Peace Corps Update

When I share with someone that I’m joining the Peace Corps, I get one of two reactions:

  1.   “OMG, how long is that?  TWO YEARS! How can you afford to do that? What about work? What about your house?  What about [fill in the blank]________________?” This exclamation is often accompanied by a facial expression of woe and angst followed by “I could never do that”
  2. “Oh wow, that is so cool. That’s so brave.   I’m really excited/I really admire that you’re doing that.”  This is usually said by someone who is not a member of my generation, or someone who is a really close friend and knows me well.

Having written this out, I feel like these responses to my decision are a pretty accurate timeline of my own feelings about Peace Corps.

I received my invitation to serve in July 2017.  At first I was really excited, and then lurking worry and fears of the unknown starting to sneak their way into my subconscious. Eventually, I sucked it up and got my fingerprints done, checking off the first task in a surprisingly long litany of Peace Corps related tasks. This is probably one of the finer decisions I have made in life.

Nearly every adult older than me I spoke with about my Peace Corps decision encouraged me without reservation to pursue that unknown horizon (Reaction #2).  They spoke of looking back on their own lives to places where they met a fork in the road, and now with near unanimity wish that had taken that less trodden path. My biggest hang up was money, though it shames me to say it out loud. I have always prided myself in not being a consumer, not letting things or stuff tie me down or control my life. I never appreciated that instead of stuff, I was consumed by the need to horde money for my future’s sake.  Every single adult assured me that there is always time to make money, and really, money doesn’t make your world go ’round.  Certainly it is important, and I know there are certain things I want to buy that will require some savings and a steady job, but those things are worth delaying for something like Peace Corps.

Making the decision to let go of monetary wealth for the next two years was really difficult for me, but I’ve come to the point where I can put it out of my mind for the sake of better things that I’m sure will make me poorer monetarily speaking, but much richer in life. Wealth, after all, is just what you make of it.

Hooray for personal growth!

But not everyone is supportive of this decision and here are some of my thoughts on the most common questions or concerns I get concerning Peace Corps.

Q: That’s like TWO YEARS of your LIFE!  (concerns about commitment)

A:  Yes, yes it is.  However, it’s not like I wouldn’t be living those two years of my life anyway, right?  You have to live them somewhere, and I can either live them in a way where that it is easy to predict my day-to-day, or in a way that it is not.  If I weren’t going into the peace corps, I’d being going to graduate school, so it’s not exactly as if I’d be carefree and unencumbered anyway.

Q: Oooh… doesn’t that mean you have to live with no running water/electricity/indoor plumbing/car/etc?

A: Quite possibly yes, it does. But you know what? The lack of conveniences really doesn’t bother me in any significant way. Yes, I love hot showers and all of the joys of plumbing, but they aren’t huge priorities for me.  I’ve lived without them before, and I would do it again.

Q: What if you get sick/robbed/homesick/lonely?

A: I fully expect all of thing to happen, probably all at once and probably more than once. And it will be miserable and without a doubt, there will be moments where I want nothing more than to catch the next donkey cart back to South Carolina. But bad things happen to people everywhere, all the time. They happen to me living here, and I deal with them.  They will probably happen to me there, and I will deal with them there, too.

Q: Oh, so you’re out to go save the world/postpone adulthood/some other irresponsible choice? That probably won’t look too hot on a resume.

A: Oooh, judgy-judgy, aren’t you?!  I am joining Peace Corps for my reasons, and my reasons alone. They consist of pursuing what I find to be personally fulfilling, important, and meaningful, as well as how I see my own place within the world and life.   It’s such a challenge to get out there! To see the world for what it is instead of what it is portrayed to be! I love that, and want to be part of it. Peace Corps is not perfect in any way (is anything?), but they offer an opportunity to serve myself, my country, and maybe in some small way, someone else who shares in my fellow humanity. I think that in itself is cause enough for anyone.
And no, I would dare to disagree that joining Peace Corps is “postponing” anything, except perhaps a fat bank account.  It has taken me a lot of thought and courage to apply and pursue Peace Corps, and if anything, I see it as a remarkable testament to my character, perseverance, and ability to withstand nearly anything.  Also, perhaps it demonstrates a marked tolerance for misery, which is just fine with me. Putting a successful Peace Corps tour on my resume will be a very proud moment in my life, and honestly, would I even want to work for someone who didn’t agree?

