Peace Corps Experience

When I was in high school, I had to do a report for my English class on an organization, so I wrote mine on the Peace Corps. After graduating from college and working for a few years, I had the desire to travel more and learn another language. After researching short-term language programs, I realized that my best option to learn another language was to immerse myself in another culture, rather than a 3 week course. Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer would allow me the opportunity to get work experience, learn another language and immerse myself in another culture for a period of 27 months. 

In 2019, I went through the interview and application process to become a Peace Corps Volunteer and in December 2019 I received my invitation to serve as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Bulgaria. I accepted the invitation and in June 2000, I flew to Chicago, Illinois for my in-country service training, where I met 70 other Americans who would be in my training group. After spending a few days in Chicago, we all flew to Bulgaria. Our training period of 3 months was spent in the town of Dupnitsa, where I lived with a Bulgarian family who didn’t speak any English. Since I did not know any Bulgarian our initial conversations involved charades. My training was immersive, Monday – Friday 8am-5pm where I attended ‘classes’ which consisted of Bulgarian language learning; Bulgarian culture, history and sector (Community Economic Development) training, as well as medical information, and site visits. At the end of my training period, I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and found that I would be placed to work in the town of Razlog, population 13,000, for the next 2 years. 

In September 2000, I moved to Razlog to work with the municipal government. I worked for the Mayor of Razlog and my counterpart was the Senior Expert of Culture and Public Relations. Throughout my 2 year term: I provided support to the Municipal Government, Business Center and Local Economic Development Agency in project planning, grant writing, project implementation, and management; Designed and implemented individual community projects and grants that supported local governance, minority, civil society, and youth initiatives; Supported the objects and aims of various international aid agencies (PHARE, UNDP, USAID, Council of Europe, and the European Union) through the implementation of strategic development plans.; Project implementation, management, and evaluation of a $5,000 USAID grant.; Grant research, development writing, and management on multiple projects.

I worked four days a week, so I had the flexibility to travel around Bulgaria on the weekends. If I didn’t stay in my town, then I was traveling to see other volunteers. Since we were not allowed to drive, I traveled mostly via bus and sometimes by train. I was able to see the landscape of the country and enjoy the different food. Some of my favorites were shopska salata and moussaka.  I also had the opportunity to travel outside of Bulgaria while living there and went to on trips to Greece, Austria, France, Belgium, Germany, and Turkey, 

In March 2002, I received a call from my Peace Corps Program Manager sharing with me an opportunity to go to East Timor. They were looking to have volunteers who are in their 2nd year of service, extend for a third year to start the Peace Corps in East Timor. They were recruiting 2nd year Community Economic Development  and Health Volunteers. I was nominated by my Country Director and Program Manager, since I had been serving in a small community. I applied and was accepted into the program.

In June 2022, I left my community of Razlog and Bulgaria, for a quick trip home to California before traveling to Washington, DC for my in-country service training. My training group was 18 other Americans who had recently served elsewhere with the Peace Corps; three of us in Bulgaria. We had a shortened training period in the capital of Dili and throughout this time I lived with a family. Training consisted of Tetun-Dili language learning, East Timor culture, history and sector (Local Governance Promotion) training, as well as medical information, and site visits. At the end of my training period I was placed in Aileu to work for the District Administration. Throughout my 6 months at site, I was a able to: Provide support to the District Administration, United Nations Portuguese Peace Keeping Forces, United Nations Military Observers, United Nations Police Forces, and the community in establishing a local governance framework.; Supported the objects and aims of Peace Corps in a new nation through the development of project plans.; Experience in economic development, strategic planning and program development—focusing on local governance and grass-roots development.; Community development experience, working with a variety of actors within the development world—including local schools, non-governmental organizations, the media, and local businesses as well as international aid organizations such as the United Nations.

My experience living abroad was a good experience. I definitely had my ups and downs throughout my 2 ½ years abroad. I am grateful for the time that I was able to spend in 2 countries for a longer period of time, which allowed me to accomplish my initial goal of learning another language, getting work experience, meeting new people, and learning about a new culture. I believe that my time abroad gave me an understanding of the challenges and joys that the international students that I work with are experiencing, while studying here in the U.S. I encourage you to learn more about the Peace Corps, as well as continue to gain new experiences by traveling. 

Suzanne Pendergrass

Assistant Director, International Student and Scholar Services

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer: Alieu, EAST TIMOR June 2002 – November 2002; Razlog Bulgaria June 2000-June 2002

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