On that hot, chaotic August day

Freshmen, take a look at your new roommates. They might become lifelong friends, and there’s also the possibility that they will change your lives forever. Read on for the heartwarming story of two random roommates with an extraordinary bond. But beware: The story of Denise Dance Waff (’00)∫ and Amanda Howard Hoban (’00) could bring you to tears….

“If there’s ANYTHING I can do…”

by Denise Dance Waff (’00)

Amanda Howard Hoban ('00) and Denise Dance Waff ('00) — once random roomates, now extraordinary friends.

Amanda Howard Hoban (’00) and Denise Dance Waff (’00) — once random roommates, now extraordinary friends.

From the moment I received my freshman housing assignment from James Madison University in 1996, I began wondering what my roommate would be like. Would we have anything in common? Would we get along? Would she even want to hang out with me?!! Fortunately, our first phone contact eased most of my fears as we got to know each other and worked out all the important logistics for dorm life: Who’s bringing the fridge? Who’s bringing the TV? By the time we met in Eagle Hall on that hot, chaotic, August day, I already knew we would be great roommates. We spent the afternoon unpacking our things and organizing our room, and then headed out to a cookout welcoming incoming freshman. By the end of the night, we had coordinated our schedules, mapped out where we’d meet for meals, and had completely planned how we’d spend our first weekend as college students. Oh yeah, we were going to get along just fine!

Over the next four years, Amanda and I did something not many randomly paired freshman roommates do — we continued to live together. From Wayland Hall to Ashby Crossing, the idea of living apart never even entered our minds. We were roommates, confidantes, partners in crime — we were best friends. I think it’s safe to say that neither of our JMU experiences would have been complete without the other.

20140816_130924After graduation in the spring of 2000, Amanda and I began our long-distance friendship, she in Northern Virginia and I in Richmond. There was no text messaging back then (man, I sound old), so we called and emailed on a weekly basis. We burned up Interstate 95 visiting each other during those early years. New jobs, apartments, birthdays. We didn’t really need a reason to celebrate if it meant we could spend a weekend together. As we settled into adulthood in the mid-2000s, we each established careers, got married, and purchased homes. We served as maid/matron of honor in each other’s weddings, planning bridal showers and bachelorette parties. Soon after, pregnancies were announced and babies were born — two boys for Amanda and one boy for me. Despite growing work and family responsibilities, we still found time to stay connected. And as with any good friendship, it was like no time had passed every time we talked.

20140707_153050 In the summer of 2010, my husband and I began contemplating having a second child. With almost two years of parenting experience behind us, we figured we were adequately equipped to give our son a sibling. Around that same time, I received devastating news. At age 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. What I had naively believed only happened to women over age 50 had actually happened to me. After my initial shock/anger wore off, I began telling people, which was almost as hard as hearing it the first time myself. I emailed Amanda because I was not strong enough to say the words out loud, and I remember literally feeling her sadness when I read her reply. She ended her email with the statement, “All I can say is if there is anything, and I mean anything, that I (or Joe and I) can do for you, just say the word. Don’t even hesitate.” Little did she or I know how true those words would ring true in the future.

Fast forward to 2013.

With chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries behind me, I was cancer-free and ready to put this awful disease behind me. At the urging of my doctors, my husband and I had preserved our ability to have more children by freezing embryos prior to my cancer treatments. I shared with Amanda that carrying a child would be risky for me and that my doctors were not supportive of this idea. Without hesitation, Amanda offered to carry a child for me and my husband. It was the most selfless , amazing, and humbling thing anyone had ever said to me.

Now, obviously, the next part of the story is anything but simple — doctor appointments, medications, legal contracts (required by law). It has been a PROCESS, to say the least. But in March 2014, we received the BEST news ever — we were PREGNANT!

As I write this, Amanda is currently 25 weeks with our precious baby boy. I am still just as humbled now as I was when we began this journey last year, and at times, my gratitude is so overwhelming it takes my breath away. Despite her concerns over her growing size (“I feel as big as a HOUSE!”), she has never looked more beautiful to me and I have never loved her more. We have been bonded as friends for 18 years, and now we will be bonded as family for a lifetime.

And although we were randomly paired by JMU, I am certain there was nothing “random” about it.

