Costume Party (Video)

On Friday, the U.S. ambassador and other guests celebrated the new costumes Champa and her Ialoveni school partners created over the past several months — a colorful and emotional day we will never forget. This video is also on YouTube.

 

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Get Smart, Not Mad

If you’ve been frustrated dealing with the customer-service departments of some big American companies, just imagine trying to resolve a problem with them while you’re living on a modest budget halfway around the world.

I’ve come up with a method to do this effectively, which I’ll describe in a moment so you can use it, too — a break from my usual narrative about our Peace Corps activities. First, though, let me set the stage by sharing two examples of excellent long-distance customer service we’ve experienced while serving as volunteers in Moldova.

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The first was with Harry & David, which sells gift baskets, fruit and other goodies online. In December, Champa and I ordered a holiday gift for our younger son and his family. They had recently moved to a new house and I inadvertently entered the old address. When the package didn’t arrive, I realized my mistake and sent the company a message explaining the situation.

Their response amazed me. They sent a replacement gift to the correct address at their expense, even though I had caused the problem.

I made the same mistake when ordering hands-on science kits for our grandsons from KiwiCo. That company also responded immediately, sending a replacement kit to the boys, at its expense. I was so impressed.

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I am now a loyal customer with both Harry & David and KiwiCo. Not only do they sell great products, but they responded quickly and generously to my problems.

I wish I could say the same about Best Buy and The New York Times.

Both of those companies were initially unresponsive, ineffective and maddening, at least with me. I had to slog through tweets, online chats, e-mail messages and long silences before finally resorting to my special trick to get my situation resolved. I didn’t call them because I expected they would put me on hold even though I was calling internationally.

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With Best Buy, I was receiving annoying daily “do you want to resubscribe?” pop-up messages on my laptop. They came from a virus protection program I’d purchased from Best Buy a year earlier and, at their suggestion, had replaced with new software when the subscription ended. Best Buy told me I could only end the pop-up messages by resubscribing to the original software, for a fee, even though I’d uninstalled it and bought the new package.

With The New York Times, my online subscription suddenly stopped working. (The problem turned out to be that it was still connected to my previous job, even though I’ve been paying for it.) I sent numerous e-mail messages to find out what happened. No answer. I sent a series of Tweets to their customer care account on Twitter. No answer. I had an online chat with an agent who kept me waiting between each exchange while she handled other customers. She eventually said she’d fix the problem and write me back. She didn’t. When I sent her several follow-up inquiries, she didn’t reply.

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I finally resolved both situations with this technique:

I searched each company’s corporate site for the most senior executive I could find who seemed to have oversight of customer service, corporate communications or a related function. I then Googled their name with an “@“ sign to find their e-mail address. I also looked them up on Twitter.

Once I had their names and contact information, I wrote each executive a polite message explaining my dilemma. I asked them to assign someone to follow up with me. I wanted an actual person, with a name, who was empowered to help me.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.51.30 PMBoth appeals received gracious responses and quick follow-up. Both problems were resolved. It’s what I expected based on my own experience before joining the Peace Corps. I was sometimes on the receiving end of such messages. I always responded helpfully, even though it wasn’t my direct responsibility. I considered these messages to be welcome insights into problems our organization might have with its systems.

My suggestion when you’re trapped in Customer Service Hell, in other words, is to not become angry at the person on the phone or online with you, regardless of whether they are in the United States or somewhere else. They are probably overworked, with limited authority, and even more stressed out than you.

Get smart, not mad. Identify and recruit the assistance of a senior person who has the power to tell a competent colleague to resolve your situation. Be courteous with them, although sometimes you may also need to mention in passing how much you hope to avoid going public or pursuing some other recourse if the terrible service persists. Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.49.59 PMGive them a chance to take the high road. (All of this assumes, of course, you have a legitimate concern and are being honest with them rather than trying to scam them.)

When the executive tries to make things right, respond appreciatively and professionally. In my case, let me say how grateful I am to the people who intervened for me: Matt Furman and Dan Saunders at Best Buy and Meredith Kopit Levien at The New York Times, as well as to their colleagues.

If you’ve had a similar experience, good or bad, or have your own advice to share, I encourage you to leave a comment.

