Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Closing the Cycle and Changing the Frame

The sudden realization of letting 4 months slip by without writing a post is yet another reminder of how the past two years of my Peace Corps services has flashed by.  Since December I have written my graduate thesis and touched down in three other countries outside of Paraguay.  I started teaching one last business planning class for young entrepreneurs and am working on wrapping up all the loose ends of my past projects. Just this week I was introduced to the next volunteer who will be living in Encarnación.  She's an accomplished and motivated young professional with a plethora of opportunities to make a difference in Paraguay, a lot like myself not so long ago.

And just like that, my 2 year cycle begins to come to a close.  Life after Peace Corps isn't so clear at the moment, but the promises of happy reunions with family and friends, attending my graduation ceremony and diving into the challenge of entering the professional world are all on the horizon.  The importance of "squeezing the last drops" out of my Paraguayan life, a favorite Spanish saying of mine, is more real than ever.  Each class, each dinner with friends, each sunset from the terrace is to be savored and enjoyed to its fullest.  Instead of getting too far ahead of myself, I want to honor the significance of being here.

Paraguay Emprende Local Workshops and 2015 Winners Receive Seed Funding Awards

Encarnación Sustentable Strategic Planning Retreat

Encarnación Sustentable Finishes its By-Laws as a Formal Association

To show you how far I have come during my service, I would like to share the transcript of a short speech I recently gave to my Peace Corps peers and the Peace Corps Paraguay staff.  Despite the challenges and the doubts, I can confidently say that I have found joy in Paraguay.  I would like to thank everyone who read through, helped edit and listened to me practice this speech.

Peace Corps Paraguay: Change Your Frame

I want to start out by referencing a concept that everyone encounters on a daily basis.  It’s a communication and storytelling technique called “framing.”  In essence, framing refers to the way a story or message is presented, which ultimately influences the choices the audience makes on how to process that message. Frames impact both interpretation and attitude toward a story whether we as the storyteller are aware of using them or not.  Frames often tend to be agendas or biases that slant incoming messages.  But rarely do we think about how we frame our own personal experiences from our daily lives within our own minds.  The way we, perhaps unconsciously, frame our experiences begs the question, “What story are we telling ourselves?  

Each and every one of us sees life in a different lens, captured like a camera, within our own minds. Today, I’d like to share a personal story with you about how seemingly small changes to my own frame greatly impacted the joy I found in my Peace Corps service in Paraguay.

I had serious self-doubts surrounding my site placement as a volunteer in Encarnacion.  It was not about the mission of my work but the reality in which I was supposed to carry it out.  First, the temperatures:  Hot, and I mean sweltering for a Montana girl. Not to mention, urban. What the heck was I supposed to do with the solar light, the straight blade and the garden seeds I had packed along with all the expectations I had of leading a pioneer life?  In my mind’s eye, I was having a hard time coming to terms with where I saw myself at the moment and I wondered relentlessly of alternative possibilities.  My frame was narrow, my lens was negative, laced with doubt, and limiting my experience. 

I started teaching my first employability class early on in my service, mainly because I’m not really good at being still.  The highlight reel of my first class comes to mind right now.  I can see myself there, nervous about language mistakes, about content, about cultural miscommunication and suddenly I find myself teaching the class in total mortification because every single student is sitting in the row of extra desks in the very back of the classroom, instead of the circle of desks I had carefully prepared up front.  Questions are racing in my mind, What did I do wrong as a facilitator, a volunteer, a person?  The jumbotron in my mind flashes “epic fail,” an affirmation of the insecurity I had already imposed on the situation.  I had quickly framed the experience with negativity and failure.

If I could have accepted that moment as a cultural quirk, which I’m sure most of you have the pleasure of experiencing on the daily, maybe I could have seen past my frame to the possible positive outcomes of my being there.  For example, experiencing first-hand the amazing story of Soraya, a 17 year who took the tools she developed in this class to get a job at the university in her barrio.  Soraya would tell me later that it was because of that job she decided to sign up for classes and pursue a career in psychology. 

Instead of building upon this win, I was so focused on the curve balls that Paraguay was throwing my way that it took me a while to find the key to not striking out.  I allowed the communicative, cultural and bureaucratic hurdles to put a spin on my stories, so much so that I was missing out on all the little moments of joy.  Doubt continued to frame my experience.  Fortunately, what happened next would completely shift my frame from doubt to joy.

During this time, The community organization, Encarnacion Sustentable, was becoming more autonomous and started planning projects, teaching charlas and painting incredible murals around the city to raise awareness for environmental sustainability and social justice.  My star youth leader, Fabi, organized a presentation at a middle school, where she told the students with tears in her eyes how community service helped her find her happiness outside of a broken home.  After a painstaking six month wait for the winners of Paraguay Emprende, the national entrepreneurship program, to receive their seed funding awards, I am happy to announce that those 30 young entrepreneurs now have the knowledge and a little bit of cash to help them fulfill their dreams. 

Instead of my experiences being captured in the shadow of doubt, I was slowly beginning to re-frame my service with the joy of being here.  My perceived personal shortcomings were far outweighed by the fearlessness and growth of the youth I was working with.  I opened the lens of my mind wider to accept each moment, and celebrate the accomplishments of those around me, focusing on how I could facilitate change in others and in doing so change myself.

Recently, I returned home from vacation to find that, for the second time, my bike, and primary means of transportation, had been stolen.  But this time my mental camera didn’t catch me throwing a fit, getting angry or beating myself up.  It simply was what it was, framed as another learning experience. 

Life in Paraguay can be good, bad or neutral depending on what frame you CHOOSE to see it through.  A quote I stumbled upon that has helped me become more accepting of my experiences here and leave behind the spin I put on my own stories, reads, “How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

This leads me to ask each one of you, What happens when you consciously change your frame from one of resistance to acceptance?  Your attitude changes and the outcomes follow. The lesson for me and I hope for you too, is to embrace your power as the cameraman, the director and the producer of your Peace Corps service.  Focus on welcoming every experience with an open frame that will allow you to find joy in that moment, right here in Paraguay.