And finally…

Q: Oh wow, Peace Corps? I could never do that.

A: Yes. you. could. I hate to hear people downplay their own ability to adapt, change, and remain resilient against the unknown. Women, especially, seem to always discount their own strengths and ability to do something hard.  If you are reading this blog and contemplating your own application to Peace Corps, I would urge you to dismiss outright those fears of what is unknown or unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by your own trepidation, or shy away from discomfort.  If Peace Corps (or anything in life) is something you feel calling to you, whispering in your ears with an unheard voice of temptation, then take those reins! Seek that far horizon and do not stop until you find whatever it is that drives you.  For me, Peace Corps is the hand that will open many doors I could never have opened or perhaps even dreamed of myself. Yes, I feel fear, and yes, I feel anxiety. But everything that may ever be gained by stepping into the chasm that is the unseen future is worth the immense challenge it is to rise above those concerns.  It is a process. It will take time and thought and my utmost concentration. But, I have no doubt, that I am ready to serve.

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Life is short. Go now.

Re-posted from my other blog. I originally posted this the day it happened in 2011. Life is short and sometimes when waiting for the ‘right time’–whenever that may be–time runs out. Although written 6 years ago, it’s just as applicable to my Peace Corps journey.

Life is surreal sometimes, and we never know what might happen

Tonight [or more accurately last night since it is now well past 3a] I saw a friend of mine get hit by a car. She was pronounced dead  at our local hospital about an hour after after it happened.  To be fair, we weren’t best friends, but we did have a fair amount of classes together at Clemson, and I have studied at her house quite a bit so not only did I know her, I knew her husband and kids too.  Tricia was a non-trad student–like me, but she was tons more outgoing that I will ever be.  Tricia had one goal for her education–and that was to become a physician.  She didn’t waiver.  She didn’t have any doubts.  She knew that she would go to Clemson, then go to medical school, and then be an Emergency Department physician.  I was always impressed by that.  I always have doubts of whether I should go to medical school or not, whether I should go to nursing school or not–what exactly my career path should be.  I have doubts about whether to get married or not.  Tricia married Warren right out of high school, and never thought twice about it.   I question constantly whether I ever want to get married, and sometimes whether I even want to be in a relationship.

Is it harder to be here one minute and gone the next?  Or is it harder to suffer for  awhile and then just pass into the next beyond?  Tricia was older than me, but not by that much, and the way she died was a freak accident.. One minute she was here, and then JUST LIKE THAT, she was gone–hit by a car while trying to help a neighbor’s dog who had been hit by a different car.  I know the details; I have worked in an ER.  This wasn’t the first time I have had brain tissue on my hands, but it was the first time I’ve helpd brains of a friend.  She wasn’t alone when she died; she had the love of her life beside her.

I stopped by her house after work to drop off MCAT books.  I was planning to stay only a few minutes;  I’m leaving for vacation later today.  But Tricia wanted to show me her new kitchen, so I went in and looked around.  It was nice.  I was there when there was a knock on the door.  I was there when Tricia put on her shoes to go look at the injured dog.  I was there when Warren went to the neighbor’s house to tell them their dog had been hit by a car.  I was standing in their driveway when I heard the car’s engine rev up.  I was still standing  there when I heard a thud.  The rest of what happened was in slow motion.

The car kept going. I ran to Tricia. Warren screamed. She was still alive when I got to her but her head was split open.  I tried to stop the bleeding.  Eventually an ambulance came.  Warren went with her.  I went home…blood [and brains] still on my hands and scrubs.

When you see someone you know have their life snuffed out in front of you, it leaves a permanent mark. Because sometimes people have an effect on your life… even if you aren’t particularly aware of it at the time.