Thanks to Denise and Amanda for sharing their amazing story. We’ll update this story — in about 15 weeks or so. Many thanks, also, to my former colleague, writer Colleen Dixon, who told us about this story.

Which one will you love?

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

If you’re coming to James Madison University as a freshman or transfer student next month, you probably have in mind the name of a former teacher who made a difference in your life. Maybe he inspired you. Maybe she challenged you at a moment when you needed a push. Maybe he disciplined you and in the process helped you understand the value of hard work or cooperation or integrity. Maybe she was just kind to you at a time when life was not.

Are you thinking of a name? I suspect you are.

Now, consider this:  The art and science of teaching, the kind of educational mentorship that inspires, is paramount at JMU. Here on our campus, teaching is not something professors do as a sideline while they conduct research. It is not an afterthought but a calling. Many professors come here because their primary mission as scholars is to impart knowledge and inspiration to a new generation. Many do research, of course, and JMU is very good at that as well, but commitment to teaching each student is their primary goal.

One JMU professor, Dr. Isaac Woo told me how much he loves the interaction and rapport he has with his students, how much he values the experiences he can provide for them—and in turn, how much is gained from the synergy that occurs. Growing up and going to school in his native Korea, Dr. Woo, who teaches communication studies in the College of Arts and Letters, says that he didn’t feel the same kind of engagement with his own teachers. But JMU is “very unique and engaging” in this respect, he has found. In deciding to join the JMU faculty, Woo says, “student and teacher interaction attracted me a lot. When I came here, they looked very close. They worked together.”

If you need more proof of our commitment to teaching, check out Madison magazine’s feature, Professors You Love —which, not surprisingly, is the magazine’s most popular feature for 14 years running. You’ll find the newest installment in the next edition of the magazine. Madison hits mailboxes and newsstands around campus in September and will explore changes in education and how we maintain our humanity in the midst of such change. You will also learn more about Dr. Woo and his Madison Experience.

Scholarship is not a barrier here, but it is the common ground that welcomes every student. It is a mountaintop experience replete with challenges, steep rock walls to ascend and inspiring vistas to savor—but it is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that comes with talented guides who are eager to climb alongside you. It’s your job as freshmen to find them. In fact, the most oft-repeated advice from alumni to freshman is this:  Get to know your professors!

And if you do, it’s a pretty sure bet that in four years you’ll look back over your JMU experience and click off a roster of  professors you’ve come to love.

So who will it be?

From unknown to friend

by Annamarie Frost (’13, ’14M)

Annamarie Frost ('13) (left) and her once-unknown roommate who became a friend.

Annamarie Frost (’13) (left) and her once-unknown roommate who became a friend.

So you’ve decided to attend JMU. You’ve gone to your Summer Springboard day, and your excitement about starting college is getting greater each day. Every time you walk into a store your eyes are immediately drawn to the dorm room displays, and you can’t wait to move into your dorm room. There’s only one thing missing…

You don’t know who your roommate will be!

Five years ago, I was in your same shoes. No one from my area was going to JMU, so I chose to get a random roommate assigned to me by the Office of Residence Life. I figured that this was going to be the one time in my life that I could leave my roommate fate in someone else’s hands. Plus, if the roommate pairing happened to not work out, I wouldn’t have to blame myself for choosing that person. And by living in a residence hall, I knew that I could always look to my RA for help sorting out a potential disagreement between the two of us, if needed. So I filled out the short survey about my habits and hoped that I would get a roommate who was compatible to me.

JMU%20winter-1My freshman year roommate and I were a great match from the beginning. She was from Maryland and I was from Georgia. We were both outgoing individuals who loved to stay up late but would then have trouble waking up to our early morning alarms. Her family even sent me little care packages around different holidays! We only lived together during our freshman year because I became an RA the following year. So in order to stay in communication with each other, we established our own tradition of having a weekly catch up meal at D Hall for Cheesy Thursday all the way up to our final week as undergrads at JMU. To this day, I am so glad I chose a random roommate because I had such a great experience with it and gained a friend for life.

