The Write On! Competition

One of the major projects I’ve been working on recently is the Write On! Competition, an International creative writing competition organized by Peace Corps volunteers. Here’s a summary of the competition’s history provided by the International website:

In 2003, a group of Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia established the Writing Olympics as an innovative way to promote creativity and critical thinking among students in developing countries. Three years later, Armenia and Azerbaijan competed in the first Trans-Caucasus Writing Olympics. The contest went international in 2009 with the inclusion of Moldova. Thanks to outreach efforts by Peace Corps volunteers and staff, the number of participating countries has doubled in recent years with the addition of Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Ukraine. The project, now known as the Write On! Competition, is in its tenth year and looking to expand to even more countries.

I participated last year as the Oblast coordinator for the Sumska Oblast, and to use a trite phrase that nonetheless holds truth, it was a learning experience.

Around December of this year, I started wondering about the status of the 2013 competition. After asking around, I discovered that Ukraine wasn’t technically participating this year as we didn’t have a national coordinator. Like a lot of things in Ukraine, this project fell into my lap. With a lot of help from my sitemates, David and Debbie, I think I’ve done a pretty good job getting things up and running in a fairly short amount of time.

My main goals have been to expand the reach and the sustainability of this contest in Ukraine, and I’ve been working mainly through social media. We’ve got a website and a facebook page and a VK page, and it seems to be working. I’ve gotten a handful of emails from Ukrainian teachers, students, or youth organizers in places that have no PCV contacts, asking how they can participate. It’s been pretty rare for me to see such interest in projects without a lot of promotion by PCVs–it’s like drawing blood from a stone to get my kids to do anything–so I’m pretty satisfied.

Still, the budget of Peace Corps Ukraine has been slashed. The number of incoming PCVs has been been severely decreased; group 41–my group–had 105 incoming PCVs, while group 45 who will be arriving at the end of March–exactly two years after we did–is likely to be made up of less than 50. Ukraine is a huge country, and volunteers are spread out across the whole thing. I’m worried that in the future it will be very difficult for all interested Ukrainian students to participate, as one of the main points of the contest is the involvement of Americans in the Writing Sessions and judging.

This year I had to turn away interested Ukrainians who contacted me at the very last moment because I simply didn’t have the infrastructure in order to carry out the competition in their oblast. It took a lot of thinking, but I couldn’t do it all myself. This makes me really afraid of the future of this contest in Ukraine, especially with fewer PCVs. Ukraine is unique in the Peace Corps world, in many respects. We’re one of the more developed countries where volunteers serve. We’ve got the highest population of Mature PCVs (ages 50 and up) and they’re usually placed in large cities with developed public transportation and medical facilities. The things PCVs are doing in Ukraine are really very different from what they’re doing in other countries.

When I applied for the Peace Corps nearly three years ago, I imagined that I would spend 27 months living a radically different life. I thought it would be slower, that I would focus on human connections in a way that isn’t as possible living in a city. At my site interview I requested a village. Now I’m living in a beautiful city, what is essentially the state capital of the Sumska oblast, with internet that is faster and cheaper than what I have back home. I struggled for a while trying to reconcile the reality of my Peace Corps service with what I had imagined it would be, the horrible creeping feeling that the relative ease of my life in Ukraine somehow undermined or lessened my validity as a PCV. That I didn’t do it right. That my service wouldn’t, shouldn’t count. But it’s projects like this that have made me realize that, yeah, it does count. PCVs in Ukraine are doing a lot, and there’s a lot of opportunities do work with grassroots Ukrainian organizations and interested persons promoting and making progress on a whole host of issues. It’s easy to become frustrated with the different methods of getting things done, with the last minute changes and the lack of adherence to any sort of set plan–but there are things to be done, and needs to be met. I worry that future PCVs are going to be stretched thin, trying to fill more roles than an individual can.

In the weeks leading up to the writing sessions I was a sleepless mess. Fielding questions from Oblast coordinators left and right, clarifying things, making up rules and guidelines on the spot, trying desperately to encourage PCVs to participate. And then, when the writing sessions began: silence. Nothing. Jittery in the absence, waiting for our own session on Saturday. Resigned is probably not the right word, but neither is calm or accepting, to describe my feelings as plans and helpers on the Ukrainian end for our session changed daily. And then the Saturday came, and went–without a hitch.

I’d been so nervous about having a concert before the writing session began. Having sat through countless holiday concerts at school I imagined an endless parade of songs and dances only vaguely related to the theme, of me squirming in my seat as time ticked by while things were still being organized. After discussing my fears with David and Debbie, we all agreed that whatever happens, concerts and lavish opening ceremonies are signifiers of importance over here. That this is the way it’s done, and this is a way to make the kids feel even more special, to make this contest legitimate. And it worked! The concert was wonderful, and quick. A student of the pedagogical university acted as MC with her melodic Ukrainian, followed by a student saxophonist in a blue three pieced suit (though at the start of his second song Debbie leaned over and said ‘well, he was only supposed to be doing one, so I guess let’s just enjoy the ride’) a speech from the Vice Rector of the university, a song from a student who had competed on the Ukrainian X-Factor, a speech from Debbie’s counterpart–the Director of the English Department–and a gushing speech from little old me with a big smile and an uncontrollably shaking leg.

Then an hour of writing, and BAM! It was over! It left me a bit dazed.

The best part was the turnout. Last year 37 kids participated, and this year we weren’t sure how many to expect with the increased publicity and cooperation of the Pedagogical University. Only 20 students pre-registered, and we’d talked about a goal of 60 participants, but I prepared enough materials for 90. I thought I was crazy, and wasting paper, though one lesson learned from last year was not to put any specific date or location information on print outs so they can be used again the next year. Good thing I did, because we had 80 participants. 80!

And a handful of them were my own students. I squealed and gave one armed hugs as best I could with my fancy speech giving dress restricting the movement of my arms.

On Monday I met with David, Debbie, Sveta and a huge group of Ukrainian 5th and 6th year University students to judge our 80 essays. I had been so worried that I wouldn’t have enough help, but so many of my friends showed up, and brought their friends as well. I was overwhelmed by the support shown by my friends over here, and regretted not bringing enough plastic teacups or pieces of chocolate for everyone who came. We had a good time, and got it all done quickly. I spent the rest of the week printing out certificates and thank you cards, and updating our website. On Tuesday winners and placers will come to the CEI office to pick up their prizes and have their pictures taken.

The next big steps are Oblast judging during the week of March 11th, and National judging during the week of March 25th. Trying not to be too nervous about those, toeing the line between being prepared and letting things work themselves out.

Overall, so far, success. And I’ve got to admit, I’m proud of myself. Molodets, me. We’ll check back in a couple weeks to see if I still feel the same way, but with the support and advice of friends, both PCV and Ukrainian, I think I’ll be fine.

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