Christina went abroad with Greenheart Travel in September 2010 to teach English in the Republic of Georgia. After three years in Georgia and a year in Russia, she was inspired to return to the States to begin her Master in Public Administration in pursuit of a career in the Foreign Service as a Cultural Affairs Officer.
She interned with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Information Office (UNO) in Tbilisi and further studied the Georgian and Russian languages during her gap semester from June to December 2015. Now she has accepted an internship offer with the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi in the Public Diplomacy Section for summer 2016 and is looking forward to assisting in cultural and education program exchange design and implementation.
I’d say I comprehend the local culture as well as a foreigner can. Locals often tell me that I’m quasi-Georgian, but parts of me will never integrate. I disagree with the saying, “Wear the hat of the place where you are.” It seems we should try to understand the hat and respect it, then take bits of its character for our own. Of course, Georgia will always be special to me. The place which changes us always is. Living here has made me truly appreciative, flexible, and adaptive. I’ll always be grateful for those lessons.
Always keep practical application in mind. Language is not fashionable. It’s a medium which you can tap into easily if you immerse yourself from the beginning. Even if you haven’t mastered the alphabet, pick up a magazine and discern what you can. Go beyond your expectations and expose yourself to all aspects of daily life.
Let me tell you a story about cake. I had been in Georgia for a few months when the worst craving for cake overcame me. Cake. Not ტორტი; I mean the kind of cake I grew up baking with my mother. Our connection to the connotation of words is so deep. Treasure your existing dictionary, but do not be reluctant to add new words. Do not hesitate to form new memories just as sweet as the old ones, and draw on those associations. Some days you will need cake, and others you will yearn for the taste of something new. And that’s ok.
Last but not least, be curious in the most ordinary places. Ask supermarket employees questions about soup can ingredients – just for the sake of learning vocabulary. Approach people waiting at the bus stop and have a chat about what you’d do if it never arrives.
Well, Russian has an extraordinary word: тоска. I’ll leave this untranslatable word open to your interpretations. For me, it was a longing for something I’d never had. Being almost completely dependent on others as an adult until I learned my way around was strange and scary for me, yet some of those relationships proved to develop into something deeper than I’d ever had at home. You might find that you experience the same feelings. Don’t mistake something you never had for homesickness.
My best advice is to not think about it as an internship with the UN, or whatever organization you’re applying to. Simply make a list of your strengths and weaknesses, then analyze how the organization can bridge those gaps. I applied to the UN for very specific reasons, namely becoming more knowledgeable about the education system and the different government and international entities which are working to develop it.
If you are still set on a prestigious organization, be persistent, and don’t hesitate to utilize unorthodox channels if you aren’t getting a response. Do not make the mistake of padding your resume with well-known names. I did this once, and I still feel guilty for knowingly going to work where the staff and the people it served could not have benefitted from my skills.
For humanitarians and public servants, just be genuine and dedicated. Don’t worry yourself with bringing already perfected soft or hard skills. My project manager and colleagues can tell you I wasn’t the most diplomatic in interacting with stakeholders. But then I found myself saying, “How could I not (take the initiative to help these people, etc.)?”, and I knew I was on the right track. When you notice yourself asking this question, you’ve found what makes you bold enough to put others’ welfare before your concerns about personal inadequacy. This is the one question you should never lose sight of in your work.
As you become more confident, be careful not to overextend. Keep your commitments, and keep them few – but completely. Even as an intern, remember your responsibility to your beneficiaries/constituent is just as real as your colleagues’. Also be a voice for those employees who are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their job when change can be made for the better.
Until this summer? Breathe! [laughs] Literally – just go outside and get back to nature for a while. Spend weekend mornings at the farmers market, go on hiking trips. No doubt, these past several months were very professionally productive, but I miss the thing which persuaded me to stay abroad in the first place: mentoring kids. I’ll probably become a Big Sister and devote as much time to that cause as possible. And there are native Russian speaking students at my university who could use help improving English writing skills, so I’d like to further study the language through exchange with them.