Work Update!

Other than research frameworks, cleaning ladies hiding in the kitchen, and French people making fun of me, what else happens at an MFI in Madagascar?

Below are some of the activities that have I have been able to take part in over the last 3.5 months besides my day to day product work.

Agence Ecole

In order to become a loan officer at PAMF, you have to go through a few weeks of training! At the end of each week, all applicants have to take a test and only those who pass make it to the next week. This training is called Agence Ecole.

During the last week of training (so only the cream of the crop remained), all the departments from the head office visited the branch where the training was being held (Andoharanofotsy) to do a short presentation on the role of each department.
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All the ‘agents en formation’ (agents in training) introducing themselves with their name  and why they want to become loan officers.

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Bertrand presenting the RPD  (Research and Product Development) department.

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Bertrand is soo interesting

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Paula (aka the Daniel Jung of PAMF) presenting the Risk Department. Unfortunately (for me) even though the slides are in French, she spoke in Malagasy.

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The Andoharanofotsy branch, also called Tana 2.

It was really neat to see some (most!) of the “agents en formation” arrive at the head office to meet with HR and sign their contracts to become Loan Officers a week later!

MSME Training

RPD, MFI, PAMF, AKAM, AKFC.. whats MSME now!? MSME stands for Micro Small Medium Enterprise. PAMF used to divide clients into two segments – micro and SME. Micro meant loans less than 7 million Ariary (around $3000) and SME clients had loans going up to 60 million Ariary (approx. $27,000). Each segment had loan officers specializing in loans for their segment.
There has recently been an effort to cater to the clients that fit in at the lower end of SME, but still higher than micro (up to around 20 million Ar). This new segment is called MSME and the first training for MSME loan officers was held recently. These are all previous micro or SME loan officers that were trained to target this new segment.
To celebrate the first batch of trained MSME loan officers, we had a little party!

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Food

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When can we eat?

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First the CEO will say a few words of course.

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Let’s give out some certificates.

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And some kisses.

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Will she kiss the French man?

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Yes she will.

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And now we eat!

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Oh wait, group photo.. but Eddy will keep eating.

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Equipe MSME with their certificates.

Mobile Banking

Obviously, this is the project that I’ve been most excited about over the last few months. PAMF has started meeting with MNOs (mobile network operators) in Madagascar to study the possibility of using mobile money technology to offer a mobile banking option to clients.

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Meeting at Orange Mobile

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Orange Money! Really cool – they are already working with Microcred to link Orange Money with client bank accounts and disburse loans directly to Orange Money accounts.

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Benoit (COO) with a poster of the evolution of Monsieur Patate – the face of Orange Money in Madagascar.

Mr. Patate is a huge marketing success  – check out this TV ad: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=1905606635557

According to GSMA.. His purpose was to become a conduit to create awareness and educate customers on the benefits of mobile money. It worked. Like many beloved mascots, Mr. Patate has become practically a household name in Madagascar, so much so that you can buy a handmade Mr. Patate doll at the local market.

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Meeting at Airtel – the bench is shaped like a mobile phone!!!!

As part of this project, we had a meeting at CECAM, another MFI in Madagascar that has already started a partnership with an MNO to pilot a mobile banking product. I thought it was really interesting that a competitor was open to discussing their experience with working with mobile operators and the challenges they faced. Maybe there is no Mr. Slugworth of Malagasy microfinance after all.

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Slugworth’s laboratory

Antasahavola Branch
Lastly, the other exciting thing I was able to do this past month was leave the ivory tower and start spending time at the Antsahavola branch. It was really interesting to meet with the Branch Manager and learn more about operations. I’m going to be spending more time with her and the loan officers in the coming months, so I will definitely post more about this in the future, but for now, check out some of the posters they have up in the branch.

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This one explains to clients that:
1) Repayments should be made at the cashier at the branch, not given to loan officers in the field
2) Loan officers should not be accepting chickens (bribes, repayments)
3) Client documentation during the application process must be brought directly to the branch and not given to a loan officer in the field

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This one explains SME loans (I think..)

