still keeps repeating things for me to understand, I owe him the same practice. No matter how many times we have to repeat the same lesson we are going to stay patient to learn the alphabet.
Outside of work, I would say I spend most of my time being a student of the adult world aka adulting. That includes a great plethora of tasks and responsibilities. One of those is cooking or what I like to call guessing. During college, I either lived in a sorority where my meals were provided, had a meal plan, or cooked everything through the glowing warmth of the microwave. It has been quite comical to have to learn to cook from whole ingredients and an actual stove. However, in the past two weeks, I have baked pumpkin bars from scratch and taught myself how to make potato curry (a staple in Guyanese cuisine). I may have had to ask my community members what the difference between sautéing and frying was but nevertheless, we persisted. We even hosted our own Thanksgiving since we were away from our families and this amateur is attempted pumpkin pie and apple pie from scratch! Other adulting includes learning how to balance a full-time job and being 23, finding hobbies in reading for fun and finding time for the gym, learning how to love and support my family, friends, and significant other from afar, and budgeting a social life on a volunteer budget. We are a work in progress here but I am falling in love with the idea of learning of how to build a life. In general, I have fallen in love with learning to be…
Meghan Petersen: Guyana, South America