Leah Elcock has been a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Georgia for the past six months. Before that, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan from 2011 to 2013, working as an English Teacher Trainer. Leah continues to teach English in Georgia with Azerbaijani speaking populations. She is from Washington, D.C. and graduated from Howard University in 2009 with a bachelor’s in Spanish Language and Literature. Her advice to future Peace Corps applicants? “Do it!”
Read about what her life is like as a Peace Corps Volunteer below:
Q: How did you hear about Peace Corps and why did you decide to apply?
A: I first heard about Peace Corps from my Spanish professor at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado. Almost every lesson was accompanied by an anecdote about his service in a South American country. When there was a Peace Corps presentation at the college, he encouraged us to go, and I went. Over the next eight years, I continued to hear about Peace Corps from people I met at university, work, and in random places. All of them encouraged me to apply, and the stories I’d heard about their services made Peace Corps sound like just the thing for me, so I applied. Ten years removed from that Spanish professor in Colorado, I was accepted into the Peace Corps.
Q: Describe where you lived in Azerbaijan and your current site in Georgia.
A: My first site was typical for a town in central Azerbaijan. The land was flat and dry with mild winters, blazing hot summers, and millions of mosquitos. My second site, although very much Azerbaijani, seemed to be the exact opposite of the first. It was a village in Georgia, surrounded by mountains bringing cold winters, verdant summers, and few mosquitos. The folks here mirrored the environment with their rugged day-to-days, genuine smiles, and easy-going temperaments.
Q: What project are you most proud of?
A: One month before school let out, my counterparts and I began meeting to plan a sports and dance camp. The camp was only going to be two days, one for sports and one for dance. I wanted to let them decide everything, so my role was “questioner.” I questioned them on EVERYTHING I could think of, great and minute. Only when I saw that a decision they had made was going to cause problems during camp did I suggest another way.
After the planning stage came preparation. It was during this stage that my admiration for these two counterparts grew and grew. Whatever task they were given was faithfully carried out sans me having to remind them. They got the names of all the 50+ students who would be attending and delivered the hand-written list to me. They obtained the keys for the gym, checked the equipment there, and noted what materials we’d need to get.
They were justifiably nervous at the beginning of camp, but with a little encouragement they began to come into their own as teachers even though they’d never taught in this way. I purposely gave myself the job of “wanderer” so that I could answer any questions that came up while they were teaching. This also seemed to help them relax. At the end of the first day they were tired but extremely excited to have accomplished what they had set out to do. They were also very encouraged by the kids’ overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the first day. The two days went so well that the students asked for more. My counterparts were a little apprehensive about that because I would be out of the country. I told them very frankly that I had complete confidence in their ability to continue the camp without me. They put their heads together with the two other people recruited to help with the camp and decided to give the students two more days of camp.
Those two days were very successful; a success for them, yes, but also for me. These women now have a wider view of what is possible in their communities and I am confident that they will have camp again.
Q: What part of your service did you enjoy most? What do you think will be most memorable about your service?
A: As a Peace Corps Volunteer and a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, I think the most memorable part of my service was the time I spent with my host families. I had three host families and managed to become a part of each one in such a way as to rival the relationships I have with my biological family. It wasn’t all my doing, though. All three families treated me as family from day one in their house. I’ve been a part of their weddings, birthday parties, funerals, national holidays, and religious celebrations. More importantly, I am a part of the more mundane: eating watermelon on lazy summer days, huddling around the stove on cold winter nights; rocking babies to sleep; making bread; and going to the market.
Q: Describe your relationships with your counterparts and host community.
A: My counterparts and I had a relationship that went beyond reaching project goals. At the end of each service, it felt like I was leaving my aunts or sisters. In my communities I felt right at home. I could walk the streets at any time of the day or night. In every corner of the community there was always a place I could go and hang out, making conversation over a cup or two (or three) of tea.
Q: How has Peace Corps changed or enlightened your personal perspective?
A: I’ve learned to be more accepting of things that are completely foreign (or downright weird) to me yet work perfectly for the people around me.
Q: What did you miss most about the United States?
A: Honestly, the only thing that couldn’t be found or substituted was my family. I really wanted them to be a part of my experiences on a day-to-day basis, not just through e-mail updates.
Q: What do you hope to do after Peace Corps?
A: I plan on getting a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) so that I can live and teach in other countries. Living abroad has increased my drive to get to know even a little bit more of the world that exists outside of the U.S. The world is my job market. I am willing to go anywhere as long as there are people to teach and languages to be learned.
Q: Are you bringing anything interesting home from service?
A: I left Azerbaijan with an entire suitcase filled with scarves, each one different from the next, but all with a buta (unofficial symbol of Azerbaijan) somewhere in the pattern. I had a great time passing those out to my friends in the States and seeing them put to good use.
Q: What advice would you give to a potential Peace Corps applicant?
A: DO IT! No matter what happens during your service, you will not regret having been part of another culture, even if for such a short period of time.
About Peace Corps/Georgia: There are currently 90 volunteers in Georgia working in the areas of English education and community economic development. During their service in Georgia, volunteers learn to speak Georgian. More than 515 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Georgia since the program was established in 2001.