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This one explains the storage loan product. A farmer can store his/her rice (for example), get a loan to smooth his income and then sell the rice later when he can get a better price for it. 

Other

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A guy named Monsieur Dude came into the office.

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Eddy and Bertrand wore the same outfit.

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Eddy and this lady wore the same outfit.

That’s all for now 🙂

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Madreflections

The following is a collection of some of my thoughts from my first month in Madagascar.

The Arrival of Eddy

Big news from l’isle rouge –  I have a buddy! Eddy is another AKFC IMM fellow that was doing his fellowship in Cairo. Unfortunately, because of the political situation in Egypt, he had to leave. After a couple of weeks of placement-less-ness in Geneva, he was moved to Antananarivo to work with me on the RPD team at PAMF Madagascar.

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Monday morning and the whole office stops working (including the CEO) to discuss where to put Eddy and move ALL the desks

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Bienvenue Edouard! Tonga Soa Edwardantelianananana!  (note: this is not a pose, he had no idea I was taking this)

He’s been here for about a couple of weeks now and my life has changed considerably. For example, I am now able to walk into a restaurant without getting weird looks! Eating alone isn’t exactly common here..

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Candy crush, my meal companion pre-Eddy

The first month

Now that Eddy is here and I’m no longer on my own, it has really made aware of how different this experience is with a buddy and I’d like to share a little bit about what it was like in that first month.

After the shiny newness of the first few days wore off, I remember feeling like the animals in the picture at the top of this blog. Omg. Omg. Omg-ascar.This is real life now. How am I supposed to make friends? How do I carve out a life for myself here? Wait, how am I supposed to make friends?

Making Friends

Making friends seemed like an insurmountable challenge… mostly because instead of being grateful that I was in a country where I could communicate, I let the French language turn into a big ugly monstre.

I speak French (wow, it has taken me 5? 6? weeks to have enough confidence to say that), but speaking French to buy a croissant or to tell my colleague about my weekend is different than speaking French to form real natural friendships. At least, that’s what I had convinced myself.  My French wasn’t natural yet, it was awkward and slightly uncomfortable and I had no confidence.  I was really worried that nobody would want to talk to me, nevermind  become my bff and giggle about my daily awkward encounters.

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Kevin, my first and most loyal friend in Madagascar

Safety

Based on discussions between PAMF and AKFC on my living arrangements before I arrived, I knew that safety would be a serious concern for me in Tana. I understood that this meant I had to be cautious, but I didn’t realize it would completely transform my lifestyle. When I arrived, everyone here freaked me out.

“Don’t walk to work with your laptop. We’re giving you a (dinosaur) desktop. It’s going to take us 5 days to set it up because everything is slooowww here, so we’re going to drive you back and forth from your house 4 times a day so you can transport your laptop” (Although I may have embellished the wording on this one slightly, this did happen)

“Don’t wear jewels. Malagasy like to steal gold. Do you have a necklace hiding under your scarf? Why do you have so many holes in your ears?”  (not sure if that last one was related to my safety..)

“Watch your purse…Are you watching it!?” x 100

Person A: “Don’t walk home past 5:30. Don’t take road X in the evening, take road Y”
Person B: “Don’t walk home past 5:30. Don’t take road Y in the evening, take road X”
Person C: “You are a jeune fille so you shouldn’t walk. Do you want a moto to ride home every day?” (Eddy will curse me forever for saying no to that one)

And most importantly,

“Do NOT leave your apartment after dark”

Okay je comprends! Completely fresh in this new land and not wanting to be the fellow that something terrible happened to less than one month in, I tried to listen to it all! Unfortunately, the winter sun (we’re below the equator!) sets by about 6pm in Tana. With my work day ending at 5:30, my window to get back to my apartment is slim. I might be able to pick up a couple groceries, but let’s not even start thinking about getting dinner or going to a yoga class! My slow transformation into a hermit had begun.