The transition from high school to college is a big deal for everyone. Many of you will be adjusting from having your own room at home (and maybe even bathroom) to sharing those spaces with others. By living with a roommate, you have an immediate connection in your residence hall. Your roommate is an automatic buddy to join you for walks across campus to your morning classes, rides on the Shopper bus to Walmart and meals at the dining halls. You can attend sporting events or check out different JMU organizations together. Some of these activities are intimidating to do on your own, so having a roommate go with you can sometimes make it easier.

Annamarie Frost and Laura Hardiman on the last day of their year as freshmen roommates...but hardly their last day as  friends.

Annamarie Frost and Laura Hardiman on the last day of their year as freshmen roommates…but hardly their last day as

Between now and August 1st, enjoy the rest of your summer break and start shopping for those dorm essentials. (But let me recommend that you wait until your find out your roommate before making those larger purchases of the TV and mini fridge!) Before you know it, you’ll find out the name of your roommate, quickly Facebook friend them, and start getting to know the person you will share a space with from August to May.

And no matter how much time passes, this person will always have the title of roommate to you, but it is my hope that over time, they will gain the title of a friend as well.

DSC_0096ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Double Duke Annamarie Frost graduated in May 2013 with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies and minors in Elementary Education and General Music. While at JMU, she worked for the Office of Residence Life as an RA for 1 year and a hall director for 3 years. She was also very involved with Student Ambassadors, SGA, and The Madison Society. In May 2014, she earned her Master of Arts in Teaching. This fall, she’ll be a first year teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools. Annamarie will be teaching 3rd grade at Sully Elementary in Sterling, Va.


Where cold is hot


If you love sweet summer treats, something to take the hot out of summer, and something scrumptious to satisfy the palate, you’ll love what Sandra Tran (’12) and Gil Welsford (’12) have cooked up in Northern Virginia —  although cooked isn’t quite the right word.

They’ve created a concoction from delicious fresh and locally grown produce and added a dose of liquid nitrogen. It’s called NiceCream — a made-to-order-while-you-wait premium version of the summer delight that usually takes hours of elbow grease and rock salt — or a trip to the store.

With their business, The NiceCream Factory, Gil and Sandra are hoping to change the way you think about desserts.

Since last fall, they’ve been doing special events and pop-ups at places like farmers market. They also do catering, parties and take-out.

This summer, they’ve opened a brand new storefront in Arlington, Va. — The Nice Cream Factory. And it appears to be catching on. Reviews on their Facebook page are almost unanimously positive.

A cool place for a hot day.

A cool place for a hot day.

These two friends and partners met at JMU, both graduates of the College of Business, and share a spirit of entrepreneurship.

As undergraduates, they each made their mark on JMU before striking out to pursue their joint entrepreneurial venture. Gil created “Club Gilty,” a non-alcoholic night club for students, and Sandra, along with fellow Duke Dan Smokin (’11) started JMUTeach, a program where students design and teach semester-long courses for their peers.

Now that Gil and Sandra have teamed up, we’ll be watching. Anything this good is likely to spread because who does not like NiceCream?!

To learn more about NiceCream, visit their website: http://www.nicecreamfactory.com And to learn more about Gil, Sandra, check out this article by Taylor Deer (’13) on the College of Business website: https://www.jmu.edu/news/cob/2013/05/10-alumni-nicecream.shtml

Better yet, if you’re in downtown Arlington — around 2831 Clarendon Blvd. — go by and try some NiceCream.
And let us know if it’s as good as it sounds….


Gratitude and hospitality

 Hospitality in Northern Ireland

 The first education practicum in Northern Ireland for James Madison University students continues. In today’s guest blog, participants reflect on their experience of hospitality, which you will read, is exceedingly warm, generous and welcoming…..

Newry, Northern Ireland (photo from Wikipedia)

Newry, Northern Ireland (photo from Wikipedia)

This is the first time that the Practicum Experience in Northern Ireland trip has been attempted, so naturally everyone on the trip was very nervous about how we would be received.   What we have found is a community that has embraced our mission as teachers experiencing a different culture and education system. Every person involved in the planning and carrying out of this trip is eager to learn from our interactions just as much as we want to learn from them.   Our mentor teachers, principals, cooks, bus drivers, maids, and all those we interact with have been so excited to welcome us and help us find our way in this new country. Due to the overwhelming welcome we have received in Newry, we wanted to put into words how much we appreciate everyone’s kindness and emphasize those who have made a difference in our stay. We believe that the best way to do this is to put into words personal statements from participants on our trip about people who have made our trip so amazing. There are many more people we owe a huge thank you to who are not mentioned in the stories shared, so we would like to thank all these people who have made a big impact on our stay. Thank you!