So…to Tricia…you are in a better place.  I know you wanted to be here to live your dream of becoming a physician, of seeing your daughter go to prom and graduate high school…to see your son graduate from Clemson…to grow old with your husband.  Your family will miss you.  Your friends will miss you, but you have inspired many people to follow their dreams.  I am one of those people.  Rest in peace, Tricia, my friend.

Some links:

http://www.independentmail.com/news/2011/oct/01/woman-killed-car-driver-charged/  from the local Anderson paper

http://www.wyff4.com/news/29359594/detail.html  from the local TV station

from her husband’s Facebook page October 1, 2011:

As I look around the house tonight, I see her in everything that surrounds me. The way she painted the walls, the decorations, the smells and my two awesome kids that have her personality. I miss her so very much.
Here is the story, the other night we were just sitting watching tv and catching up with a friend, when we here a knock at the front door. It is a lady that asks if our dog is out because someone just hit one. I get my shoes on and so does Tricia. Sure enough the neighbors’ dog has been hit and is lying in the ditch, dying. I go to check the neighbors’ door, but no one is home. I turn around and head back to the dog, by the time I get half way across the lawn, I hear a motor revving and then a thump. Someone has just hit my darling Tricia. I run to her and cradle her in my arms, all the while screaming for help and for someone to call an ambulance. In my eyes she is still as beautiful as the day I meet her. I tell her I love her and I am here for her. I think she can hear me so I continue to tell her to hang on and I love her. The ambulance takes her to the hospital where she passes away. Life will never be the same.

The 24 year old girl who hit her is arrested for felony DUI and Manslaughter, but is already out on bail of $10,000 tonight.

We’ve all heard the saying “Life is short.” And, sometimes, it is.

But life is also unpredictable.

Even though we all probably have dreams and goals and plans for our lives, there are certain things we have no control over.

Our lives could be going along on right on track, only to be shattered by something we could never have seen coming.

A tornado that rips through a neighborhood. A flood that devastates a city.  And these are just the unpredictable things nature can bring about. There are also accidents, health problems, financial woes…

Life is too fleeting and changeable to take for granted.

I know where I would like my life to be headed in the coming months and years. But there are no guarantees that things will go as planned. In fact, more likely than not, nothing will go as planned.

How often do we hear others say, “Oh, I’ll travel when I retire,” “I’ll travel when the kids are grown,” “I’ll travel when the house is paid off”? I hear these excuses all the time. But you know what happens? Age. And stress. And, well, life.

Life happens, and by the time you retire and your kids are grown and your house is paid off, you might have bad knees and weak lungs and you simply can’t visit all those places you dreamed about in your youth.

How sad. I don’t want to end up like that, holding on to youthful travel dreams that will never be reality.  

So I travel now, in whatever way and to whatever place I can. I scrimp and I save and I make it happen. I volunteer.  I get grants. I grasp at every opportunity and unique adventure. 

I travel with reckless abandon — often to the detriment of my wallet, but to the benefit of my soul.

Is this wise? Probably not, especially if you’re a long-term traveler. But, for someone like me who tends to take shorter trips to distant places, I attack travel with a no-holds-barred attitude.

Unique experiences–If I think they are worth it, then I will not hesitate to shell out for them . Sure, I’d like to think I’ll be back to Ireland or Italy or Argentina someday. But what if I never make it back?

I don’t want to have any regrets in my life, and this includes travel regrets.

I know not everyone shares this philosophy, though. Many travelers stick to a strict budget so they can travel for as long as possible. Others simply don’t want to pay for anything beyond the necessities.

Why would you come literally halfway around the world to hoard your money?  Would you go to China and not visit the Great Wall because it costs money? Would you go to Italy and skip visiting the Vatican because it requires an admission ticket?

vatican-stairs

There are so many worthwhile experiences to be had in the world — and yes, many of them require money. But it’s my travel philosophy that you shouldn’t deny yourself any of these experiences just because they come with a price-tag.