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The man in the apartment across from me sharpening his knife on a Saturday morning (referred to affectionately as “Stabby” by Eddy and I) 

Coping Mechanisms

So, how did I deal with these new challenges? I did what any girl on an island in the Indian Ocean would do – I sat in my room and ate pineapple and watched Bollywood.

A couple other things helped too:

Once upon another time in my life when I had moved to a different new place and was freaking out about making friends a friend told me to remember that I had friends, we just might not be in the same place at this time. Before I left home, some of my closest friends sent me videos to help me remember that. During those first few days I would watch Ham awkwardly wanting the video to end (and being upside down the whole time), Karen’s dancing hippo butt, Lesley and I throwing cheese, and lots of other wonderful memories which reminded me that it just might take a little time, but I would soon have madamemories to smile about too.

My biggest support through this fellowship so far has been my fellow fellows. My friend Savannah really put it best in her blog post here. Even though I was alone in Madagascar, I drew an incredible amount of strength from the fact that 25 other people in 17 other cities were figuring their new lives out too. I used to tell Savannah that at the most difficult/frustrating/boring times, sometimes I would just think of her in Bishkek, and recognize that she was 3 hours ahead of me and therefore, 3 hours further into her fellowship. If she could make it through those 3 hours, so could I!

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My whatsapp screen. 

In case you’re interested in reading more about their experiences, I just added links to a bunch more of their blogs to the right!

One Month Later

One month later and things are much easier. I feel at home here now and have settled into a routine.

I have friends!!!

Les Filles Malgaches

There are 3 things that Malagasy girls seem to universally like talking about.

1)      Bollywood

2)      Boys (Indian, in particular)

3)      Celine Dion

Once I figured this out, I was all set!

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This is my friend from work and her sister from our trip to a crocodile farm! This friendship really proves to me the beauty of language to bring people together. French is none of our first language. I would rather be speaking English and they would rather be speaking Malagasy. Even though none of us really want to be speaking French, we suck it up and do it for the sake of friendship. (awwww! Right?!)

Les Ismailiens

The ismaili community has also been very welcoming and quick to get me veryyyyyyy involved.  (Once they realized they could communicate with me in Gujrançailish) I am the new librarian, a religious class teacher and a camp counsellor (more on that in October!). This has been a great way for me to have a life outside of work.

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The Ismaili jamaatkhana in Tana

La Securité

On this front, I’m still trying to figure out how to balance caution with having a life, but it is becoming easier. My weekends are busy (when I can meet people in the daylight) and my nights are spent either at the mosque fiddling with the library, with friends who have cars or with my landlords family that lives above me. Although I can still be found curled up with my laptop some evenings, I’ve significantly reduced my hermiting time from those first few days. It also helped that I watched all the Hart of Dixie and Next Food Network Star I had and haven’t bought any more pineapple. Having Eddy around has also made a huge difference. With him, I’ve been able to walk places I was warned not to go alone and stretch the hours that I stay out (just a little, mom).

In a little over a month I’ve already learned way more than I could have ever anticipated. Not only about living in a developing country, but also about being alone in an unfamiliar setting and being a girl in a society where there are clumps of males everywhere. I’m still on the search for “Tana happy”, but I’ve found happiness in Tana and feel all warm and fuzzy when I think of it as home.

(Note: the last line was a test to see if you,ve been reading all my blog entries)

I’ll leave you with some panoramas from the last month..

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So, what do I do every day?

I keep wanting to write about work, but I keep saying… I better wait until I have a better idea of what I’m doing here. Almost a month in and although I still feel like I’m swimming in a sea of unknowns, I think I can take a stab at describing my role and give you an idea of my work life.

Like most of you probably already know, I’m in Madagascar to work at la Première Agence de Microfinance (PAMF).  PAMF is about  10-15 minute walk from my house. The building has 3 floors. The bottom floor is a functioning branch of the MFI, so that’s where you’ll find the credit officers and clients coming into apply for loans etc. The top two floors are the Head Office of PAMF’s operations around the country. These two floors are where products are brainstormed, portfolios managed, risks assessed, and operations streamlined for PAMF’s 13 branches around Madagascar. My desk is on the second floor!

