Thursday, June 25, 2015

One year later...

Thursday night, June 26, 2014, is when my Peace Corps application journey began. Oh sure, I've written previously about my longstanding interest, as well as stories about our visit with Peace Corps Volunteers in the Dominican Republic in 2012, or our visit to the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary on the mall in Washington back in 2011. However, things didn't get really serious until this same Thursday night one year ago.

I drove down to Charleston, WV, that night after work and arrived in time to attend a Peace Corps recruiting event at the Kanawha County Public Library that evening. Little did I know at the time that exactly one year later I'd be writing about this topic while enjoying a tropical breeze and palm trees swaying outside my window.

In the spring of 2014, I began to seriously consider applying for the Peace Corps upon my retirement, and started exploring their website. I didn't know exactly when I would be retiring, but I knew the earliest I could retire was May 28, 2015, when I would have both the age (57) and the minimum number of years (30) to retire. I had read some recommendations that one should start applying to the Peace Corps as early as one year prior to your departure, so I realized that while at that time I didn't know exactly when I would retire, I needed to start getting serious about the application process. More importantly, I also noticed on the Peace Corps webpage that one of the few recruiting events in West Virginia would be held in Charleston on June 26, 2014.

It just so happened that Anna and I had already made a hotel reservation in downtown Charleston for Friday, June 27. The “Blues, Brews, and BBQ” event at the University of Charleston was scheduled for that night, and we had enjoyed attending this party on the UC riverbank in the past (including the year we stayed in one of the dorms). “Blues, Brews, and BBQ” is always a lot of fun, but I guess I will be missing this event over the next two years.

I had another reason to be going last year. On Saturday morning, June 28, 2014, the television show “The Biggest Loser” was sponsoring a half-marathon in Charleston. It would start at the levee, go past the WV State Capitol, and then head up into the hills, going all around the city cemetery, then coming back downhill and into downtown, going up through the historic East End, around the Capitol again, and then following Kanawha Boulevard along the river back to the levee. I had signed up for this challenge, and looked forward to completing my third half-marathon.

Once I saw that the Peace Corps was going to be there on Thursday night, I decided it was worth paying for another night and head to Charleston early. The recruitment event was very interesting, and included the very first Peace Corps volunteer from West Virginia, who went to Nigeria in 1961. I talked with some of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who were there, as well as the two Peace Corps staff members from the Washington headquarters.

Although I had already started on the essays required by the old application process, I gained a valuable tip at this event. The recruiters encouraged me to hold off on applying, because a brand new on-line recruitment system would be starting up in July. The new streamlined process would be better, they assured me. You would even be able to apply for specific positions in the country of your choice.

So I postponed applying. Even after the new system went live in July, I held back to make sure it was operating properly (I've been involved with bringing up new computer systems, and know how there can often be problems).

It didn't take me long to identify the job that appealed to me the most—Reading Literacy Co-Teacher in the Eastern Caribbean. I knew I wanted to be involved in education (although this was for elementary students, with whom I had little experience). Plus, I knew the Eastern Caribbean or Jamaica would be good choices for me, because of their proximity, climate, and predominant use of English. I think the deadline for applying was the end of September, and you would know if you are selected by the end of January. The tentative departure date was June 15 as I recall.

I realized that June 15 would be cutting it close for me, since I couldn't retire until the end of May. In addition, I had hoped to divest myself of many belongings, as well as sell my motorcycle and house. However, such opportunities do not come around very often, so rather than waiting to see if a Jamaica position were to open in the future, I decided to jump on the Eastern Caribbean job.

I submitted my application on August 15, and thus began the long wait before my interview. I continued to check the Peace Corps website for other recruiting events, and to research Peace Corps on the web to learn as much as I could. I saw that there would be another Peace Corps recruiting event in September at the library in Elkview, WV, so I drove down there after work to soak up as much information as I could—and to demonstrate to the recruiters just how committed I was to this endeavor.

I didn't limit myself to just recruiting events in my home state. I noticed that there was a recruiter who was providing private meetings in the student union at Ohio University, so I drove the 40 miles over to Athens to meet with her in the fall. She was very helpful and encouraging, even though I was technically from outside her recruiting area (although it was the closest event to my house).

I also happened to be in Washington, DC, in November, and was able to get over to visit the Peace Corps Headquarters while I was in town. On Friday afternoons, it seemed they always had some sort of recruiting event there, and I was glad to see the last part of one. Even better, I got to talk to a recruiter afterwards who had recently returned from serving in the Eastern Caribbean (Dominica). It was also nice to see the inside of the “mother ship.” I was emotionally moved by the monument to volunteers who had died in service.

I must say that I think my interest in attending these recruiting events probably improved my chances of being selected. I don't claim to know any of the secrets that goes on behind-the-scenes, but I would imagine that the fact that I was making a special effort to get as much information as possible had to impress the recruiters. I'd recommend such a strategy to anyone desiring to join the Peace Corps.

Much of autumn 2014 was spent waiting and wondering. Would I be selected? Would I pass the medical exams? Was this what I really wanted to do? When will I hear something? I tried to find a balance between not to getting overconfident and not worrying too much. It weighed heavily on my mind for months. My future was hanging in the balance.

Finally, they contacted me to set up an interview on Friday morning, December 5. The interview went well, in part because I emailed some background information ahead of time to the recruiter conducting the interview. It included a draft of what became the first story in this blog announcing my decision to join the Peace Corps. By the way, it turned out that I had met the person who interviewed my at the recruiting event I attended in Elkview.

I didn't have to wait long for an answer. I interviewed that morning, and by the afternoon I had received my invitation, which I eagerly accepted. It gave me a little over six months to finish my job, clear out my house and sell it, and then leave the country.

I also had to figure out how to tell my family and work colleagues, all of whom I had left in the dark on this in case I might not get selected. Only Anna, my daughter, and a few other close friends knew about my secret plan. As it turned out, the invitation came just days away from my birthday, so it was at my birthday dinner that I informed my parents and sister that I would be joining the Peace Corps. They were shocked, but doing it over birthday cake made it hard for them to argue against my “birthday wish.” I told my boss the next day, and then the folks with whom I worked. So began a nearly six month transition from my long career.

Almost as soon as I accepted the invitation, the Peace Corps started sending me lots of requests for information, forms to fill out, on-line training to be completed, and the lengthy requirements for the medical staff. I take some blood pressure medication, so I was a bit worried about whether this would cause any problems. However, they only asked my doctor to provide some additional information, which he kindly did so. Eventually, I received my medical clearance.

There is also a legal background check, but this caused me no concern, because as a federal employee, I had been subjected to such checks every five years. I knew my record was clean.

I was very busy in the spring, transitioning out of my job, clearing out my house, and donating away most of my possessions. However, the time finally came for my departure. My farewell party at work seems as if it was years ago, rather than a month ago. I've come a long ways in the past few weeks (and I'm not just talking about miles from the mainland).

So on this anniversary of my first official contact with the Peace Corps as a potential volunteer, I find myself busy preparing for going to a local elementary school tomorrow to perform reading assessments on real students. The training is intense, but I think I'm going to survive this ten week pre-service training program.

Most importantly, I think I'm going to survive the 27 month commitment I have made to the Peace Corps. I think it will truly be one of the most significant things I've done in my life.

I'm glad I added on Thursday night to my hotel stay in Charleston one year ago tonight. It was well worth the money!

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