If you are privileged enough to be able to afford to travel, then you should attack it with curiosity and vigor and a sense of adventure. And to hell with the bank account.

So travel now. Make memories. And enjoy your life.  Because you never know if a car will mow you down in front of your house.

At the end of the day, I’d rather die with a million memories than a million dollars.

Money won’t comfort me on my deathbed, but knowing that I lived a full and fulfilling life might.

meow meow

Whatever your dreams are, follow them because you never know what might happen…

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Answers to the most frequently asked questions

I am in the medical/legal clearance stage right now so I haven’t told a lot of people that I’ve been accepted to the Peace Corps yet, but the ones who know have questions.
Question 1:  What exactly is the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:

  • Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2:  Tell me about Madagascar
  • Peace Corps | Madagascar began in 1993, and more that 1000 volunteers have served since its beginnings.
  • Currently, about 130 volunteers are serving in Madagascar. Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and is located in the Indian ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa.
  • French and Malagasy are both the official languages.
  • The population is about 22 million, and 90% of the population live on less than $2 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • Climates vary. It generally has two seasons: hot and rainy from November-April and cooler and dry May-October. The east coast contains tropical rain forests which can be hit by tropical storms and cyclones. The central highlands are cooler and dryer, and are the main location of Madagascar’s agriculture. The west coast contains deciduous forests that lose their leaves during the dry months. Finally, the southwest is the driest and some parts can be considered desert.
  • Madagascar is considered a “biodiversity hot spot.” Over 90% of the wildlife is found nowhere else including lemurs, fossa (relative of the mongoose), and different types of birds. There are almost 15,000 different plants species, are 80% are found nowhere else on earth.
  • There are 18 different ethnic groups. Madagascar was originally settled by people from Africa and Asia, and the culture now is a unique blend of the two. Much of the Malagasy population are predominantly animist. Many aspects of behavior is determined by cultural taboos, including treatment of the dead. About 50% of the population is Christian, and 2% are Muslim.
  • Medical centers and hospitals are concentrated in urban areas, and medical care is very expensive relative to the average income. In 2010, Madagascar averaged 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The infection rate of AIDS is low compared to other African countries with about 0.9% of the adult population. Malaria is the main health concern, and was responsible for over 15% of hospital admissions in children under 5 years in 2008.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Community Health Adviser helping to train health educators in my area. Together, we will work on implementing a communication system to improve health workers’ ability to communicate health information. I will provide education and identify interventions to promote safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that’s the plan]

Question 4:  What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training late February-mid May before a swearing-in ceremony. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.

Question 5:  Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose where I live.

Question 6:  What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village without consistent electricity or running water. My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.

Question 7:  Will you have electricity or running water?
It depends where in the country I am. The cities have electricity available, and the rural towns not so much. If electricity is available it will be probably be inconsistent. In addition, Internet access will most likely be limited.

Question 8:  Will you have a cell phone?
Most volunteers buy their own cell phone but the service is spotty. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.

Question 9: What will you eat?
Rice is the top food in all of Madagascar [Rice is not something I love or even like].  Rice is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. There are many fruits and vegetables that grow in Madagascar and are sold fresh and in their correct season.

Question 10: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months or my last three months.

Question 11:  Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during  training.

Question 12:  Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way!  See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.

Question 13:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  Considering that most Madagascar natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Madagascar.  However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon in Madagascar so that addiction has been curtailed.

I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Madagascar. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.

At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $8500 + a flight home (or its equivalent in cash). There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.

 

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My one travel regret and what I’m doing about it

I have made it a point in life to not regret the past. Sure there are things that I wish had not happened, but I also think that for better or worse, these life experiences have shaped me into the person that I am today. That being said, my one regret is that I didn’t study abroad when I was in college. It wasn’t as if I actively made the decision to not study abroad; my college, being a small (tiny even) liberal arts school did not have contracts in place with foreign universities.

chichen itza

Studying Mayan art and architecture in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras was most certainly interesting, but not all that practical

And also, let’s be honest. Even if they had had those agreements in place, most likely I would not have been able to afford it. It was all I could do to afford college to begin with. I worked full-time hours throughout my entire college career. Going abroad for a semester or a summer would have meant 3-4 months of no job and no income.  Putting that together with the added expense of being overseas and it just didn’t add up.