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PAMF from the outside

I usually stumble into work by 8:30. At about 9, the rest of the Product Research and Development Department usually rolls on in – in other words, my colleague Bertrand arrives. Bertrand is the Product Manager at PAMF and has been working here for a couple of years.

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The second floor of PAMF (that’s Bertrand). There are about 15 people who work on this floor, but I waited until everyone was on holiday to take my pictures!  

So far, Bertrand and I have been working on a handful of different projects. I would separate my work so far into three main buckets:

  • Pilot Reviews:
    There are three new products that PAMF has been piloting over the last 6 months. These products are now ready to be reviewed to assess how they compare to projections and whether they are ready to be rolled out across the country. I have been working on creating Research Frameworks for these three pilots. This means, deciding what type of data is important for PAMF to collect on these products (on the supply and demand side) and how to collect it.
  • Needs Assessment:
    Based on client feedback from a Customer Satisfaction Survey in 2012, PAMF has proposed a new product idea. In order to determine the specifications for the product, we need to collect more data from clients by doing a comprehensive needs assessment. I have been working with Bertrand on putting together a Research Framework that outlines what data we need and again, how to collect it.

  • Product Approval Request
    Again, based on client feedback from the Customer Satisfaction Survey, PAMF has proposed a new loan product. A Product Approval Request has to be submitted to the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM) in Geneva before it can be piloted. In order to do this, I have to do a bunch of research on this product. I need to figure out what other banks and MFIs in Mada are offering a similar product, what the country-wide statistics are for this type of client need, and what global best practices are for this loan type.

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My bible. Yes it’s in English! I will write another post about the language dynamics at work soon. 

Basically, it a lot of research (and research frameworks!) and data collection. This type of “product management” feels very different from the work I was doing at Kiva Zip, but I guess the principle is the same – how can we collect data that will lead to product creation that addresses user needs and has high user satisfaction – no matter if that product is a web page or a loan product or whether I have to work with engineers or credit officers.

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My desk. Note the moleskin from Akash (with process diagrams!!) , Tufts alumni pen and cup of tea to make me feel at home. 

Did you notice how I didn’t mention any of the specific products when I described my work above? That’s because sometimes I feel like I’m working for the microfinance version of Willy Wonka’s secret laboratory or something. When I leave work every day I have to lock all my product documents in a secret cupboard! Who knows if the Mr. Slugworth of Malagasy microfinance is reading my blog 😉

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“Ah-lee-za, pretend you are working” – my French colleague as he took these pictures

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My role requires a lot of back and forth with the AKAM RPD team in Geneva. They approve all research before its done and all products before they are piloted in an effort to standardize processes across all the PAMF/First Microfinance Banks around the world. I really like this aspect of my role, because it gives me an idea of how things are working in other AKAM countries and reminds me that there is a world beyond this island!

Even though RPD can sometimes be slow, everyone else seems to be extremely busy alllllll the time. Usually when I get there at 8:30, about the half of the office is already there… and when I leave by 5:30, I’m usually one of the first out. Sometimes I wonder if they even go home.

One of the reasons I took this fellowship was to get some experience “in the field,” but somehow sitting in an office in Tana is not so different from sitting in an office in SF (other than the dogs, unlimited snacks, and ping pong table of course). In the next few months, my goal is to actually make it out to the field to collect (or observe the collection of) data and meet some borrowers! Oh.. and obviously, figure out mobile banking in Madagascar 😉
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La ville au 12 collines

“Spectaculaire par son étendue au-delà des 12 collines sur lesquelles elle est construite, elle déborde de vie dans ses marchés colorés, ses édifices à colonnes, ses vérandas…”

The descriptions of Antananarivo I read online before I got here made me wonder what this city could actually be like. The crossroads of Asia and Africa? French legacy? 12 hills? Who knew all that would come together in a city with a unique beauty unlike any other place in the world.

