Answers to the most frequently asked questions

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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

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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.

 

Accepted

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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.

The next step?

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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