Rachel Berry, ELED, Class of 2014 – I flew into Dublin a few days before the program started and stayed in a guesthouse a little bit away from O’Connell street. My friend and I had both packed pretty heavy and were definitely struggling getting our bags into the house. The guesthouse was run by a sweet older woman named Elish and her son Steven. They were both so welcoming as soon as we walked in and she wasted no time asking about who we were, where we came from, and what we were doing here. She was about to hand us her keys, then she took one look at our bags and said, “Oh absolutely not you are not going to carry your bags all the way up to the 5th floor.” She promptly turned around and grabbed a new set of keys, to the biggest room on the first floor. It was a large room with a bathtub, a queen sized bed, and a TV. The room we were supposed to have was about half the size and didn’t have a connected bathroom. We went to give her extra money for the change and she refused, telling us that it wasn’t a problem at all and she was happy to do it. The day I needed to leave, I was about to call a cab to go to my new accommodations and she grabbed my bags and said, “I’ll drive you over there myself.” I tried to give her some money for helping me out but she wouldn’t take it. She was just happy to see me safely to my new place. I’d never experienced such kindness from someone I’ve never met before. I didn’t exchange information with her, but I wish I had because I would love to keep up with her.

Ellie Burnett, English, Class of 2015 – On one of our first official school days, three of the other girls and I were talking amongst ourselves in the staff lounge. One teacher came over to us, and we all began a conversation about our thoughts on Newry so far. Soon enough, during lunch that same teacher came back with maps, a sight list, and numbers of local cab and bus numbers. We were shocked; she had just used up her planning period to give us information on her hometown. The Newry people are so proud of their town, and it’s evident from how their faces light up when we speak highly of good restaurants we’ve been to. They want to simply share their favorite parts of Newry. It’s truly touching how helpful and hospitable everyone has been.

Amber Blakovich, Music Ed, Class of 2016 – Normally after school, we ride the bus and get off right across from St. Colman’s College, where we are staying. One day last week, we had decided to get on another bus and go into town to shop around. As soon as we got on the bus, the bus driver, who was different from our normal bus driver, immediately started talking to us and asking us different questions about our experience here and continued telling us stories about his life throughout the whole bus ride to the center of town. Upon arriving, a phrase that we kept hearing from the bus driver and the locals alike was, “you are very welcome to Newry”. The phrase meant a lot to us because it helped us feel like we had found a home away from home, a place where we already felt included in the culture. The hospitality here has been incredible.

Julia Kron, Studio Art, Class of 2015 – Mr. Pat Cullen is the catering manager at St. Colman’s College and he has been so lovely to us as we stay in the Priest’s Corridor. Every morning he greets us with a smile and gives us a warm breakfast. He always checks up on us and makes sure that we have enough food in our kitchenette. Also, for two nights every week Pat cooks us a full meal in the canteen area. He sets the tables for us and individually serves us all. He is such a nice person to talk to and has some fascinating life stories to share. One afternoon, he set up a bread making workshop where he taught us how to make Irish Soda Bread and Wheaten bread. We really appreciated learning a skill of his culture and he was very happy to share it with us. It was a very nice afternoon to spend with him in his kitchen. Also, he is very interested in our experiences and wants to know how we are getting along each time he runs into us. He is so kind to us and makes us feel very welcome during our stay at St. Colman’s College. I know that we all really appreciate how much time he takes out of his day and evening for us. Thank you so much, Pat!

Sarah Simmons, ELED, Class of 2014- Josephine McGrath the reception woman at the front desk at St. Colman’s has been extremely hospitable. I have had at least a 20-minute conversation with her each day. She has always asked me about my day and if I needed anything. She has also been giving us suggestions on places to go to eat and buy things. The most hospitable moment was when I mention that I needed to find a Christmas ornament for my mom and she started calling up places asking all the staff for places to find ornaments. She has gone above and beyond to make sure my stay is enjoyable and I am going to miss our daily conversations.