It didn’t take me long to discover the beauty of Antananarivo. More content about life and work soon, I promise. For now, enjoy a little taste of some of the views from my new home.

I love all the coloured houses on the hills.

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Lac Anosy. Even though Mada is an island, its huge!! and Antananarivo is located right in the middle.. so this is the extent of my exposure to any body of water.

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“this is our Hollywood” my friend told me. So random! Apparently letters go missing every so often (they were missing an R for about a year after a cyclone and recently replaced it).

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Antananarivo – the city on 12 hills and therefore, so many places to get a view of the entire city.

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Not a bad place to watch the sun set 🙂

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Antananarrived!

I’m currently sitting in my new room in Madagascar writing this post. On one hand, I find it hard to believe that I’m actually in Madagascar, but on the other hand, it’s also hard to believe I haven’t even been here 24 hours yet.

Some highlights from my 31? (I lost count) hour journey:

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1. YVR -> YYZ

I was so happy that Savannah, my roommate from AKFC training, came to the airport to see me off.

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We tried to make faces like the animals in the movie… but we might need to practice over the next 8 months? Savannah is on her way to Kyrgyzstan – check out her blog! Savannah in Kyrgyzstan 

2. YYZ -> CDG

Free upgrade! More legroom than I have legs for!

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3. CDG -> TNR

Another free upgrade and a pain au chocolat. What more could a girl want?

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4. Arrival in Antananarivo!

I stepped off the plane and saw this (because Ivato airport is so small, there’s no tunnel)

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I know the picture is terrible, but its a pretty accurate representation of how my eyes were after all that traveling.

After the million and one nerves and butterflies that attacked me on the journey over, as soon as I stepped off the plane, I was hit by a feeling that I belonged here. It was the familiar feeling of African air and almost instantly, my nerves calmed and I felt at home.

My colleague Mirana picked me up from the airport and took me to my new “appart-hôtel”

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This will be my home for the next 8 months!

I spent my first day in Tana with Shayan (former AKFC fellow) and his wonderful family. He gave me a great tour of the city. Check out the incredible view!

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My day ended with a crêpe and a view Tana by night. Not a bad first day!

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So far, I have a pretty awesome impression of Tana. Every single person that I’ve met has been so kind and so welcoming. They haven’t made me feel out of place even with my bumbling French and awkward perma-smile.

I came into this experience with pretty high expectations. When I went to Kenya at the end of last year, I had such an amazing time that I named this new level of happiness, “Kenya happy.” I came to Madagascar looking for “Kenya happy,” and I have a feeling it won’t be long before I find it.

Please note: all credit (including but not limited to: groans, laughs, eyerolls) for the title of this post goes to Jonny Price

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Welcome!

In a couple of days, I will be traveling to Antananarivo, Madagascar. I will be spending 8 months working for the Première Agence de Microfinance (PAMF) Madagascar through a fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.

I thought I’d start by answering some of the most common questions I get about my fellowship!

  1. What are you going to be doing there?
    As far as I know, I’m going to be working for the Product Research and Development Department at PAMF. PAMF is a microfinance institution, so that could mean researching and developing micro-loan products. However, like with any true international development experience, things will probably change once I’m on the ground so, we’ll see!
  2. Are you going with anyone else?
    I’m the only AKFC fellow going to Madagascar this year. There are 25 other brilliant fellows embarking on equally cool experiences in other countries. Some of their blogs are linked on the right!
  3. Mada-where?
    Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Mozambique. It is the fourth largest island in the world and has a population of ~22 million people. The island is home to a unique blend of African and Asian culture AND is the only place in the world where you can find lemurs!
  4. Will there be dancing penguins and singing hippos?
    Thank you Dreamworks. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation about my fellowship that hasn’t involved a question about the movie. I will write back about the singing and dancing creatures as soon as possible.

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For anybody who doesn’t recognize the animals at the top of my blog. They are the characters from movie Madagascar.   Wide-eyed and curious, like them, I am ready for my new adventure! Thanks for reading. I’m excited to share my experience with all of you.

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