Michele Vazquez served in Peace Corps in Ukraine and returned on Fulbright
|Michele Vazquez shares stories of Peace Corps at exhibit.|
Michele Vazquez is one of several Peace Corps returnees who will be available at a First Friday Exhibit from 5 to 8 p.m., March 3, at Express Employment Professionals, 331 W. Main. The owner, Ira Amstadter, is also a Peace Corps returnee.
It’s an opportunity for people to share their stories, exhibit memorabilia and tell others what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
The exhibit will continue to be up through March during the business hours.
Michele Vazquez began traveling internationally in 1993, taking three- to four-week trips to Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Europe, South America and Asia.
In 1996, when she was 33, she decided she wanted to spend her 50th birthday somewhere memorable and she wanted to live and work in another country, not just travel. When she was 48, friends suggested the Peace Corps.
Michele was working with the State of Washington, whose labor agreement allows, in some cases, permanent employees to take a leave of absence for the Peace Corps and return to a similar position. She decided the Peace Corps was a good choice, because it would “be safe and fascinating.”
From 2011 to 2013, she served in the Peace Corps in Lviv, Ukraine, working with an association of Ukrainian cities to strengthen energy security and energy efficiency systems. She also worked with other nonprofits to build organizational capacity.
Michele grew up west of Spokane in Marshall and still lives in the area. She earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning in 1990 at Eastern Washington University (EWU), a master’s in public administration in 2001 from EWU and a PhD in leadership studies in 2014 from Gonzaga University.
She had started studies at EWU, but began working with the State of Washington public assistance office as a clerk in Othello in 1983. She worked in various jobs with the state through 2014. She was at the public assistance office in Moses Lake when she decided to return to school part time. She worked in Spokane and Olympia as a data and computer analyst.
After completing a bachelor’s degree, she worked with the Department of Ecology on water and then with local government land use planning. In 2005, she began to work in the governor’s Office of Regulatory Assistance in Spokane on an environmental program helping project participants navigate environmental regulations.
In 2011, she joined the Peace Corps and learned she would go to Eastern Europe. She was assigned to go to Ukraine, because an opening could use her skills.
“I knew nothing about Ukraine and I was afraid, even though I pretended to be excited,” she said.
Michele trained in northern Ukraine near Chernobyl and the Russian border. It was cold when she arrived in March. The former Soviet-era buildings seemed stark, but once there, “I immediately knew I’d be okay,” she said.
“Ukraine prior to the annexation of Crimea, I found to be a safe country,” she said. “It’s not a culture where people have hand guns, so my biggest safety concern was to watch for open holes in the road or sidewalk.”
“I could readily relate with the people. People took care of me, whether I was lost on a bus or had other needs,” she said. “I spoke travel-level Ukrainian, but many people in Lviv spoke English.”
Michele was in Lviv, which is Ukraine’s most European feeling city. Although thousands of people died in World War II, most of its old buildings were not destroyed. It had an opera and symphony, plus many social service nonprofits and a progressive Catholic university.
She was community development volunteer for a nonprofit, Energy Efficient Cities of Ukraine, which focused on Ukrainian cities and also had influence in many post-Soviet countries, such as Slovenia and Georgia.
Working with mayors and small NGOs, she helped cities lower their energy consumption and change energy systems. She trained groups, developed grants, designed programs and advised management on communication and organizational development.
Michele also trained leaders at the Catholic university’s master’s in management and leadership program and encouraged public access to official documents that could be used in decision making.
Before the end of her term, she was part of a team that won a $800,000 grant and began to train people in understanding European energy efficiency methods, construction and development of systems to collect energy use data.
Michele spent her 50th birthday with Ukrainian and Russian speaking friends in a basement apartment, singing with a guitarist who remains a close friend.
She keeps strong connections with people in “this fascinating, unexpected country” where people find creative ways to do things. On a road trip with seven friends, they followed a cow path until they came to a stream. They all got out of the car, carried it over the stream and continued on.
“Ukrainians who had nothing for so long had to figure out how to do things in creative ways. They might not have been motivated to do them if they had had more money,” she said.
After Michele returned to her job, she completed studies at Gonzaga in 2014. Then she spent a year with the Red Cross in Abilene, Texas, helping FEMA with disaster relief in Albany, N.Y., and in Kentucky.
She spent the 2015-16 academic year on a Fulbright scholarship teaching “ethical” (servant) leadership, primarily with the Ukrainian Diplomatic Academy in Kyiv and giving special presentations to university students at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, the National Public Administration Academy at Kharkiv and Kyiv.
Michele also taught university professors in conjunction with the Ministry of Education in the communications they needed to do and the relationships needed to have their research published.
In addition, she taught internally displaced persons on leadership and communication in Lviv and Kyiv, and gave leadership presentations for the Banking Academy at Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. During that time, there was war in Southeast Ukraine.
Now Michele is back in Spokane looking for the right fit.
In Texas, she had joined a Unitarian Universalist Church and now has joined the Unitarian Universalist Church in Spokane, drawn by its commitment to social justice. She volunteers with Second Harvest, 501 Commons and the Washington Trail Association.
“From my travels, I have learned not to make assumptions about any group of people or culture. To do that without meeting people is a mistake,” Michele said.
While she found Ukrainians she met initially reserved and private, once Michele came to know people she found them “welcoming and inclusive at a deep level.”
Now her community of Ukrainian friends is part of who she is as a human being.
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