Tim Thomas: Just as all of us have experienced, I have been the beneficiary of great hospitality during our visit here. The first Friday in Newry, we all boarded the bus to Carlingsford, a locally famous medieval village less than a dozen miles south of Newry. As soon as the bus pulled away from the station, the driver caught my eye in the mirror and motioned me to the front of the bus. Despite the rules not to talk to the driver and to remain behind the white line, the driver spoke to me all the way to Carlingsford, pointing out sights along the way and providing advice about our visit to the area. The same man was driving the route as we jumped on the bus to return to Newry. As he was speaking to other riders buying tickets while we boarded, I went to the back of the bus to sit with our group. When I looked up, though, there was the driver – he had come down the aisle to inquire how well we had enjoyed our visit. His overwhelming attention to the quality of our experience is just one illustration of the welcome we have received.

Jesse Humphries, ELED, Class of 2014- One of the best parts of our experience in Northern Ireland so far has been being able to travel to new towns. Translink employee Gerry D’Arcy has been overwhelmingly helpful and involved with our travels to insure we are able to travel safely and inexpensively. Translink provided us with vouchers that enable us to tour the Newry District for free. Without this opportunity, I would not have been able to see so many different places. All of the bus drivers and Translink staff have been so helpful and friendly. Whenever there is somewhere I want to go or something I want to do, they direct to me to the best line to get me there. I have been able to see so much more of the area because of Gerry and the whole Translink team.

Maggie Leonard, ELED, Class of 2014 – I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and hard work the housekeepers at St. Colmans, Denise and Jenny, have put into making us comfortable during our stay. After a long day in the classroom, we are always welcomed by Denise, Valerie, Margret, and Joanie in the afternoon delivering our laundry, freshly made beds, and them checking in on how our day was and what our plans are for the evening. One housekeeper even took home one of the girl’s Irish wool sweaters and properly cleaned it to ensure that it was returned in pristine condition. These amazing ladies are another addition to all the acts of kindness that have made our trip much less stressful then it could have been.

Kathryn McCallum, ELED, Class of 2014 – Jariath Burns, the principal of St. Paul’s, obtained free tickets for us to the local Gaelic Football match which was already sold out.   Mr. Burns was so welcoming and helpful as he explained all the rules and traditions to us confused Americans. He even arranged for us to meet the President of the Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association, Martin McAviney and take a photo on the pitch (the field, during half time). The game was such an amazing experience and we’re so lucky to have been treated so great. Mr. Burns really wanted us to experience this part of the Northern Irish culture which he personally loves and in which he has participated as a star player for County Armagh.

Emily Vaughters, ELED, Class of 2015 – I had the opportunity to talk with a woman named Dierdre Graham while I was working in my school. In the past, she had worked at a school where she had the opportunity to participate in a program where students from Northern Ireland were able to go to Maryland and Virginia. She actively sought me out so that she could introduce herself and make a connection with me. She also gave me her contact information and invited me up for tea any time. This one interaction made me feel immediately more comfortable at my school.

Danielle Gallagher, Mathematics, Class of 2015 – The first Sunday we were in Newry another girl on the trip and I went to mass at the Cathedral in town.   During the mass I noticed the Bishop looking at us strangely and then afterwards he grabbed my hand and asked who I was. After explaining that we were part of the study abroad group that is teaching in Newry he asked us to join him for tea. Bishop John McAreavey was so interested in everything we had to say and had some great stories of his own to tell. He even offered to drive us home after hearing that we were staying at Saint Colman’s College, which is a thirty minute walk from the cathedral. I am still impressed that he was able to pick our faces out of a huge crowd and make sure that he welcomed us at the end of mass.

Megan Makarowski, ELED, Class of 2014- The lunch ladies in my school, Bessbrook Primary have been so nice and welcoming to me. The entire school staff had been overwhelmingly positive to my visit and these ladies were the last of the staff that I met. I didn’t pack my lunch one day for school and didn’t buy anything on the way there; I wanted to buy the school lunch to see what it was like. Because so many of the children had left early due to Sports Day (like an American field day) they gave me lunch free of charge. When I returned my plate to them they engaged me in conversation, really wanting to know everything about my stay here in Ireland. They were so sweet and attentive and when I went to leave they said, “We will see you tomorrow at lunch!” They were excited for me to come back and eat with them again. It was awesome that they cared so much.

