While this blog was obviously created to describe my travels and life in Kazakhstan, I will also be writing a bit about the lead-up to my big departure. Reading current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) blogs now, I wish more of them had described the “before” process, which I think would serve as a good resource for others planning to go.
I submitted my Peace Corps application early in my senior year of college, complete with essays, transcripts, recommendations, a 3-hour-long interview, and countless medical tests. The interview was particularly enlightening, and covered everything from “How do you handle stress?” and “What do you do with your alone time?” to “Are you vegetarian?” and “Are you in a relationship?” In fact, all those questions were relevant, and spoke volumes about the kinds of things the PC seems to be looking for in a volunteer. After all, you’re not just signing up for a new job — you’re signing up for a new lifestyle. Everything from your physical surroundings, communication abilities, support networks, existence and use of free time, and daily habits will be drastically affected. The things you eat, drink, see, hear, smell, and feel will be part of your service, on top of the work you do. This is clearly a 24/7 job, not a 9 to 5 one. PC at the moment accepts about a third of its applicants, and I would like to think they screen for flexibility, proactiveness, cultural sensibility, patience, level-headedness and maturity. I have a feeling I possess some of these characteristics more than others, but at the very least the idea is that a volunteer will come out of her service with a good deal more of each than she came in with.
Applying to the PC is quite a complex process, with many pieces of the puzzle moving at once, and many opportunities to hang in limbo while you are waiting for the results of whatever it is you already submitted. First, if you must be accepted to the PC and nominated to a program. Your nomination usually includes a very wide geographic area (e.g. Africa, not a specific country), a job assignment and a tentative start date. During the application process, PC asks for extreme flexibility in region and even in job assignment — you could submit a preference for business development in Nicaragua but be assigned to teach English in Namibia instead. There is very rarely any negotiation of assignment; if you do not accept, you essentially bow out of the process. This is largely because of the spirit of service they want to see in each applicant, and a willingness to go wherever one is most needed. In my specific case however, I was clear that PC was not going to be so much of a “soul-searching between college and grad school” process as an actual concrete step towards my own professional aspirations. Therefore, I would only accept an assignment doing NGO development work (which is essentially what I want to do in the long-term future), though in turn I was willing to be flexible on the region. I lucked out in the fact that most people do not have a Russian language background, which gave me a huge leg up for my first choice placement in a post-Soviet state (Chinese may also have helped for getting Central Asia). Speaking Spanish or French seems to have much less relevance in getting placed in a country with those languages, since so many applicants end up having those preferences.
The timeline for PC nominations and departures is also much trickier and more relevant than I previously knew. While I had assumed that service departures happened year round, in fact they are highly concentrated in the spring and summer. There are very few in the fall and basically none at all in the winter. As a result, depending on the times at which your application and then nomination come through, you will only qualify for the assignments with upcoming departures [Note: let this basically erase any notion of ‘only’ applying for one country’s specific program]. In my case, I took a year-long fellowship in DC and temporarily withdrew my PC application. You are allowed to withdraw, but have to reactivate within a year, or else apply all over again. When I reactivated it was already late April/early May, which meant the spring programs were already underway and the summer programs were largely filled. After much correspondence with the placement desk for my region (the huge and amorphous desk for all of Eastern Europe, Asia AND the Middle East), I discovered that I would either be placed to leave this summer, or would essentially have to wait until next year since there were no upcoming departures in between. There was also the possibility that my original regional desk would have no departures, and they would bounce me to another region altogether with a more amenable site start date. Like I said, I clearly lucked out…but this hopefully gives some insight into the process, the need to not be set on serving in specific countries, and the reasons that some people end up stuck in the “PC-Limbo Land” for months and months between nomination and actual invitation.
Once you are placed and receive an official PC invitation, everything becomes a lot more concrete. The pretty packet comes with a specific country (hurrah!), lengthy job description, exact leave and return dates, and all sorts of forms and documents to fill out. Nothing says “I’m really going” like submitting paperwork for your new government passport (yes, you get a PC passport…it’s non-diplomatic, so don’t get too excited). You will also read a very long Welcome Book about your service country, in addition to several general PCV booklets whose main purpose is to flash giant red warning signs about how difficult, depressing, lonely, isolated, and tough the PC will be [of course with the caveats that this is what makes it rewarding, builds patience and other positive PCV characteristics, etc. etc.]. It took me over one full week to get through all of the materials while I was also working, and my brain certainly went into a bit of information overload there. You have 10 days to accept or decline your invitation, and they request that you read every scrap of paper they give you so you know what you’re getting into before you commit. Finally, the straggling bits of medical and legal clearance have to take place, in which they will elicit every last allergy and illness from you, past or present. Certain medical things could preclude you from serving in your country of invitation, in which case you go back to the previous stage (nomination) and wait for a new placement. Nevertheless, do not attempt to hide any medical issues of any sort – not only is it a risk factor for you, but if PC finds out later, they can and probably will “administratively separate” (expel) you from your service.
While it certainly seems like something huge would have to motivate all this apparent masochism (going through the complex application process, not to mention the service itself!), not every PCV signs himself up out of naivete and save-the-world expectations. I for one always believed that while it would be great to have a strong impact on my service community (and I obviously do have those larger future aspirations for my life’s work), I will almost certainly be coming out of this experience having gained even more than I gave.