Serve Well Blog

10.14.15

Peter Bittner on Tough Service Experiences and Discernment

The Krista Foundation | Krista Foundation Press, Post-Service Term Reflections

This speech was given at the Krista Foundation Annual Fundraising Breakfast in Spokane, WA on September 29, 2015. 

Peter Bittner, 2013 Colleague, served as a youth tutor with AmeriCorps in White Center, WA. Immediately following his year of service, Peter became a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Currently, Peter is a student at the University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, engaging his passion as a global-citizen storyteller. In addition to his studies, Peter created and leads the Empowering Women and Girls through Entrepreneurship project in Mongolia, as well as serves on the Krista Colleague Leadership Council. 

For my fellow Krista Colleagues and me, fall represents a time of new
beginnings in our service journeys: the start of a new school year, a new service-term,
a new job. It may mean a new living situation or a new academic program. It's a
season of changes and, while exciting, it can also be a stressful time of year. People
falsely romanticize the concept of long-term service and volunteerism; it's tough!

Reflecting back upon my two service terms, I can attest that for me it was a
bumpy, exhilarating, and intense ride. In the fall of 2013, as an AmeriCorps youth tutor
in White Center, WA, I began to feel the very real pressures of managing an
after-school program composed of diverse, underprivileged youth from mainly Somali
refugee backgrounds. The brief (1-week) honeymoon phase was over and,
inexperienced, untrained, and unsupervised, I did my best. I realized I was in over my
head when an older student slapped a much younger one across the face with the
bottom of her shoe. This not only caused disruptions for us, but divided a housing
community already rife with clan-based tensions carried over from their home country.
Without an on-site supervisor or adequate training, I simply had no idea what I had
walked into!

During the autumn of 2014, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in
Mongolia, I relived many of the same struggles (minus the shoe-slapping) plus some
new ones, in a completely different context. In Ulaanbaatar, I had to adjust to teaching
students from recently-migrated herder families whose level of English, and interest in
learning it, was virtually zero. In fact, my teachers and I often struggled to
communicate.
In my third week of class, my co-teacher, Oyuna, called "Hello, Peter! Where are you?"
my co-teacher asked over the phone.

"Hi, Badmaa Teacher! I'm here in class with our students. Where are you?"
"Ah, Peter. I'm very sorry! I cannot come today. My cow is melting!"
"Oh, it's melting! Well, you should put it in the freezer then!" I said jokingly without the
faintest clue what she was talking about.
"Yes, good idea! I will put it in the freezer now. Sorry, there is blood all over my house."
"Ooh! OK, you clean that up! I'll teach, then! No worries!" She's serious!
"Peter, I bought-shared a cow with my sister, and my half was inside the house for
many weeks. Because it was very cold in the winter! But, you see, spring came early!"
"I'm sorry to hear that! No problem at all. I'll continue with the lesson, then."
"OK! Thank you! Bye bye!"

It was in relaying these often hilarious-in-retrospect anecdotes through my blog, and
taking photos of everything in sight, that I began to process my experiences and
recognize and appreciate the beauty.

Peter Bittner, 2013 Colleague

As you can imagine... there was a lot to try to make sense of at the culmination
of these distinctly diverse and challenging experiences. What did I learn? What did I
like or dislike? What skills did I gain? Where do I want to go next? In navigating the
choppy and uncertain waters, how can I bypass the dominant cultural narrative of
"success equals material wealth" to build upon Christian values of "love thy neighbor"?
Should I go to business school? Or try to write a book?

In helping answer all these tricky questions and more, The Krista Foundation for
Global Citizenship fills a need that no other organization I've encountered has been
able to address: a supportive Christian community offering guidance and
encouragement through the variety of difficult decisions I face in my mid-twenties.
Hosting a Krista Foundation "Service in Perspective" event at my service-site during
my AmeriCorps term allowed me to connect with Colleagues through deep, meaningful
conversation surrounding the intercultural and ethical dynamics of effective volunteer
service and gain a new outlook on my daily routines at my community center.

And, most importantly, the Debriefing Retreat facilitated an invaluable
opportunity to meet myself at exactly where I was in the months following my move
from Mongolia to California; in reverse-culture shock, dealing with accumulated tension
and trauma, and searching for direction. Ultimately, the discernment exercise
conducted at the end of the weekend helped me make an important decision: to follow
my passion for truthful storytelling as a student at the University of California,
Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.