Dr. Frazier: I have had many instances of helpfulness and generosity from those who live and work in Newry from the faculty members and staff that Dr. Carrington and I met last spring at Newry High School to those who work here at St. Colman’s College who have gone out of their way to make us feel comfortable like Peter, the Ground’s Keeper, Pat, the Cook, and Denise and Jenny, the housekeepers, who have provided us with both stories and support. We have had support from Gerry at the bus station and from complete strangers who find our accents to be like those of “movie stars.” There are many others here as well. Richard Melaniphy, Associate Principal and Iestyn Brown, the Principal at Newry High School whose tireless dedication brought this program into being. They were the point persons to make the local arrangements with all of the participating schools and negotiated gratis transportation for us with Gerry D’Arcey and Greg Donovan from Translink. Perhaps one of the most supportive persons has been Cormac McKinney, principal at St. Colman’s who agreed to reconstruct the Priest’s Corridor to accommodate our group and provide us with meals, laundry support, and security as well. His support and that of Derrick Campbell, Comptroller at St. Colmans College have been instrumental in helping us to establish this program in Newry. The real stars of this program though are our students, whose good humor, persistence and willingness to take risks, are the unsung heroes of this experience. They have made this an “amazing experience” for all of us!


A foreigner in a fishbowl

Last year, Meaghan Eicher (’13) was riding a roller coaster of time, emotion and effort. The JMU English graduate with a minor in humanitarian affairs was eagerly seeking a spot in the American Peace Corps. Recently, we heard from a jubilant Meaghan who has finally finished the extensive application and interview process, finally gotten her invitation to join, and finally — in a matter of days — will begin her Peace Corps service. She’ll be traveling to the Republic of Benin in West Africa, on the adventure of a lifetime. While in Benin, Meaghan will serve as a secondary education English volunteer. She’ll be keeping a blog while she’s gone, and we will be following her.  

Today in a guest blog, Meaghan explains more of the process that has her headed to West Africa…..

Becoming a foreigner in a fishbowl

by Meaghan Eicher (’13)

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

If anyone decides to apply to the Peace Corps, my advice to you would be: buckle up, it’s going to be a long ride. But I promise you, it’ll be worth it.

The Peace Corps application process will test your patience. It will have you sitting on the edge of your chair every moment of every day. You will wonder if in the end it’s all worth the pain and agony of not knowing. Many people drop out of the process because other opportunities arise, they aren’t medically cleared, or the process simply takes too long. It’s not for the faint of heart, but don’t let it deter you. If you have the volunteer experience, if you are healthy, and if you have the desire to serve and see it through, then you have a fighting chance.

My application was on the tail end of the Peace Corps’ old system. This simply means that in my interview, I was not told what I would be nominated for or the region where I would be going. It wasn’t until months later during my placement interview that they told me the general region and the sector. The exact country and program finally came on my Invitation. The newer system, now in place, allows prospective candidates to choose and rank the countries that they would be interested in, based on their qualifications and what programs are open. This isn’t to say the country you choose is the definite location, as anything can change. But it gives you some sense and a general idea of where you’d be going and what you would be doing.

After you receive a nomination, then you must provide your medical history. You will obtain and submit various doctors’ notes, and the PC medical office will review your file and pre-medically clear you. At this time, you will also fill out paperwork for a legal clearance. If you are pre-medically cleared, your application is then moved to the placement queue. They will ask you additional questions about your volunteer experience and about your goals and expectations. A Placement Officer will then contact you and interview you for a placement. If you are deemed qualified, and upon accepting an invitation for service, you must then go through the final medical clearance process. This is when you have to get all the necessary check-ups and shots. Nothing is set-in-stone until you receive that final medical clearance. Though the whole application process can seem lengthy, it is created that way for a reason. Upon receiving final medical clearance, the last step is simply to get ready, physically and mentally.

