Peace Corps Volunteer in Russian Far East (Vladivostok, Russia)
from 1999-2001 (now back in US)
How did you become interested in computer science?
I've always loved computers, because
they've been a part of my life ever since I was a young child. My
father used our home computer mostly for his work, but would
allow my younger sisters and I to play with it. As a result of our
early exposure, we have always been comfortable around computers
- even when the specific technology might have been unfamiliar to
In high school, I got a computer of my
own and became even more interested in them. In the eleventh
grade, I became involved with the Computer Club at school - quickly
becoming the president of the group that was almost exclusively populated
by boys exceptions being myself, one of my sisters, and a close friend).
That year, I took on a couple of projects that cemented my decision to study computer science: I
taught myself how to use the Internet and learned some of the
rudiments of the C programming language. I've been hooked ever since.
What was the best part of your Carnegie
Mellon experience? Worst part?
I'm not sure that CMU can really be
described in terms of "best" and "worst". I really enjoyed
my fellow students and the challenge of taking so many academically rigorous
classes. I did not really like the atmosphere surrounding the few
women that were part of the SCS program at the time; at times, it
was very stressful being one of maybe two or three women in a
computer science class.
How did you become interested in joining the Peace Corps?
A friend of mine had mentioned the Peace
Corps to me during my first couple of years of college. I had
always been interested in traveling and realized that I wasn't
quite ready to jump into the workforce and code after college. So,
after attending an information session during my senior
year, I decided to apply. I had taken two semesters of Russian
history in college and had always loved Russian literature, so when
I received my letter saying I was headed to the Russian Far
East I was absolutely thrilled!
What did you do there?
When I initially started looking at
joining the Peace Corps, they didn't really have a need for technology
volunteers. However, I really wanted to join and knew I would
eventually find a way to incorporate my computer science
background. So, I officially became a Teacher of English as a Foreign
Language. Along the way, I've done many other things besides teach
English: I organized a computer camp for teenage girls; brought
computers to my classroom and into my regular curriculum; acted as
an editor of the volunteer newsletter; and been involved
with grant decisions, funding local volunteer projects.
I would like to point out that there are
now specific opportunities for people with computer
science backgrounds within the Peace Corps: a new specialty, the Information Technology
Volunteer, has recently been introduced that puts volunteers in touch with people who have never seen a
computer or used the Internet.
What was the gender breakdown of your colleagues
at the Peace Corps? (Is this an issue for you?)
The gender breakdown was approximately
Would this be advisable as a Summer or
Christmas break experience? Or is it more like a full-time job?
The Peace Corps requires a two-year
commitment, plus three months training in your country of service. It
is more than a full-time job.
Had you ever been to Russia before?
No. My only experiences abroad had been
on vacations to Western Europe and Mexico.
Was it difficult to adjust to the Russian
culture? What were your living conditions like?
I guess I didn't have a terribly hard
time adjusting, because I spent my entire time living in
Vladivostok - a sizeable city of about 700,000 people. Vladivostok had
most of amenities of any major city: a commercial bus system,
large shopping areas, etc. However, there were a lot of problems
that lurked beneath the surface of a seemingly solid
infrastructure. For instance, hot water was largely unavailable for about
eight months of the year and heating during winter months was kept
to a minimum. Thus, adjusting to the bitterly cold winters
was made doubly hard. My situation was a lot better than many of
my other fellow volunteers, because many smaller towns
and villages were not heated at all during the wintertime.
Probably the hardest thing to get used to
was the way that women were expected to dress and behave. I had
always been the type to just wear jeans and a t-shirt, but in
Russia I often got stares when I left my apartment dressed
that way. Most women wore makeup, high-heeled shoes or boots, and
immaculately ironed and cleaned clothing. Also, despite the fact
that most women and men worked full-time, women were the ones
expected to clean and cook for their families. Most of the men that
I knew did not help out around the house at all.
Did you always have Internet access? How advanced
is technology in Russia?
There are huge gaps in levels of
technology around Russia. When I visited Moscow, for example, I was able
to use the Internet at high-speed Internet cafes, replete with
flat-screen monitors >and some very high-end machines. However,
in Vladivostok, the Internet cafes offered slow access
(probably the equivalent of a 56K modem) and much less impressive
computers. In some of the villages I visited, there were no
computers or nobody knew how to use the computers or the computers had
been around since the early 1980s.
I didn't have steady Internet access for
my first month in Russia - I had to go downtown once a week and
use the computers at one of the half-dozen Internet cafes around
town. However, I soon figured out how to dial-in using my laptop and
after that I had fairly steady Internet access for my remaining
two years. The biggest issue with going online was the cost:
when I finally moved into my apartment, I ended up spending what for
me was two months’ worth of my monthly stipend (given by the Peace
Corps) in order to have a phone line installed. Internet costs
were relatively high, but I managed my budget carefully and was able
to download my email daily (usually logging on for about
fifteen minutes each day). The cost of getting on the Internet was too
expensive for the majority of the Russians I interacted with on a
What are your future plans?
This year, I'm working as well as
volunteering for a local library teaching computer classes to seniors.
I've sent out applications to law school and hope to start studying
next fall. I would like to specialize in combination of
Intellectual Property and International law.
Any words of wisdom for the members of Women@SCS?
I would highly recommend something like
the Peace Corps for people interested in traveling and really
getting involved in another culture. It was certainly a challenge,
but something that I got a lot out of. If anyone is interested in
learning more about my experiences or about the Peace Corps
organization in general, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck to everyone and enjoy your time at CMU!
By Grace A. Lewis (Alumnae representative for Women@SCS)
Software Engineering Institute
COTS Based Systems Initiative