Sunday, March 07, 2010

How my job is (and is not) like Peace Corps.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about my new job so far has been the intense sense of déjà vu that I have at least three times every day. How is it possible that I can be home in my own town, my own community, speaking my own language, and yet what I see in front of me is a vision of what I was supposed to understand when I was 10,000 miles and two hemispheres away.

I suppose I had some idea of what the University Extension program was all about. It’s fairly easy to see some immediate parallels: find some educated people, stick them in remote communities, provide a series of trainings and give them access to resources. Major differences are also obvious: we were true foreigners in that community, most of us were pretty young and clueless, and our term was for two years, three at most. Still, in theory there’s a lot to be matched in the theory.

Yet, there were other parallels. Extension was raised as a model of what some of the agricultural outreach services were intended to do in remote Madagascar and Vietnam. The “Champion Communities” model also strove to do something similar with putting a educated (usually young) Malagasy person in each community to serve as a coordinator for community collaboration and improvement. Unfortunately, they lacked the impressive pay and academic support the Extension system offers. They were forced to make choices between doing things to take care of themselves and seeking to find resources from other places.

And so I come home to the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension program. A program that puts graduate-degreed (or imposes the requirement to become so) professionals in multiple sectors in each county, pays them a living wage with the type of benefits and provides the type of supports that allows one to focus on work, and then floods them with access to the type of resources that might overwhelm some, but would cause any self-respecting geek to drool.

I’m not saying the UW Extension system is perfect, but you can see what the Peace Corps and all of these other community-based expert programs strive to do through it. Just as when you are dropped at site as a PCV, UWEX orientation (at least in the family living program, which parallels the health education program fairly neatly) maps out your timeline from first day, first week, first month, first three months, first year. Your supervisor takes you courtesy visits to the important people. You read the black book or letter left from your predecessor (if you had one). They tell you to do a needs assessment, but you spend the first three months trying to figure out what to do. And they tell you not to even attempt a Plan of Work before six months. You get trained in cross-cultural sensitivity.

But then Extension does it better. Granted, they can plan on having their agents around for longer than two years. They offer professional development in every effort to try to keep agents around longer. In the ideal (and sometimes in fact), county agents become a central resource to their community, providing information to politicians, and documenting program impact through research and academic evaluation. Peace Corps was great. But now I’m seeing how it can really work, when real academic, political and yes, some financial, resources can be mustered. Sure, the extension system could be better. And Peace Corps is a fantastic program for reasons that the Extension can never dream of. But I do see in the day-to-day functioning of the Extension program, thus far, a system that developing countries should envy.


Anonymous said...

Good morning Erica. (I assume you are Erica.) Interesting post because I've been thinking about how to frame the big story of extension in a way that people can understand. This helps. I'll watch for more.

EB said...

I'm glad I can help provide one perspective - even if this barely scratches the surface! But I've at least found that the people I can most easily describe UWEX to are my fellow, how to explain PC and UWEX to the rest of the world??