Oh, and one more thing: If you ever need to buy a gift basket or an educational toy, I know just where you should go.

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The Power of Stories

On Saturday, I used Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent recent speech at the Golden Globes to teach a group of Moldovan high school students about the power of stories.

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I was leading a workshop to prepare them for pitches they’ll be giving next weekend at the annual Diamond Challenge competition for young entrepreneurs, which several of us have been supporting as Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of the students knew about Oprah (who doesn’t?), so they were interested when I showed how she began her remarks on the #MeToo movement:

“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: ‘The winner is Sidney Poitier.’ Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses.”

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Oprah used that story to establish a personal connection with her audience, emotionally as well as intellectually. She then continued to tell stories, notably about Recy Taylor, a young black mother who was raped in Alabama by “brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

Like millions of people watching back home, I found Oprah’s words deeply moving. As a former speechwriter, I also admired how she celebrated the power of our own voices. In her case, she praised “all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”

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As I told the students on Saturday, effective speeches often open with personal examples. I showed them videos of previous Moldovan teams that won Diamond Challenge competitions. All of them began with members describing how they faced a problem themselves, leading them to develop a product or service to overcome it.

IMG_1152I also discussed speech-making generally and the particular format of entrepreneurial pitches. I divided the students into groups to practice their presentations, as you can see in the photos here.

My main point was that humans make judgments with both their heads and their hearts. You usually can’t convince them only with statistics and rational arguments, although those are important, too. You need to make them care.

IMG_1144When I was running a university communications office before joining the Peace Corps, I used to tell scientists and professors the same thing, as in this 2014 article in Inside Higher Ed. I urged them to “come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories.” Instead of trying to dazzle us with their intellects, I said, they should share their own experiences: “If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can’t afford the medication you prescribed.”

I believe this passionately. For better or worse, humans make sense of the world through stories. It’s why I tell stories on this blog.

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Here’s another rhetorical technique I love: Closing a blog post or speech by circling back to the opening sentence. In fact, I’ll do that now by turning again to Oprah, who closed her Golden Globes speech by saying, “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” See, she did it, too.

Few of us will ever speak as brilliantly as Oprah Winfrey. However, we all can learn from her, whether it’s for an international entrepreneurship competition, a business conference or a local meeting. If you want to convince your audience, make them care. Tell them a story.

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Why PCVs Serve

If you think Americans sign up to become Peace Corps Volunteers because they’re altruistic and want to help people around the world, you’re right but not completely right.

A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found their top three reasons for joining were “wanting to live in another culture,” “wanting a better understanding of the world,” and “wanting to help people build a better life.”

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Simultaneously, the survey reported “a significant generational shift” in the importance volunteers place on acquiring job skills and experience during their service. Volunteers who served more recently placed “a greater emphasis on career development as a motivation for joining the Peace Corps,” it said.

Just 30 percent of volunteers who served in the 1960s identified “wanting to develop career and leadership skills” as an important motivation.” Among volunteers who served in the 2000s, 68 percent cited this motivation, with 36 percent saying it was “very important.” Growing numbers of applicants also want to expand their language skills.

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A few years ago, a volunteer who returned from Guatemala wrote: “I’m sure that my Peace Corps service helped me gain acceptance to a selective master’s degree program (because my grades as an undergraduate were disappointing, at best). Over the years, many people have told me that having the words ‘Peace Corps’ on my resume would only help me.”

vanuatuIndeed, Peace Corps itself touts the career benefits of service. Its recruitment materials emphasize the importance of selfless service and cultural outreach but also highlight medical benefits, student loan deferrals, tuition reductions and career networking opportunities.

peruAll of this is consistent with the changes I’ve seen myself since I first served as a volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s. My friends and I didn’t talk much about resumes, grad school applications and job prospects. America was the world’s dominant economic power then. Jobs were plentiful.timor-leste

Before I joined Peace Corps this second time, I met regularly at my university with undergraduates who were considering Peace Corps, serving as an informal advisor for the campus placement office. At first, I was taken aback by how many of their questions were about how Peace Corps service might afftect their career paths. Would it help them get into law school, or a public health program or the Foreign Service? They asked whether I agreed with advice like this from The Princeton Review: “Altruism distinguishes a strong medical school applicant from a mediocre one. Volunteer work and community service [such as] the Peace Corps … speak most strongly to this quality.”south-africa

I always responded positively. Seeing how impressive these students were, I also came to understand their questions reflected new economic realities, not a diminishment in the applicant pool’s sincerity. Just like my colleagues now in Moldova, most of whom are much younger than me, they were wonderful people and every bit as committed as those who served before.