I did manage to travel while in college so it wasn’t as if I never left the country.  I turned a two week vacation into a three month tour of Northern England, Scotland, and Wales with a side of Ireland after my freshman year. While my friend were actually graduating college, I did an ‘independent study’ in Mexico AFTER I’d taken all my other classes needed to graduate thus delaying my official graduation for a year.

llanfair

I did make it to the town with the world’s longest name whilst wandering about Wales. Thankfully they just call it Llanfair.

I am quite certain that if I had studied abroad, my life would be 99.9% different than it is now–or maybe I would have arrived at the life I have now a lot sooner. I am quite certain that NOT studying abroad in college led me to take a ‘career break’ in 2010. And that ‘career break’ in 2010-11 led to me changing my career over the last 5 years. That career break also led to me choosing an elective where I got to spend time in both St Petersburg and Moscow (studying plants of all things) , Russia and Cardiff, Wales (studying the UK’s National Health System).  Both of those experiences, while amazing, was not the immersion experience I was looking for. And while travel nursing in the US is totally a thing; international travel nursing is not.

cardiff

At least I got to do a little exploring in and around Cardiff whilst working/studying at the Wales Hospital for Children.

All these experiences (and lack of experiences) has led me to the Peace Corps.  Peace Corps is not something I’d even heard of other than in passing until after I graduated college. But it is something that has been nagging at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bit more force over the last 15 years.

So maybe not studying abroad in my initial college experience was a good thing; after all, it has brought me to the Peace Corps where I’ll finally have that immersion experience I have been craving since I was 19 years old.

 

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What it costs to join the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a volunteer job and although So how much does joining the Peace Corps really cost? The answer to that question will vary for everyone depending on what country you will serve in (do I need a visa?) and what tests/exams the Peace Corps deems it necessary for you to have.  It will also vary depending on what if any medical insurance a person has, and it will vary depending on where you live.  So lots of variables, but I’ll give you my costs so that you may get a general idea of the costs.

Legal

Fingerprints–$10   at the local county law enforcement center

Mailing fingerprints–$7.21–at UPS sent certified which requires a signature

Total Legal Cost =$17.21- Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 = $17.21

Passport + Visa

I renewed my passport earlier in the year and have already been to Canada, England and Wales on it.  Also, getting a PC passport the easy way just involves getting passport photos, filling out the forms, and mailing it in.  Getting the passport the hard way, requires blood, sweat, tears, and promise of your firstborn, AND $25 for an ‘execution fee’.  The problem with this is most places that issue passports are unfamiliar with the No-fee government passport, and that is where the headache come in. Originally, I had planned to go to a Nursing conference in Toronto in October. Then I got my invitation and decided to forgo the conference (save that money for other travels). Even knowing that I didn’t NEED the passport for anything, it was still hard to let it go.

Passport photos–$22.98 (+ tax with $2 off coupon code x2).

Mailing passport and visa application–$ 10.12    (once again, sent trackable via UPS)

Total Passport + Visa Cost = $33.50 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 =$33.50

Medical + Labs

General Medical Exam

Women’s Health Exam–> I got my women’s health exam done at Planned Parenthood.  I used my regular health insurance that I have through work (which costs about $400/year and this is the first time I have used it) and it was covered at 100% so my cost was $0.  Those $400 in premiums actually paid off this year.

Total Women’s Health Exam Costs = $0

Labs–>HIV screening was a required lab for my assignment (and maybe for all of them?)  and I had it preformed as part of my women’s health exam.  On a whim, I asked if they could do my other labs since I knew they weren’t set up as a primary care facility.  They said yes, and amazingly enough, it was also covered at 100%

Total Lab Cost = $0

Dental

Complete dental exam with panoramic X-rays $344.00 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $60 = $284.00

Dental treatments required =$0 Luckily, I didn’t need any treatments, had no cavities, or have anything wrong with my teeth or gums.

