Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Georgia spells opportunity

So much of my blog (if not all of it) has focused on my experiences here… the people I've met, the places I've visited, the challenges I've faced, and the life I've built. While all of that has been important and fun, I wish now that I had taken the time to write more about my projects and work. That is why I joined the Peace Corps, after all. So now I'm going to brag about one project in particular that I've been working on for the past year: The National English Spelling Competition.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia more than two years ago, one of my friends and fellow Volunteers, Adam, came up with the idea for a country-wide English spelling competition — one that would reward students and teachers for their hard work and celebrate their achievements in a public forum. He started working on the event in the fall of 2011, along with four other PCVs. For several months, they met with Georgia's Ministry of Education, the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps Georgia, and several other organizations whose support was needed to make the project feasible. I joined the project the following summer, when they realized they were going to need help with the marketing. 

This project turned out to be bigger than anyone expected and required a lot of work. Everyone had their roles to play: we needed a database, website, registration forms, rules, word lists, volunteers, venues, dates, funding, etc. I served as the marketing & PR specialist. I created promotional and sponsorship flyers, designed certificates for the participants, wrote website copy and press releases, managed the production of the program guide, and provided sponsorship support... you know, exactly what I was doing before I joined the Peace Corps. And no, I didn't miss the irony there.

Gus was able to secure sponsorships from the top university in Georgia, a credit union, and World Vision, along with support from countless organizations and businesses. Our Georgian friend and counterpart, Ilia, was able to secure a venue, transportation, food & lodging, entertainment, and design & printing services for the national event. Even my dear friends at Fixation Marketing chipped in to help by generously donating their time to create the event's logo.

Finally, after a year of planning, the competition was announced in September 2012. Within a few days, more than 50 schools had registered! By the end of the local level competitions that took place in late October, more than 170 schools and 2,460 students had participated, which far exceeded our expectations. Several weeks later, more than 1,000 students from nine regions across Georgia participated in the regional level competitions. It was obvious how excited the students were at these events. There were shouts of excitement and tears of disappointment as they were tested on their knowledge of the English language. At the end of the regional competitions, 34 students had fought hard and earned the right to compete at the National Competition. 

On March 30, the finalists gathered in Tbilisi to compete for the title of National English Spelling Competition Champion. They competed in two groups: 8th & 9th grade, and 10th, 11th & 12th grade. I really wasn't sure what to expect since this was the first year of the competition, and the first time these students have ever participated in an event like this, but they absolutely blew me away! I have to admit… they were spelling words a lot of us — native English speakers and college graduates — didn't know how to spell. Words like verisimilitude, asphyxiate, kaleidoscope, and xenophobia were not challenging to them whatsoever. It was truly impressive to watch and several times, I was literally on the edge of my seat! Following the competition, the U.S. Ambassador hosted a special reception at his residence to recognize and celebrate everyone's accomplishments. It was a memorable evening and the perfect ending to an incredible day!

This project required a commitment from thousands of students, teachers, volunteers and organizations and I'm proud to say, it was a huge success. That's not to say we didn't hit a few speed bumps here and there, but in the end, it was a great event. The students had an amazing time hanging out in Tbilisi; the teachers were beaming with pride; the judges were honored to be a part of it; and the sponsors were thrilled. A new group of volunteers has already started working on next year's competition with the goal of making this an annual, sustainable, Georgian-led event. 

As for me, I'm very proud of what we accomplished. I was able to use my marketing skills and even managed to get published in the Peace Corps' magazine World View! I had a lot of fun working on this project and watching the kids celebrate their successes at the final competition. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the organizations I've worked with over the past two years, I have not been able to see very many of my projects come to fruition. I'm happy to say though, the NESC changed that and now, with less than 6 weeks left in Georgia, I know I can leave with a smile on my face knowing I did make a difference.

Studying at regionals
Regional competition, Imereti

Regional winners, heading to Tbilisi!
Shannon, Gus, Ilia and Adam

Finalists at McDonald's

U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Officer
PC Country Director, Rick Record

The judges
8th-9th grade competition

Top three 8th-9th graders 
10th-12th grade competition

First prize: iPads, courtesy of the U.S. Embassy!
Finalists and Volunteers!

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