May 28, 2005: Headlines: COS - Philippines: The Coshocton Tribune: Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Philippines: Peace Corps Philippines: The Peace Corps in the Philippines: May 28, 2005: Headlines: COS - Philippines: The Coshocton Tribune: Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer

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Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer

Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer

Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer

My Years With the Peace Corps
Coshocton graduate Andrew Harrison spent 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer. He returned in March

By Andrew Harrison
The Coshocton Tribune
Newark, Ohio
May 28, 2005

Caption: Andrew Harrison takes pictures of several exhibits to take back to show his friends in the Philippines while at the Coshocton County Fair.

Be flexible. That's what Peace Corps (officials) told me at my interview in Cleveland back in the spring of 2001. They said it again during the staging process in San Francisco in the summer of 2002.

In fact, that phrase would be said many times over as I served 30 months in the Philippines as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer. At the time, frustration would find me quickly as that phrase became the vague answer to so many of my specific questions. "Where will I live?" "Will I have electricity?" "How about running water, or indoor plumbing?" "What happens if I get sick?" As I prepared to make the biggest journey of my life, my questions were relentless while Peace Corps answers remained vague but consistent: Be flexible, they would tell me. I felt it was a test of sorts - and it probably was. Looking back however, it is clear that the dedicated Peace Corps staff was giving me the only advice they were sure I would need.

Living in Vigan City Ilocos Sur was heavenly compared to the images I conjured up while waiting for my site placement. I was bracing myself for the worst. For me, just the name "Peace Corps" brought to mind images of huts and outhouses, famine and unpronounceable illnesses. Imagine my surprise at the end of the 12 hour bus ride from Manila when I rubbed my eyes to see Vigan City Plaza, the crown jewel of Asia's Spanish colonial architecture.

The morning air was already hot and full of foreign smells. Someone was baking pandasal bread nearby. I watched two children play some sort of game with their sandals - setting one on the ground and throwing the other. I would learn later that it was some kind of make-shift bocci ball game. The town was bustling at 6 a.m. and so was I.

I already had two months of training near Manila before arriving in Vigan City. With more than 100 hours of language and cultural training, I was ready to get started. I was assigned to Ilocos Sur National High School in downtown Vigan City.

Being the provincial capital (much like Columbus is to Ohio), Vigan City has a relatively large population of 20,000 or so residents. Ilocos Sur National High School is the largest in the province and children bus in as far as and hour away each morning to attend the school of 6,000 students.

Like most places I encountered in the Philippines however, Vigan City basically has two economic classes; rich and poor. In Manila, for example it was common to drop coins in a child beggar's cup as she huddled against the heat exhaust of a five-star hotel. Much like the U.S. in the early 1930s, there were those who were connected and those who were not. Being connected, meant being secure. In this way, there is little difference between recent U.S. history and the current Filipino state. Everyone from or close to the Filipino culture has their own "take" on how a country so rich in resources - both natural and intellectual - could have fallen so far behind the rest of Asia; but that is another story.

My job was not to become involved in what had already happened, but to identify some sort of community contingent more interested in what could be done now. Not in an effort to erase an oppressive history, I might add, but rather in spite of it. Specifically, my job was to help the teachers of Ilocos Sur National High School (ISNHS) become more proficient in the language of international business, science, literature and arts. As an education graduate of English, I was quite excited about what opportunities might come my way.

Around close company, I had been known to complain about how things worked or didn't work in the Philippines, as most volunteers are prone to do, but you will never hear me say a negative word about those with whom I was so blessed to have lived and worked. But they were not without legitimate wants.

My first few months were spent getting to know everyone in the ISNHS English department and working towards being part of the work team and away from being the special guest. Filipinos are famous for their hospitality and the spared no expense for this wide-eyed Amerikano.

Just like the stereo-typical Amerikano, I jumped in with both feet and began assessing the needs of the school and sketching out some project ideas. I would learn later, and after much difficulty, that I was not a solution to anything and I was never meant to be. I was a resource; something that could be tapped when needed based on the assessment of the user. Once I figured this out, everything improved. The teachers started approaching me with their own ideas about where I could help. I taught for many months to relieve overworked teachers or stepped in for a maternity leave or supplemented their English curriculum.

My attitude changed and that change was more acceptable to the hosting culture because behavior that seemed a little too passive for this idealistic 20-something was viewed by the locals as polite and respectful. After that, projects seem to roll my way and I expanded outside of the school during the summer to participate in projects led by the Vigan City Department of Tourism and Rotary Club, as well as the National Department of Education.

By letting go, they grabbed a hold and in the meantime I learned to be flexible. My Peace Corps experience did not include many huts or out-houses. I never spent the night in a hospital, and only took a few bucket of my baths by candlelight. But I did get to live and work with some of the most beautiful people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. And, although my experience in the Peace Corps turned out to be little of what I expected, it was - in every way - all that I hoped for.

When this story was posted in June 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: The Coshocton Tribune

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