Required Vaccinations

Yellow Fever Vaccination (I had to get this one even though I currently have one. Mine will expire on June 4, 2020 so PC is making me get a booster.)

TDaP booster (Working in the hospital the last 15 years has afforded me access to most vaccines, but as luck would have it, my current immunity will run out while in Mada, so another booster it is. And now that I no longer work in a hospital, I actually have to pay for it this time).

Total for all things required: $330.71 (current running total)

The Peace Corps does provide a cost share program for some expenses but the expenses are segregated.   What I wish is that they would provide a flat fee of say $500 to pay for these expenses. They will provide up to $290 for a medical exam yet my actual costs were $0, but only $60 for a dental exam (including x-rays). My actual dental costs were $344; I wish I could have used some of that $290 for my dental exam.  I am grateful that I have health insurance and I am grateful for federal laws that allow preventative care to be covered at 100%.  It hasn’t always been like this, and I can only hope that these laws won’t be repealed.

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Accepted

The Peace Corps’ sent my invitation to serve on July 27, 2017 via e-mail.  I was past the point of obsessively checking my email like I did for the first few weeks after my interview. I popped in randomly to check my email, only to be disappointed by the lack of updates.  My check-ins were getting further and further apart.

Which is why I almost missed my invitation to serve!

I sat down at my desk on a late Sunday night, checking my email, thinking it would be full of spam yet again when I saw it…

Dear MICHELLE,
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.Here’s what you need to do within 3 calendar days:

  • Review all assigned materials. Please review the assignment-specific information sent to you via email previously, as well as the Peace Corps Volunteer handbook.
  • Respond to your invitation: 

See that second bullet point–respond to your invitation. It was already Sunday, July 30th at 11:45pm. Did this really mean I only had 15 minutes remaining or my invitation would be rescinded?  I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.  But by my getting my invitation so late in the game, meant that I had absolutely no one to talk to about it. Except my coworker.  Who thinks I’m crazy for wanted to join the Peace Corps (she’s roughly twice my age, and thinks I should be getting married and having kids instead of running off to an island).

Trusting my gut, I responded to the accept link in my invitation. And that was that. On August 2, I got inundated with the first set of tasks–getting my fingerprints done and sent off to legal and getting my passport and visa application sent to the appropriate place.

You see how ‘pending medical and legal clearance’ is bolded in the original offer?  That’s because medical clearance is no joke–and with only two months (60 days to be precise) to complete them, it’s a race to complete on time.

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Peace Corps Interview

Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context.  I don’t really like talking about myself.  I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.  Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession:  this was my second Peace Corps interview.  The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later.  I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true].  Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.

In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.

So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.

So  here’s is what I’ve determined…

Practise is important

Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it.  It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.

I took a screenshot of me before the interview so that I’d know how I’d look on webcam. Was lighting adequate? Did I look presentable?

Display professionalism

From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and prepared. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting.  I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting.  My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to act like its a face-to-face meeting.  Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.

When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.  

Research the country

The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.

Know Your Assignment

My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development?  Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.

While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be their mistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident.  Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.

Print out your resume and aspiration statement

Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and  did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?”  or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.”  On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or  how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.

Pray. Meditate.

Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up up an hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance.  I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Of course you do. Write them down so that  when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”

Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French.  How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions:  If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]

At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.

Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show.  Go to a movie.  Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork  and clearances that you have to complete.

Welcome to the Peace Corps!

Dear MICHELLE,
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.
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The next step?

It was just another Saturday afternoon where I was procrastinating writing a paper on some topic in health policy by watching my beloved Volunteers stomp the Gators and surfing the net when I clicked on over to the Peace Corps website.  I thought why the hell not?

It’s now or never, right?

I can already hear what you are saying…

“The Peace Corps? Really,  but aren’t you’re already a nurse.”