Preparations too, vary from person to person. One volunteer could end up living in an urban city in a nice apartment with hot water and electricity, while another volunteer could end up living in a little bungalow on a small island with no running water and no electricity. It all depends on the region and the specific site placement. But each volunteer knows that he or she needs to pack smartly — and lightly. You just don’t know what your site placement will be or what you’ll have access to until you arrive and are assigned a site. So, pack culturally appropriate clothes, the proper electronics, and only the essentials but enough of them until you can figure out where and if you can restock. Sound confusing? Yes, it kind of is. But many current volunteers will share packing list ideas with the future volunteers, so in the grand scheme of things, packing is the least of the preparation worries. The most important pre-departure preparation is to spend as much time as possible with friends and family. Their love and support are the biggest things that you will need to take with you when you go.

The last piece to pre-departure preparation is mental. Yet this is something that starts way before the application process — when that first inkling of an idea forms in the back of your mind that you might want to join the Peace Corps. That’s when it starts. Living in a developing country alongside your community members will not be easy. You will be a foreigner, and you will live in a fishbowl with all eyes on you, all the time. You will have to work hard to dispel common stereotypes, and integrate into your community as best you can. You will have to learn a new language, sometimes two, and adjust to a simpler way of living. You might be the only volunteer in your community, and you might have to travel long distances to visit a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. But they say that the physical hardships will get easier. You adapt and adjust to the weather, the food, washing your clothes by hand, and taking bucket baths. Though tough at first, that turns into the easy part. They say that it will often be difficult in ways that you do not expect. You will have to work within very limited resources, with limited supervision. Working amidst the cultural norms that you don’t agree with will be hard; It will be completely different from everything you were taught and grew up with. It will challenge you mentally and force you to analyze your own culture and question everything you thought you knew.

You will experience culture shock when you arrive in a country, and reverse culture shock when you return home. You will wonder and question what your role is, and what impact you are having.

Yet amidst all the questions, the nerves, the packing, and the saying goodbyes, there is a thread of excitement. There is this prospect of adventure, and wonder, and this mysterious feeling of not-knowing. You will get the opportunity to be challenged in ways you never thought possible, and you will grow from those experiences. You will learn about a new culture, rich with history. Your community will share their culture, and you will share yours. You will get to work and live alongside people completely different from you; they will teach you, and you will teach them. You will share skills, and work side-by-side toward a common goal. You don’t go into the Peace Corps expecting to change the world… that isn’t a realistic expectation. But you can go in with the expectation that you will be able to assist a community with their goals and projects. It will be difficult, but it will be life changing. There’s a reason they call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s volunteer experience will be different. You could have read a million different PCV blogs (like I did) to gain a sense of what it might be like to serve overseas. You could read some of the hundreds of memoirs and books published about PCVs. Many do offer great insights and realistic views of the PCV life. But while there may be similar themes found throughout each volunteer’s story, each service will be unique and no two people will have the same experiences. Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith, and let your own story unfold before you.

You can find and follow Meghan’s Benin adventure at her blog: http://meaghaneicher.wordpress.com/




Learning in Northern Ireland

Critical learning often occurs when you change your perspective and dig deeper into your chosen field. That’s what is happening now in  Northern Ireland, where, for the first time, 12 students from James Madison University’s College of Education are completing practicums. They are examining and learning about schools and practices in Newry, a town between Dublin and Belfast, along the River Clanrye. “So far,” write Hood Frazier and Tim Thomas, JMU professors who are traveling with the group during the month-long practicum, “they have welcomed us with a grand reception at the Newry High School with the director of education for the region, and where we received a plaque from the Deputy Major of the City of Newry.” The JMU group has also been featured in the local news.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll follow their experience and post more of their observations. In today’s post, students Sarah Simmons (’14) and Emily Vaughters (’15)  offer their initial impressions of Northern Ireland schools.

As an American student who is studying to become a teacher……

… the first difference that you will notice after walking into a Northern Ireland School is the variation in the age groupings within each school. In Northern Ireland, nursery schools, the equivalent of American preschools, are separate from any other schools. According to Richard Melaniphy, vice principal of Newry High School, primary schools hold students from P1 to P7, which is from the age of 5 (kindergarten) all the way to age 12, or sixth grade. These students then move directly to a high school instead of first attending a middle school. They have to attend the high school for five years, until they are sixteen. Once students reach this age, additional schooling is optional for students.