I’ve developed even greater admiration for today’s generation of PCVs as political winds back home shift towards “making America great again.” They face a more challenging economic environment than my generation did but have still chosen to devote more than two years of their lives to serve others. Yes, doing so may enhance their resumes and career prospects. That’s also true for young people who choose to serve in Teach for America or, for that matter, the Marines. Life is complicated.

So, too, for me. Champa and I joined the Peace Corps mainly to serve others, and to serve our country, after having so many blessings in our American lives. But we also were looking for some adventure and an interesting transition away from the conventional workplace.

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The Guatemala RPCV, Taylor Dibbert, emphasized what he and many of us ultimately consider most important about Peace Cops service: “Volunteers are doing important, unglamorous work that’s consistently underappreciated – from health to education, agriculture, the environment and more. Besides, volunteers are connecting with foreigners from across the globe and humanizing the U.S. for thousands upon thousands of non-Americans.”

Political winds and job markets will continue to evolve. What endures, he wrote, is “the culture of altruism, adventure and patriotism that has permeated the Peace Corps since the organization’s inception.”

I think he’s right, perhaps even completely right.

[All photos except featured image are from the Peace Corps online library.]

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How else has Peace Corps changed? My post Peace Corps: Now vs. Then identified six of the biggest changes I’ve seen. Subscribe to receive all of this blog’s future posts. 

Money Transfers

Every picture tells a story. Can you guess what this one is telling you?

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As you can see, it shows two shops, which are next to the traffic circle in Ialoveni, where Champa and I are serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. The yellow sign with the numbers showsIMG_1048 the latest exchange rates for the Moldovan leu relative to the U.S. dollar, the Euro, the Russian ruble and other currencies. The dollar has now slipped well below 17, continuing a slow descent I’ve discussed previously.

But something else is going on here, too. Look more carefully above the open door of the shop on the left. There’s a blue sign saying “Lucru legal în Europa!” In Romanian, that means “Work legally in Europe!”

IMG_1041It’s no coincidence this sign is adjacent to one showing exchange rates. In fact, it’s key to understanding the deeper meaning of the photo. It’s like the MoneyGram sign across the street, which says “transfer de bani,” or money transfer, or the Western Union sign up the block.

Everywhere you look in Moldova, banks and shops offer to transfer and exchange money. They are so ubiquitous, in fact, that you barely notice them after awhile, just like the fast food joints that cover our landscape back home.

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In the above photo in Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, there’s not only the shop with the red “Schimb Valutar” and “Exchange” signs but another one further up the block. Look carefully; it’s there. There are even more shops and signs as you get closer to places with lots of travelers, like the central bus station.

Moldova gets few foreign tourists, so the shops aren’t looking primarily to attract them. Nor are there many Moldovan tourists looking to buy Euros or dollars before heading on vacations in the other direction.

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No, all of this is a reminder of how many Moldovans have left their homeland to work abroad — especially in Western Europe but also in Russia and other eastern countries, as well as in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. As I’ve described previously, many of them must leave behind spouses and children, a story we hear again and again when we talk with our Moldovan friends.

When these foreign workers come home to visit, they often bring much of their earnings with them, or they may send money home with a trusted friend. Many also rely on banks and money transfer companies, comparing the fees, exchange rates and service to get the best deal.

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India and China, with their huge populations, are the world’s top “remittance-receiving” countries in overall dollars, followed by Philippines and Mexico. When calculated on a per capita basis or as a percentage of GDP, however, Moldova’s foreign workers are among the world’s leaders, as illustrated in the graph above, which is based on World Bank data. (I could not find a graphic with more recent data but there’s no doubt Moldova is still high on the list.)