Yes. Yes I am. I am already a nurse, but let’s rewind just a bit– Spring 2013.

I was all set to go to medical school. I studied hard, kicked the MCAT’s ass, and been accepted to the medical school only 35 minutes from where I was living. I was as ready as one can be to start such a grueling undertaking as medical school, and then, well, life, as it has a tendency to do, got in the way.

Without going into too much detail, I withdrew my spot in the class of 2018, and looked for other options to pursue my goal of providing medical care to those who need it most.  I enrolled in the local nursing school and graduated in the fall of 2015.  I passed NCLEX, started to work on my BSN, and promptly got a job at a local hospital.

Which I hated.

To say I was stuck in a rut is an understatement. I started feeling lost and wasn’t sure what my next move would be; did I want to move? [Not really] Start a new job? [Probably, but I was more than burnt out after working in hospitals for the last 10 years, and could not fathom what I’d want to do] Run off and travel for a year? [No, I’d already done that when I spent 16 months traveling in South America] I knew there was something else for me but I had no idea what it was.

I’m not sure exactly how the Peace Corps came up, but once it did, it turned into a nagging thought in the back of my head.  Of course, I’d heard of the Peace Corps. I’ve even done international volunteer work before. I even casually mentioned it to a few friends in the way of “So if I joined the Peace Corps, would you come visit me?”

More time passed until that September Saturday where I was looking for motivation to write a paper for school, and upon finding none I started looking into the revamped application process, open programs, and countries they were currently sending volunteers to. Health was an obvious choice, but I also opened up my application to agriculture and environment, and community development.  What I know about community development can fit into a thimble, but I’d feel as if I were cheating if all I do is end up teaching English.

So I applied. When it came time to pick countries, I wish there had been an option to exclude certain places.  I’m fairly open to most countries and would really like an adventure, but I know without a doubt, that the South Pacific Islands are not for me.  Equally, I’d prefer to not go to Western Africa.  So I choose Kyrgyz Republic [I’d really love to learn Russian and travel the area of the Silk Road], Mozambique [south-east Africa on the Indian Ocean has a certain appeal also near a few countries I’d like to visit], or Guyana [a South America country on the Caribbean that I’ve only passed through]

I’ve lived in a thatched hut in the middle of the Amazon with a compost toilet before. I’ve had my own apartment in Peru and Mexico where electricity was sporadic. I camp and hike a bit so indoor plumbing, running water, and electricity while certainly nice are all things I know I could do without.  A least for a predetermined time.

So it is now or never.  I’ve only told one person that I’ve submitted the application.  I have an interview Friday. We shall see how it goes. Stay tuned on how this new adventure shakes out.

 

 

I’ll always love this view

Update:

On January 4, I had an interview for Peace Corps| Lesotho. I was less than enthusiastic about this interview for several reasons:  1. I do not want to go to Lesotho for several reasons including altitude and temperature.  I don’t do well in the cold. 2. The program was youth development. That was not one of my choices I put down as an interest and when I asked about that I was told the health and youth programs were combined. I was less than thrilled. 3. One of my reference writers didn’t get the reference in until 3 days before the deadline 4. I had just worked 16 hours the night before; my interview was at 8:30am, and I was most likely barely coherent.  It was a bad interview that ended after 50 minutes (I think most of them last 90 minutes) and it was to no one’s (meaning me) surprise, when on March 1, I got the email that said I had not be selected for Lesotho.

And I was relieved.

But not deterred. I submitted my application yet again mentioning health as my only choice and choosing Madagascar, Guyana, and  Ethiopia as choices and lo and behold, two days after submission, I was ‘under consideration’ for PC | Madagascar.   And I’m excited.  Of course,  it will be an eternity until I find out anything; the program stops accepting applications in July. I’m already doing things differently; I’m learning French. I’m learning more about Madagascar. And I’m excited. Let’s only hope that I am offered the chance to interview for this program.

I suppose this guy is happy I am sticking around just a little bit longer

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