Students and faculty during a Gaelic football game in Newry, Northern Ireland

During a Gaelic football game, JMU practicum students and faculty are flanked on the right by Cormac McKinney, principal of St. Colman’s College, and Richard Melaniphy of Newry High (in black). On the left is Martin McAviney, president of the Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association, and Jariath Burns, the principal of St. Paul’s High School. Also pictured are Iestin Brown of Newry High School, 6th from the right. JMU professors Tim Thomas and Hood Frazier appear 4th and 7th from left, respectively.

There are also many different types of schools in Northern Ireland. One type is a controlled school. The Education Library Board, which is a board of local members whose goal is to guarantee the best education possible, monitors these controlled schools. These schools tend to be non-selective and have a strong Christian ethos though they have no official religious affiliation. There are also maintained schools, which are controlled by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). These schools openly display Catholic values. Another difference is that there are also composite classes, where two or more age groups are combined into one classroom because enrollment is not high enough, likely due to the large number of schools in the area.

Another difference from many public schools in the United States is the strong emphasis on carrying out their mission statement. Because many schools in this area have strong religious ties, they may have a faith-based ethos, which is clearly reflected in the missions statements of each individual school. Most of their values are based around providing skills for their students to succeed in their future, whether they attend university or enter a vocation. Whereas, in the United States, there has been a strong focus on test scores and getting everyone to attend a university.

Untitled2Another huge difference is the aspect of choice. Though all the Northern Ireland schools are public, they are not organized by regional districts as they are in the U.S., and students don’t have to attend, based on the district in which they reside. Instead the students may apply to various schools, some selective and some not. Also according to Melaniphy, students rank their top five choices and attend the school they get into that is highest on the list. If they did not attain high test scores, some students may be forced to attend a school they didn’t rank highly.

Some schools, however, are non-selective and will take anyone. Some examples of this are Newry High School or St. Paul’s High School, where some of us are placed. According to Danielle Gallagher (’15) from Suffolk, Va., who is at Newry High school, the students at Newry can be compared to the students in public high schools in America. They display a mix of cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Many parents, however, chose for their children not to sit for the transfer tests (as they are optional) and will send their children to a non-selective school such as St. Paul’s or Newry High.

After coming up with some of the distinct differences, we asked some of our peers about the differences that they noticed in their first week of teaching in Northern Ireland.

Megan Makarowski (’14) from Fredericksburg, Va., said that she was shocked by how the Irish students had to choose their path in life by the age of 14. In Northern Ireland, a student takes General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. If they pass these, they are able to take that subject as an A-Level, which can be compared to the Advanced Placement level courses in the United States. This choice is solidified after this point and cannot be changed. Their choice at this stage affects what they can study in university because programs at university require A-Level experience. Megan also found that tracking was used in Northern Ireland even though teachers tend to disagree with the practice.

Twelve JMU practicum students welcomed to Northern Ireland

Twelve JMU practicum students welcomed to Northern Ireland

Jessica Humphries (’14) from Leesburg, Va., talked about the idea of religion and how, though it is not always stated so, it is clear with which religion a school associates. Many of the schools in Newry have values that come from the standards in the Catholic and Protestant religions, and these values define how things work. Although you don’t have to be a Catholic to attend that school, Catholic values play a significant role in the school’s ethos. These religious values define smaller aspects of the citizens lives. For instance, those in the Catholic community lean toward the GAA or Gaelic games, such as Gaelic football.

Finally, Rachel Berry (’15) from South Riding, Va., said that the atmospheres of the schools are much more relaxed in that they tend to move at a slower pace and have more frequent breaks. It seems that it is understood that both students and teachers need time to rest throughout the day, and that time is given through tea breaks and other small breaks throughout the day. This also shows how teachers are more appreciated and respected.

This first week has allowed for our knowledge of Northern Ireland schools to grow and we are certain that through the upcoming weeks we will learn more and discover key differences between the schools in the United States and these in Northern Ireland.

 If you’re curious about Newry High School, visit their website at http://www.newryhigh.com/index.htm

Or delve deeper in the school’s prospectus: http://www.newryhigh.com/downloads/prospectus/Prospectus%20pdf/2012-2013%20NHS%20Prospectus.pdf








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