Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Interview of American Peace Corps Volunteer in Bago Philippines -- Susan Brooks

 Susan Brooks, Peace Corps Volunteer

 Interview of American Peace Corps Volunteer, Susan Brooks
by Cecilia Brainard
 Last April, I received an invitation from an American Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Philippines to participate in a Writers Conference. The Conference was part of a five-day Creative Writing Workshop for the students of Ramon Torres National High School in Bago, Negros, Philippines, where Susan Brooks taught. In May I talked to the students via Skype -- the first time I used Skype -- and that went well.
 In June, Susan and Elaine Sweet (another PCV from Bago) visited me in Cebu for the June 24 fiesta in the Parian of Historic Cebu which I attend annually. Finally I met the two women, whom I found lively, intelligent, and very curious about Filipino life.  They were game about everything -- touring old Cebu on foot, joining the fiesta procession, staying up late in the plaza to watch a folklore program. They had fun, I believe, and the three of us bonded.
I was curious about their experiences as Volunteers in the Philippines, and I sent them some questions. I actually planned/plan to use the information for another article, but their answers are complete and interesting. It gives one an insight into what American women (plucked out of modern America) feel and think as they negotiate their lives as teachers in a developing country.

Here are Susan's answers.  I'll post Elaine's answers in a future blog.  

Interview of American Peace Corps Volunteer, Susan Brooks.
1. What is your full name?  
Susan Birmingham Brooks (but I use Sue Brooks)

2. Before Bago, where did you live? 
 In the Philippines, I lived in Morong for 8 weeks with a host family, two weeks in training in Cavite, and then pre-July 8 I lived in Cleveland Ohio.

3. What work did you do before Bago?
 I worked in financial planning for a few years before joining the Peace Corps, but before that I was an attorney for 24 years and a teacher for 5 years before law school.

4. What prompted you to join the Peace Corps?
 I had decided in January 2011 to change what I was doing, but I was not sure what that would be.  In July I asked myself the classic question “what would you do if you had a million dollars” and I immediately thought: “I would not buy a house nor would I buy a car, I would travel, but I would not to be a tourist... Peace Corps.” I went on line and started the application that day.

5. How long have you been a PCV? 
 I was a Peace Corps Trainee from July 8 to September 19, when I was sworn in as a volunteer.

6. Where have you been assigned as a PCV? What cities or towns? 
My permanent site is Bago. I was a trainee in Morong getting ready for my site.

7. What work have you done as a PCV? (for eg. teacher, administrator) 
 I am assigned to teach English at Ramon Torres High School in Bago City, but I also work on different projects. In February 2012 I helped the students participate in a writing contest sponsored by Peace Corps volunteers and in May I conducted a 5 day creative writing workshop, along with other volunteers and teachers, for 22 students. I will facilitate a 2 day creative writing training session for 45 teachers in August and will work with elementary students at the library hub 2 times a week for one hour each time, working on writing and making simple books. I have done storytelling and poster making with children in the barangays on weekends. These are all projects for the community but my main focus is the high school, where I teach as I can, and work on different ways to help in remediation in English. I am working on creating reading modules for the speech lab and investigating the use of a special independent study reading kits.

8. Where have you lived as a PCV? (that is have you been with host families or are you renting your own apartment?)
 I have been with one host family since I came here.

9, Describe a typical day as a volunteer.  
This is hard. I am not sure there is a “typical” day.  I may meet the head of the department or a teacher or even a sales rep (to explore different materials for remedial reading). I may also work on my computer, developing lesson plans for both Ramon Torres and the community projects. I will also go to at least one, but sometimes two, teachers’ classrooms to observe, co-teach or teach. I will meet with the head of the English department and perhaps the principal on projects, and once a week I meet with the writers’ club. It is hard to be typical because there are changes in the teachers’ and students’ schedules and I adapt as I must.  My schedule will also change over the year as certain plans are implemented and different classes begin – or end.

10. What do you like most as a volunteer?
 I think I like the very thing I just described. It may seem chaotic, but for me it is creative and challenging. There are many different teachers with whom I work and students who amaze me every day, and IT people who teach me things I never knew, and projects that happen because of teamwork. I find that all exciting, not always easy, but always challenging. And quite selfishly I learn things every day – about teaching, people, and myself.

11. What do you dislike most as a volunteer?  
 I think it is the unknown. I know I basically just said I loved it, but as they say, there is a fine line between love and hate. I have to always remind myself to be flexible, non-judgmental and accepting. Those are all good life lessons. It does not matter where one works, we have to learn to accept what is and not what we think “should be”. After all, we (I) could be wrong.

12 What would you change if you could as a volunteer?  
Another hard one since I am not sure I would change anything and that includes the rashes I may get from the heat and ants that love my CR. I joined the Peace Corps, as I said above, because I did NOT want to be a tourist. The Peace Corps believes in immersion and I agree. I may not always be happy and have some days when I wonder what I am to do, but the challenge – there is that word again – is for me to figure it out and make it work. And what better lesson can one learn? At any age.

