Lie's Truths

00 - Peace Corps 101

(Sent via e-mail on June 4, 2005)

***** Peace Corps 101 *****

* Info / Application / Website:

* Term of Commitment: exactly two (2) years. You can re-apply after finishing a term, but it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get in for another two years (it is generally frowned upon – they’re looking for short-term volunteers, not lifers.)

* Pay: “The Peace Corps provides Volunteers with a living allowance that enables them to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community. It also provides complete medical and dental care and covers the cost of transportation to and from your country of service.” If you successfully complete two years, you get about $6,000 as a “relocation bonus” to spend as you wish. This isn’t much, but I know *lots* of people who worked for startups for two years and ended up more than $6K in debt, so I see it as a whole lot. I get 24 days of vacation each year that I have to accrue (at two days/month) before taking.

* Travel / Visitors: I can neither leave my country nor can I have visitors for the first four to six months while I’m training and during my first few weeks of work. I’m expected to be available to work 7 days a week, and while I’m not “working” I’m expected to be participating in local activities and furthering my integration into my local environment. After the first four months I can start taking accrued vacation which I have to get pre-approved, just like a regular job. I can entertain visitors during the weekends or during vacation (let me know if you want to come visit!), but they generally want this to happen at least six months, and ideally no earlier than a full year after I arrive “in country”.

* Costs: What? It costs to join the Peace Corps? Yep – you have to pay for all your application expenses. So far I’ve spent about $2,000 on expenses including dental work, medical exams, psychiatric exams, and other various costs. None of this is refundable. (Which makes some sense – should the Peace Corps have to pay for dental work for anyone who applies? Of course, having to pay $300 to go see a shrink twice to “discuss the limited food options in the third world” [in case I didn’t know having just spent 18 months in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia] didn’t seem very fair to me…)

* Application Process: SLOW. INTENTIONALLY VERY SLOW. VERY VERY VERY SLOW. (Did I mention *intentionally* VERY slow?)

1. Application: This is available online and takes about 20 hours to finish. Includes a huge questionnaire on your desires, personal life, detailed medical history, professional background, and other random questions. All told this is about 20 pages of forms to fill out, including multiple essays. And once you do all this, they then tell you to go find three people to serve as references for you who have to go online and fill out forms about you. (A big thank you to my references!!!)

2. Recruitment (a.k.a. Aggravating Discouragement): If your application is accepted, it is given to a “recruiter”. I use the quotes because in my mind a recruiter is someone who is trying to recruit you to do something. With the Peace Corps it is the exact opposite: my recruiter spent 6 full weeks doing nothing but trying to convince me *NOT* to join the Peace Corps. He didn’t once offer any words of encouragement or thanks, and he made it very clear that in his mind volunteering two years of my life working incredibly hard for nearly zero pay was an unparalleled opportunity that I should be extremely thankful for. He spent lots of time asking me transparently trick questions, such as this conversation that we had:
“Craig, where would you ideally like to serve?”
“Ideally I’d like to go to the third world where I can do the most good. I’ve already been to SE Asia and Europe, and have interest in Africa. I’ve previously taken classes in Spanish which I didn’t enjoy all that much so ideally I would rather learn a new language.”
“So you’re completely inflexible and already have expectations on where you think you should go and have ruled out South America as an option. Inflexibility and closed-mindedness are NOT traits we like to see in applicants Peace Corps – I’m not sure you are fit to be a volunteer.”
“Uh, didn’t you just ask me where I’d *ideally* like to go?”

Apparently the trap was having and honestly expressing a preference. Word to the wise: if you join the Peace Corps, don’t answer any question with details that make it seem like you actually have an opinion on anything. (You wouldn’t want to be branded as inflexible!)

Had it not been for a wonderful man who used to work as a Peace Corps recruiter telling me this was the normal process, and part of the “test” to see if you can hack it as a volunteer, I would probably have looked to volunteer for other organizations.

3. Nomination: If you survive the 6+ weeks of berating from your recruiter, then you might get lucky enough to get nominated, which means that your application is passed from the local recruitment office to the headquarters in Washington DC. The best part about nomination is that you no longer have to talk to your recruiter. The worst part is now you have to do your exams.

4. Medical / Dental / Vision / Psych: After nomination you are sent a thick packet of forms to fill out requiring all sorts of visits (on your dime) to medical professionals. I tried to get these forms at my first interview during “recruitment” to speed the application process along (figuring I could get all my tests done while I was being berated), but alas, that’s not “the process” and thus I had to wait until after the 6 weeks before getting the standard forms that everyone gets.
You have to pay for everything, although to be fair you can go to a VA hospital for your exams. (I tried this: I called the VA to schedule an appointment one day at 3pm and after 45 minutes on hold was transferred to another number which I then waited on hold for until 5pm when I was disconnected. Called back the next day at 2pm and waited on hold until 5pm when I was disconnected. Called back the next day at noon and waited on hold until 5pm when I was disconnected. Called my health insurance agency the next day and made an appointment with a doctor.)

Tasks: Medical suite of tests including HIV (about $400 if you don’t need any follow-on tests or work), full dental exams and completion of any necessary work (at least $200 if your mouth is in excellent health). Psychiatric evaluations – I had to go to two (at $150 a pop). About 1” of forms in total.

Applicant Survival: The stats are only one in three (33%) of the people who successfully fill out the application form get on a plane. The vast majority of them fail to pass Medical.

My Time to complete Medical: Four months. I was nominated mid January, and I completed medical mid-May. This turns out to be about average.

Fear of Commitment / Knowledge about where I might be going or what I might be doing: The Peace Corps doesn’t give you any information that’s not need-to-know, so all I knew during Medical is that I might be going to Africa at some time -- maybe. They promise that they’ll let you know you’re invited (and what country you’re invited for) at least three weeks before they want you on a plane. I could have been invited anytime up to 16 months after medical was completed, and they reserve the right to tell me no at anytime for any (or no) reason.

5. Invitation: You have ZERO guarantees about anything until you get Invited. At that point you have zero guarantees of anything except the fact that you have passed medical. I was invited less than 5 weeks before they wanted me on a plane, and I sent out my original mass-mailing two days later. They tell you what country and what program you have been invited for, but there’s no guarantee you’ll actually go to that country until you get there, and there’s no guarantee you’ll stay there until you’ve stayed there.

6. Trainee: If you accept your invitation you are NOT yet a volunteer. You are a trainee. They can still tell you to go home at any time. I have three days of training in the USA, followed by six weeks of “in country” training in The Gambia. At the end of my six weeks, I have to pass a basic fluency test in the local language (I think Wolof, but no one has told me anything for sure). If I fail, I’m on a plane back for the US. If I pass that (and a bunch of other tests I have yet to learn about [and may never know about]), then I will get promoted to a “Volunteer”.

7. Volunteer: If you have survived the application maze, then at this point you are officially a Peace Corps volunteer. They ask you to stay for the full two years, but you can leave at any time (it makes them very mad, looks bad, and greatly reduces your “relocation bonus”). The Peace Corps reserves the right to “extract” you from your service if you do anything they don’t like, including public drunkenness or anything that might embarrass the Peace Corps.

PRIVACY WARNING: *ALL* of your application is available to a myriad of people and organizations (many I had never heard of) for review at anytime regardless of if you are actually invited, even after you complete your service. There are some minor additional restrictions on sensitive medical information, although I doubt that anyone looking to read over your medical forms would have much of a problem getting access to them. The official list is WAY too long to include here, but among the organizations that have access to your info are the US Government, including any member of Congress. (As a privacy advocate, I have effectively forever sold my private-personal-information-soul to join the Peace Corps.)

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