Ask Her: Peace Corps Education Developer, Sarah Cook

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What advice would you give to a smart, driven, young woman about to enter the workforce? What advice should she ignore?

  1. During the transition from formal schooling to the workforce, rejection oftentimes becomes more common and success becomes much more abstract and subjective. This doesn’t mean you’re not on the right track. In fact, professional rejection is oftentimes a sign that you’re reaching high which is admirable.

  2. Networking is much more effective with weak connections than strong ones, so keep in touch with everyone you can.

  3. As women, we are oftentimes encouraged to downplay our accomplishments and be modest. Don’t do this. You need to play up what you have to offer. Find opportunities to integrate what you’re passionate about into your work or volunteering.

  4. The best fuel for success is genuine interest and excitement so tapping into that every chance you get in your work will help you go far.  

Advice to ignore: international travel and work cannot be done as a single woman and that a mistake or setback will always define you. Also throw away the idea that there are people who have things to teach us and people who don’t. Everyone we meet is better at something than us; the best thing we can do is bring that out in them, celebrate it and try to learn from it.

Peace Corps, Sarah Cook

What do you tell yourself during high-pressure situations that help you deal with stress?

I like to zoom into the first steps I can reasonably accomplish towards achieving the task and only look to those until they are done. When I retackle the issue, at least it’s a little smaller. Also, I think self care is essential. Taking a few minutes or hours to do something like yoga, breathing exercises, time with friends or a walk in nature means that our work will be more productive when we come back to it. Powering through when we are frazzled, sad or stressed can sometimes take longer and almost always results in a subpar product.

Another seemingly counter intuitive approach is asking myself: if this project/situation blows up and fails what will happen? Usually, it’s not nearly as catastrophic as I imagine so I can approach the situation knowing even if it doesn’t work that it will all be okay in the end.

What did the Peace Corps teach you about humanity?

So much of my experience with Peace Corps has been really internalizing things I believed on the surface already and I had to confront a lot of problematic ideas and stereotypes I had subconsciously that I wasn’t really admitting to myself. I think the idea that really stuck with me is so basic: we are all just doing our best and we all have something to offer.

We oftentimes see peoples’ value through a really problematic sense of privilege. We assume that people who are young or lack formal education or have immigrated have less to offer a project. In reality, a team needs people who have different strengths and people who are engaged and willing to put in the work. In many ways, my best work partners were 5th-8th grade girls because they had experience working with Dominican kids, were excited and willing to help and they had the basic skills I was trying to teach to younger kids. During my second year of service, they worked an hour after school every day with me to run after school literacy clubs. They were so invaluable to my projects.

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Ever given?

Best advice I ever got: An Alain de Botton quote: To love, ultimately, is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on the surface not very appealing behavior in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone is to apply charity and generosity of interpretation. 

Best advice I’ve ever given (to Peace Corps trainees):  If you want people to invest consistently in a project, it’s not enough to inspire them only through the idea of what they can learn or achieve. You have to celebrate and tap into what they already know and have to offer.

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What women in your life have inspired you? Why?

Fior, my host mother in the Dominican Republic. She always opens her heart to everyone she meets and makes sure to take care of the people around her. She is resourceful and always found a way to stretch money or resources to make sure there was not only enough food for us but for our neighbors as well.

Rebecca, my Mom. Over the last few years, I have seen my mother start a business later in life. I find her willingness to learn and start a new project, as well as her unabashed willingness to dream up something creative and make it happen so inspirational.

Kristin Kaper, my Country Director in Peace Corps. Kristin is a powerful professional woman who can always command a room and speak eloquently about her beliefs and about policy. However, she always has an open door for volunteers and staff to come in and chat with her and respects and listens to everyone’s opinions. She balances having an important high powered job with genuine empathy and interest in everyone she meets.

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Where do you think empathy comes from? Are you born with it or can you find it?

I think empathy is a skill and maybe even a verb more than a character trait. Being empathetic is purposefully saying: it would be easier to shut out or explain away what this person is going through, but I am going to devote time and mental energy to try to understand what they are feeling, feel it with them to some extent and validate that experience. Brene Brown says that, “empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of, ‘you’re not alone’”. Empathy is showing up for people and listening to their experience with an open heart and mind. How can we become more empathetic? We need to meet and get to know people with different backgrounds and life experiences than our own on a deep and personal level to expand our understanding of different experiences and world views.

I have also found it incredibly valuable, in moments of pain or frustration to think, “What do I wish I had right now? What do I need to hear from other people right now?”  and tap into that later when people experience something similar, through the lens of their reality and situation as best I can.

Empathy is not: explaining to someone why their problems aren’t as big as they think, trying to immediately fix their problem for them or using them opening up as a door for us to talk more about ourselves, even though these are oftentimes where our minds go first. So I guess empathy is just actively trying to make others feel heard, validated and loved even when we have to take on and sit with them in their moments of pain.

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What are some tools you use to appear/feel confident?

I find that laughing at myself and my mistakes allows them to feel less intense around people. I have gotten much better at speaking in public once I realized that if I misspeak, or put something up wrong, I can laugh at myself, use it as a moment to connect with who I’m speaking to and quickly move on. Letting go of the idea of perfection in my professional interactions has made me much less nervous. I also try jam some badass music and walk briskly, head high and chin literally held up on my way to interviews or big meetings/presentations.

Drink of choice? Spicy margarita

Ask Her question from previous interviewee, Kara Buse: What is the thing you are most excited about in the future?

I am sitting in the airport as I write this so in the near future, I am so excited to reconnect with my loved ones at home and see them again. In the long term,  I am really excited to see new countries. I haven’t been to any countries in Asia or Africa and hope to go soon! I find that I learn and grow the most when I am in a culture that is new to me.  Also, I am trying hard to decolonize my way of thinking and so many of my ideas about cultures are built on conjecture and stereotype so traveling always helps me break through and confront some of those ideas.

What question do you want to ask the next woman we interview? What songs/scores do you find empowering?

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