13. What do you want to say about:
   - your school
   - your students
    - your host families
    - Bago 
    - the Philippines
The school. My school is huge (4,700 students) and in the process of changing, as all high schools in the Philippines are, from 4 year to 6 year schools by the year 2018. This is a daunting task. Yet in the midst of this, along with the usual “paperwork”, the head of the department and principal and teachers always find time to talk to me. Their patience and humor is astonishing. I do not always agree with them, but then I remind myself that this is their school and their country and they just may know more than me. And no matter how obnoxious I have gotten being impatient, they are always accepting and friendly and willing to talk. Pretty amazing.
Students: This is easy. I love these kids. I know there are always exceptions, but they are kind and funny and considerate and open to learning anything. An old expression but true – they are like sponges – they want to soak it all up. They are also as vulnerable as teenagers everywhere and sometimes talk about...never had a crush...do I weigh too much....how will I get all my work done. I have worked with students from the highest to the lowest sections, and have loved talking to all of them. They make me laugh and I make them laugh – usually unwittingly by trying to use the dialect.  No matter how bad a day I have, I could never give up because I see their faces in my mind and like children and teenagers everywhere, they give me hope and just plain make me happy.
Bago: I feel blessed to have been assigned to this city. I like its small town feel yet with some big town amenities like a coliseum for programs and park that parallels a river for long walks and stunning sunsets. I walk to school and the park and the plaza and the markets. People wave and say hi and make me feel a part of the community.  And if I need to go to a larger store I can take a bus and jeepney and be in Bacolod in less than an hour. I can even go someplace to have shoes made (I am 6 feet tall and have feet to go with that – size 12), to the local museum and its lovely cafe, to the lagoon or plaza for a walk, or to the larger markets to wander. And of course there is SM and Robinsons and the new Ayala Mall. But at the end of the day, as I sit on Ceres Liner, I look forward to going home to Bago.
Host family: Another easy one. I am with an amazing family who even cleaned out and opened up an extra room for me to let me stay with them.  I love the fact that there are so many lawyers in this family – one in Malaysia, one in Manila and one in Bacolod. And another went to law school, does not practice but is public information officer for the city, which means I learn about the city and its programs and people. There is also a business woman who has a partner in France and sells high-end children’s’ clothes to Spain and France and England and India and the US. She is one of the smartest people I have ever met, and between her and the other siblings and in- laws I get to share in wonderful conversations and learn a lot about the Philippines. The family is active in professional women’s groups and city organizations and I have met creative and exciting people through them. At the same time they are “Filipino”. We eat Filipino food and live in a beautiful home that is at the same time simple. I wash with cold buckets of water and love it – wakes me up and in the heat of summer it refreshes. So I have a blend of the old and the new without losing, I think, the Filipino culture and people.
The Philippines: Stuck again. But I thought about it and know why. When I look at that word – “Philippines” – I first think of the things that tourists do – beaches and mountains and volcanoes and rice terraces – all of which are wonderful and many of which I hope to see and experience before I leave. But that is not what the Philippines means to me. I am not a tourist here and the Philippines to me is the people. They are gracious and welcoming and kind to this stranger. I have shared food and laughed with them as I tried my first balut or bit of durian. I have had inasal chicken in more places than I can count but never tire of it. I love calamansi in everything, but especially in patis with my chicken.  And of course I have shared lechon at birthday parties and fiestas and baptisms. This is a country with beautiful vistas, but it is the beauty of the people that makes it the Philippines to me.
14, When does your assignment to Bago end?
September 2014 – two years after I came.

15. What can you say about your PCV experience so far?  
 I am not sure I can say more than what I have in the previous questions, but of course I will (smiley goes here). I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. I applied without knowing where I would go and what I would do, and I ended up in paradise. Not bad.

16. Do you feel the PCV experience has changed you?  And how? 
 I wonder. I hope that I am getting more patient and flexible, but not sure. I still have another year here, so that will be the time to answer the question.

17.  What are your plans for the future -- specifically after you finish your stint?
I started this interview by saying that I decided to make a change in my life. But there is more. I was 62 years old then and decided that before I die (and I am quite healthy), I was going to do whatever I was meant to do in this world. And that was not financial planning or practicing law as I had been. I do not know what it is that I am meant to do but I do know it will be service related, possibly for my country. That sounds hokey, but I do not know how else to say it. I love America and am concerned about it and think it is my time to give back. I just do not know how or what I am to do. I see myself using skills and experiences as an attorney, and all that I have learned here in the Philippines, in whatever I will do. That said, I have no idea what the “job” will be.  Years ago I heard someone say that their son, when asked what he would do after college, said “the job I will be doing does not exist yet”. I think that there is a job out there for me, but I do not know what it is. Perhaps it does not exist yet.  But no matter. It will be there when I am ready and I will be ready for it. 
18. Any additional comments
Just a personal one to you Cecilia. Thanks for this interview. It has given me a chance to think over these last few years and look forward to the future, and I do not always take time to do that. Lots of luck with what to do with this “interview”!  (ok, I had to do a smiley...)

The photos show Susan Brooks in her school and in Historic Cebu during the June 24 fiesta.
tags: Peace Corps, PCV, Susan Brooks, Elaine Sweet, American, Bago, Philippines, Visayas, Negros, Ramon Torres School, education, writing, workshop, conference

No comments: