‘Saving the world is really hard’
August 15, 2005
EAGLE-VAIL – It didn’t take Trent Ruder long to figure out the American way of doing things doesn’t work quite as well in Romania. For example, Eastern European countries just don’t hold punctuality in such high esteem as we do. “As Americans, if we have an 11:30 meeting it means starting at about 11:30 and I should probably get there at 11:25,” Ruder said. “It’s not just Romania, but in many other parts of the developing world, if something is starting at 11:30, well… try not to be more than half an hour late.”As for other highly valued American workplace must-haves – meeting agendas, staying on topic and keeping your personal life separate from your professional life – forget it in Romania. As a Peace Corps worker in the country for two years, Ruder had to develop some new tactics to get things done. “There were a lot of challenges in that regard, but what that forced me to do was learn how to use my language in a way that would be received by them,” he said. “You have to develop a sort of way of communicating on their terms. You tend to play on other people’s court a lot of the time.” Ruder is back in his own court, so to speak. He completed his work with the Peace Corps several weeks ago and returned to his hometown of Vail. Don’t expect him to stay for long, though. The 1998 Vail Mountain School graduate has plans to travel again soon, noting his two years with the internationally-recognized service group has only stoked his longtime desire to live abroad. He hopes to return to Romania again, too. It’s been years since the U.S.S.R disbanded, but the Eastern European countries once dominated by the Soviet Union still hold remnants of their communist past. Aside from the blocks of apartment buildings and the mind-boggling bureaucracy that persists in Romania, Ruder said he found a citizenry surrounded by beautiful scenery and full of hope and warmth, committed to their agrarian heritage, and open to learning about Americans, even if their habits and ways of thinking don’t always translate. 8 seconds of RomanianRuder had just graduated from Tufts University when he was faced with the question most college graduates face: What next? For Ruder, it was the Peace Corps, a logical way to indulge his interest in other cultures and his desire to travel. As for his placement in Romania, that was a little less deliberate.”I ended up in Romania because I didn’t want to take malaria pills for two years,” he said. Among countries that have Peace Corps workers, Romania is one of the wealthiest. Still, Ruder knew it was a poor country, struggling to get organized after the fall of communism.
“Be flexible” is a Peace Corps mantra, a sort of warning to new volunteers that they will be asked to adapt to changing conditions, he said. In other words, the best thing to expect is very little. He arrived in Romania on Feb. 13, 2003. Ruder was first struck by the age of his colleagues with the Peace Corps , he said.”Many were over 50, one guy was 77 years old… It’s fantastic because the person that’s willing when they are 65 years old to go to a foreign country and work for two years is a dynamic person,” he said. Then, he met the family he would be living with for the first 10 weeks in the country. Those first few days went smoothly. “I had been in the country for three days now and I’d received a sheet of, you know, ‘my name is’, ‘hello’, ‘it’s nice to meet you’ and that’s it,” Ruder said. “So in eight seconds I had used all my Romanian.”Then, the father grabbed Ruder’s arm and gave him a warning: Some of the more common phrases spoken in Romanian are frequently mistaken for English swear words. For example, “I do” – while spelled very differently – sounds a lot like a crass expression most used by Americans when someone has made them angry (a hint: the “mother” of all cuss words). Apparently the family had hosted an American before and learned the hard way to clarify the confusion ahead of time, Ruder said. “It was great,” he said, with a laugh. The greatest job isn’t a jobRuder was placed in Alba Iulia, a university town in the northern state of Transylvania. His job was to help local non-governmental organizations – like student groups – get a little better organized. The intent is to give citizens the tools to make their country a better place to live and work. The Peace Corps is in the business of sending trained volunteers to countries that request them, with the emphasize being that the countries have request the help, Ruder said. “Which I think is really important,” he said, “because you learn pretty quickly that you are kind of an ass going into a country and saying, ‘well listen, I come from America, and we have money and we have comfortable things, we have democracy…. and we know what you guys need.’ That’s complete crap.”
To that end, Ruder spent time writing grants to help pay for office supplies, organized seminars on how to better communicate within an organization and created a university freshman orientation class. He also created an internship program to help college grads get practical working experience – something missing in the Romanian education system. But he needed buy-in from Romanians to get any of these ideas and programs off the ground. That’s why Ruder relied on a few local young people who bought into what he was doing and could prompt their fellow Romanians to follow suit. Ruder called them “diamonds”. Alina Ighian, a young Romanian woman who was a member of a local university group, was one of them. In an interview conducted over e-mail, Ighian said Romanians tend to be distrustful of American volunteers, who come across as if “they know everything and they came here to give lessons,” she said. That became a challenge at times.”The Romanian and the American systems and way of living are totally different,” she said. “And it is very hard to copy something in another country and to adjust it to your own.”Ruder was dedicated to the cause, however, and always tried to help the local groups improve, Ighian said. “He always tried to develop all kinds of programs that would make the students more active and more involved,” she said. “He was a motivating factor for our organization.” People who help everyoneLooking back on the two years spent abroad, Ruder said he has a better understanding of how difficult it is to make a lasting difference in the world.”I understood how hard it is to do things,” he said. “You go in thinking in two years you can save the world in some small way. You leave realizing that saving the world is really hard.”When you talk about change and developing things and helping people’s lives, you really have to be very careful,” he said. “Because, in what way are you helping them? You could give people a ton of money and a year from now they could be broke… You could build someone a house and they don’t know how to take care of it. They might prefer living outside. “So it’s hard to say if you are making people’s lives better.”
The real impact he had was small and on a small group of people, Ruder said. Perhaps that was the best investment, anyway.”I want to help the people who want to move forward because those people help everyone,” he said. “Those are the ones who innovate. Those are the ones who change. Those are the ones who drive us forward.”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.===========================================================Romania• Population: About 22 million• Capital: Bucharest• Landscape: The Carpathian Mountains run along the middle of the country and the country borders the Black Sea• Currency: The leu• Average monthly salary: Equivalent to about $150=============================================================Vail, Colorado