 

Just like back home, much of this industry has moved online, for paying bills as well as for transferring and exchanging money. In fact, when I glanced last week at this yellow kiosk in the entrance to our local Market Victoria, I was startled to see bitcoin now listed as one of the options.

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You can certainly find money-exchange shops in the United States, too, especially in places with lots of foreign-born workers. I must have walked obliviously past the Western Union sign at my Harris-Teeter supermarket in Durham dozens of times until I needed to send money to someone in China. Then I noticed it. Every picture tells a story when you’re finally ready to see it.

 

Mulling What’s Next

If you’re an older American looking to continue pursuing a life of service and adventure after spending two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you can find lots of helpful resources online.

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I know because I’ve been searching through them myself as Champa and I enter the final lap of our time in Moldova. Just like our younger colleagues, we’re thinking about what we’ll do after ringing the traditional farewell bell here this summer. While many of them have been checking out graduate schools or possible jobs, though, we’ve been looking for ideas that better fit our stage of life.

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Senior Nomads, a blog by retired Seattle couple Debbie and Michael Campbell, chronicles their full-time travels since 2013, staying in Airbnbs while visiting more than 68 countries. As Debbie noted in a recent post, they now spend money on airfares, Airbnbs and travel insurance instead of a home. They’ve been able to spend lots of time every year with their children and grandchildren and to keep in touch with friends while pursuing a life that, at least to me, feels a lot more interesting than playing golf every day.Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.31.28 PM

Lynne Martin has been pursuing similar adventures with her husband Tim, which she describes  on her website, Home Free Adventures. Lynne’s book, Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World, inspired us several years ago when we were contemplating leaving the conventional workplace to become “not exactly retired” ourselves

There are numerous websites devoted to “senior travel,” each with its own niche. TripAdvisor compiled some of the best in its article 20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millenials. (Their title, not mine.) If you’re looking for practical tips, also check out Rick Steves’ article about Savvy Senior Travelers. If you’re dreaming of becoming a travel writer yourself, you’ll find lots of advice online.

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Other sites offers leads about short- or longer-term employment overseas. Transitions Abroad is a good one for English teachers. Modern-Day Nomads highlights “top travel jobs & inspiration for globetrekking, creative professionals.” (It hasn’t been updated recently but its listings for November included one for a seasonal sous chef at Denali National Park.)

Champa and I want to continue providing service after Peace Corps. I’ve been finding new inspiration for this at Encore.org, which promotes “second acts for the greater good.” I’m thinking now about how I can best apply my own skills to make a similar impact, whether back home in Durham or more broadly. Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.33.37 PMMy niece, Juliana, will be enrolling this fall at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, with a special interest in social entrepreneurship; I may need to borrow some of her course materials.

Good online resources exist to help older Americans find volunteer opportunities. HandsOn Triangle serves our North Carolina community. Similar sites exist elsewhere. AARP’s Create the Good serves older volunteers nationwide. Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.34.56 PMThere are also excellent organizations and websites aimed at older volunteers, such as the Executive Service Corps and Reserve. Most seek to match older Americans with positions that make good use of their particular skills.

I regularly find interesting articles on Next Avenue and from journalists such as Richard Eisenberg and Kerry Hannon who cover retirement issues. Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.35.33 PMMy favorite writer covering this field is Nancy Collamer (my sister), whose “My Lifestyle Career” site and recent 100 Great Second-Act Career Resources cover many of the issues I’ve discussed here, as well as “flexible gigs,” online courses for seniors and resources for everyone from foodies to pet lovers.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.36.14 PMFor the next five months, Champa and I will remain focused on the rest of our Peace Corps service. Here, too, plentiful online resources exist to motivate us. Not long ago, one RPCV group selected the 8 Best Blogs to Follow About Peace Corps, a list that included the blog you’re reading now. IMG_2013(Thanks, Friends & RPCVs of Guyana!)

Champa and I are most looking forward to taking a break and spending time with our family and friends after being away for so long. We really miss them, as you can tell from these photos we took during our trip home last summer. Simultaneously, we know we will eventually catch our breath and get serious about “what’s next?”

If anyone reading this has suggestions or wants to share something from their own lives, we’ll read your comments with interest — and perhaps others will, too.

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