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Alumnus Takes a Hike-Across Armenia

Thinking about going abroad after graduation? Consider joining the Peace Corps! Read about Tom Cyrs’ own experiences as he went from a University of Illinois graduate to a Peace Corps Volunteer trekking across Armenia.

Guest Article: Tom H. Cyrs, Illinois Alumnus (photos courtesy of Tom Cyrs) 

In summer of 2012, I had the chance to hike roughly 270 kilometers across the mountainous southern region of Armenia, see gorgeous landscapes, pass through small, remote villages with welcoming inhabitants, and engage hundreds of youth along the way with health and environmental lessons. The best part was I got to call this work.

I joined the U.S. Peace Corps in Armenia as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) volunteer in June 2011. At the time, I didn’t know much of what to expect from the experience, just that the idea of working as a volunteer abroad and serving my country seemed like it would be both exciting and fulfilling. One of the few bits of information I had about Armenia before hopping on a plane was that it was mountainous, and that hiking was beautiful in that part of the world. So yes, I packed my hiking boots, but at the time I would not have imagined that cross-country hiking excursion would be a viable way to do my job and raise awareness for issues plaguing the country.

Armenia1

Soon after arriving in Armenia though, during our first few weeks as Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs), it became clear that there would be a great deal of room for flexibility and creativity in how we could work as volunteers. All Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) have their “primary” sectors of work, such as teaching English at schools or working with local NGOs, but all PCVs become involved in “secondary” work as well. It’s these secondary projects—which run the gamut from regional and local poetry recitation contests to tree planting—that often end up becoming at least as, or sometimes even more fulfilling than the volunteers’ primary duties. As my fellow trainees and I sat through a seminar on the current volunteer projects in Armenia, one project in particular, called “Border 2 Border,” sparked the interest of me and a few friends.

That summer, a group of 12 volunteers had hiked in two teams from Armenia’s northern and southern borders. During the hike they had stopped in 11 different communities to give children basic lessons on health and nutrition. Thus the volunteers managed to teach and also raise awareness in a very visible and grassroots manner as they hiked the entire span of the country. A group of us fell in love with the project and its concept, and decided to head it up for its second year running. We spent the winter months planning, contacting the communities and partners we would be working with, and raising awareness about the project. We also added curriculum for environmental lessons to the project, since pollution and lack of general environmental knowledge had been another issue that troubled us in the communities we worked in.

After all the planning, test runs of lessons, and a fair amount of physical training, summer arrived and with it the big hike. In the three weeks that we hiked across Armenia, we successfully managed to walk a collective 590 kilometers and finally meet up in the central town of Yeghegnadzor. Together we taught in a total of 18 towns and villages and reached over 750 Armenian children aged 10 to 18 with lessons on eating healthy, exercising, avoiding smoking and drinking excessively, and protecting the environment. The true fun of the project had been in the hike itself, the beauty of the country we were able to see, the countless warm-hearted strangers we met, and in working with the 75 community partners along the way who were mainly local teachers, students, and NGO workers.

Armenia2

A project like Border 2 Border is sort of a microcosm of the whole two-year long Peace Corps experience. You meet lots of new people, learn to adapt and be flexible in your surroundings, work closely with and rely on people who initially are complete strangers to you, and have many awkward encounters with people wondering why in the world you are doing what you are doing. A variety of skills came into play to make the hike and the lessons of Border 2 Border a success, namely speaking a foreign language, leadership, working well within a group, and being an effective communicator.

I was a journalism major at the University of Illinois, class of 2010, and it’s probably a stretch to say that classes on AP Style, news writing, and interviewing directly prepared me for the Peace Corps. I can definitely say, however, that other aspects of my education have served me very well here in Armenia. I picked up skills like how to engage new people and communicate well from my professors in the College of Media and from internship opportunities that the campus provided. The ability to pick up a foreign language and communicate effectively I owe in large part to my experience in a University of Illinois study abroad program in Granada, Spain.

In general, I feel that having attended such a culturally and ethnically diverse university, with ample courses to take and activities that help enrich one’s global awareness, has really helped me become a more worldly and culturally sensitive individual. Whether I’m hiking long distances and promoting community health, teaching English to students at the village school, or just sipping coffee with my neighbors and catching up, I believe that the well-rounded liberal arts education I received at Illinois has gone a long way in preparing me for this experience.

To view the original article, please visit: http://ilint.illinois.edu/iir/Spring2013/online/armenia.html

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