In August 2015, I moved to the South Caucasus nation of Armenia to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. I had previously spent a full academic year in Washington, DC, at American University in the Anthropology Department working towards my master’s degree in public anthropology (MAPA).
During the fall semester, I began and later submitted my application to the Peace Corps, narrowing my field of interest to community/youth development. I wanted to gain more experience in non-governmental/non-profit organizations.
You’re probably wondering why spend the money on graduate school and a whole two years abroad. My best answer is that I knew I wanted to continue my education, but just not in a wholly traditional way. I also have a strong passion to travel…everywhere. So I began to look for ways to get a degree and travel at the same time. I quickly found the Master’s International Program from the Peace Corps and searched for anthropological or sociological graduate programs. The MAPA program at American University caught my eye. I got accepted, moved to DC, and started graduate school in August 2014.
Anthropology was and is a different field for me, as my bachelor’s degree is in sociology. It awakened an activism inside of me that I knew was there but couldn’t clearly express. Living in DC gave me an educational environment and urban/professional landscape that could facilitate that activism. I was introduced to the key founding and contemporary theories of anthropology through my classes. Additionally, I created an anthropological research project within the context of the classroom. This involved as much theory and literature research as it did paperwork for consent forms and travel expenses.
My first experience with a nonprofit was in the spring of 2015 with an organization called Public Citizen. I attended a few Congressional hearings—one on compensation for victims of asbestos poisoning who were employed by the government. I also became familiar with how the offices of Senators and Representatives function. It was all very humbling and insightful.
Now with that full academic year in the books and going on eight months in Armenia, I am starting to formulate ideas for my Substantial Research Project (SRP). This project has been open to interpretation for my cohort in our respective Peace Corps posts. Armenia is truly rich in its possibilities for anthropologists. Armenians have a unique history and identity, a transition between the political economies of communism and capitalism, and an overall dynamic of change that is happening as I serve.
I am living in a small town of 12,000 by Lake Sevan called Vardenis. I work in the local YMCA. I often explain it as not your typical YMCA by American standards. There’s no basketball court, swimming pool, or exercise room. The facility is primarily used as educational center during the school year. In the summer they have another building by the lake where the staff host summer camps for youth around Vardenis.
I am assisting one of the English teachers with her after-school class and once a week I visit the local college and run an English club there for older students. The ages of students at the YMCA range from five to thirteen. The college is the equivalent of the American high school system.
Outside of English clubs, I have begun work on applying for a grant to create a computer resource room for the YMCA. The idea is to have three to five computers connected to the internet and have various workshops for resume-building, email use, and Microsoft Office. Another possibility is to create a schedule for an internet café where community members can pay per hour to access the internet. This adds some much needed revenue to the YMCA budget and expands the resources that the YMCA can provide to Vardenis.
As my first year draws to completion and the second draws nearer, I am beginning to narrow my topics for the SRP. I am growing more interested in conducting interviews with Armenians—young and old—to record their perspectives and opinions on what it is to be Armenian while transitioning into a new economy. I was previously thinking of exploring the difference between what it means to be Posh Corps and Peace Corps. The difference primarily being a level of comfort that is not typical of Peace Corps volunteers. Those are my two competing topics for my SRP.
When I return to American University, I will complete one more semester and write up my project. I look forward to seeing old friends, making new friends, and reconnecting with the other three volunteers in my cohort. Hearing their stories and plans for their project is very exciting and keeps me upbeat when I’m missing home. I hope to honor the Armenian people and their culture with my project. As they have shown me the true meaning of hospitality and a full stomach. Armenia will have taught me how people can and should treat each other when they are strangers in a foreign country. You treat them like family.
I am from Lexington, Kentucky. My first experience traveling outside the US was to Italy for one month in a study abroad program. I really miss my dog and cat and a soda from Kentucky called Ale81.
Are you passionate about social justice at home and abroad? Connect with other students like Rob in the master of arts in public anthropology program at AU.