Category Archives: Mongolia

Backstory: Paperwork

Peace Corps Volunteers are issued a special passport for business-related travel. There are two ways to apply for this: either mail in your current passport, if you have one, with the DS-82 (passport renewal) form; or fill out the DS-11 (new passport application) at a post office or other passport agency. If you complete the DS-82, the Peace Corps retains your passport and returns it when you arrive at Staging. Since I was planning to travel out of the country on one last family vacation, I decided to fill out the DS-11.

Now, government employees undergo a different process from other applicants — the mailing instructions are slightly altered, and they aren’t expected to pay the $110 passport fee. I checked online for a passport agency that would be open on a Saturday, since I had work, and found a nearby post office. I arrived at the post office around 9:30 to be informed that the passport office was closed on Saturdays (the mailwoman pointed to a closed door, beside which the hours “Saturday 9-11am” were clearly printed), and furthermore I had to have an appointment.

On Monday I started calling around to the nearby post offices. It turns out that government passports are not commonly issued: the first three offices I called had never heard of them, announced that they were not qualified to issue them, and were mightily suspicious by the phrase “no-fee” despite that I was quite literally quoting the DS-11. I attempted to call the Buffalo passport office, but got an automated line, a lot of being-on-hold, and the spectre of a $65 service fee independent of the passport fee itself.

Finally, I got hold of a very helpful passport agent, who said that she’d never done a no-fee passport, but she’d heard of them, and she was pretty sure it was in the manual — why didn’t we meet the Tuesday after Christmas, in about a week? She would do her research, and I could bring my instructions, and if for some reason she couldn’t do it she would give me a call. I thanked her slavishly before I hung up.

The actual application process was neither difficult nor especially different from the ordinary application, although it was terrifically awkward to tell a USPS employee that a U.S. government bureau does not allow its employee candidates to use USPS to mail their employment-related documents. (Something about a radioactive screening process that melts photo paper; I’m not sure why UPS and FedEx don’t have the same problem).

“I don’t know why the other offices said they couldn’t do it,” the agent told me cheerfully. “It’s all in the manual.”

Neither do I, I thought, and smiled at her.

In the beginning of December, my medical portal updated with the documentation required for clearance.

I am tremendously fortunate in that, being under 25, I’m still covered by my father’s insurance. (I could also have been insured through my document control job, but the coverage wasn’t as complete.) My medical expenses were minimal, though I know of people who had to shell out several thousand. I’ve seen a dentist and an optometrist regularly since early childhood and didn’t have to get much work done. I did, however, have to go through the intake process for an adult physician, since my pediatrician had politely and discreetly slipped me a transfer-of-care slip at my only visit as a college graduate.

My complete medical experience:

  • Personal Migraine History: I get migraine headaches and had to write a personal statement about how I’d deal with them abroad. Not a problem — migraines only rarely interfere with my day-to-day.
  • Dental: I’ve always had pretty good teeth and was due for a checkup around the time I received the forms. No problems.
  • Optometric: the Peace Corps replaces your glasses if they break during service, but doesn’t support the use of contacts. I dropped off the prescription form when I stopped by to pick up my last six months of contacts; this month, when the insurance turned over, I bought a backup pair of glasses.
  • Physical Part 1: I had to do an intake appointment with a new physician to establish my medical history and get my records transferred from the pediatrician. She issued me a script to get my bloodwork done.
  • Immunizations Part 1: I was up-to-date with everything except my TDaP and an adult polio. When I had my intake appointment, my new physician informed me that they could to the TDaP but that she would have to write me a prescription for the polio, since it’s no longer part of the routine for U.S. adults. “They’ll give you a vial,” she told me, “just keep it in the fridge until you come for your next appointment.” It turns out that regular pharmacies aren’t licensed to distribute vaccines (shocker, right?) so I had no way to get the prescription filled.
  • Bloodwork: I’d never gotten my blood drawn before and babbled inanely at the technician to hide my nerves. (It probably didn’t help that it was 6 a.m. and I hadn’t eaten.) Turns out six tubes of blood is significantly less than, say, the Red Cross asks for in a donation.
  • Physical Part 2: My new physician was both thorough and brisk, though she flatly refused to examine (and therefore would not check off) the sections that fell under the gynecologist’s purview, and she forgot about the TDaP. My bloodwork was clean.
  • Immunizations Part 2: I booked an appointment with a travel health organization to get my polio vaccine, and decided to do the TDaP while I was there. This cost me around $250, since the organization didn’t take my insurance.
  • Pap Smear/Physical Part 3: I had to do intake with a gynecologist as well, but that was a much quicker process — just a few forms at the same appointment. The gynecologist was happy to fill out the sections of the physical my primary had left blank.

All said and done, I had submitted all medical documents by February 7th and received my medical clearance on February 9th.

Backstory: the invitation

The summer passed slowly. In June, I took a TEFL certification course (through Oxford Seminars; seemed like a solid program, though I haven’t got any basis for comparison). This was partly to enhance the competitiveness of my application, and partly because I felt — still feel — thoroughly underqualified.

Actually, it may be helpful for me to list my qualifications here:

  • a Bachelor of the Arts in English/Creative Writing from a small SUNY (State University of New York) school.
  • one academic year as a peer tutor in my school’s College Writing Center (around five hours a week, ~80-100 hours total) — primarily one-on-one sessions working rhetorical structure, grammar, and citation — following a semester-long practicum including composition theory.
  • volunteering for a literacy organization, tutoring a student one-on-one and designing my own lesson plans/curriculum — at the time of my application I’d only just finished the month-long training, but I’ve since clocked about a year (another 80-100 hours) of weekly sessions.
  • TEFL certification — four sixteen-hour weekends learning some basic language-learning & education theory and best practices for teaching English to non-native speakers.

It looks pretty on paper, but: I’ve never been responsible for a whole classroom; I’ve never worked with students younger than I am; and I’m not certified to teach in my own state. Many of my friends — virtually all of teacher my friends — have a minimum of two years working toward an education degree. By that standard, I really am massively underqualified. I really hope this three-month Pre-Service Training beefs up my classroom management skills.

September arrived, and with it the year’s first cold winds. Buffalo, for those of you unfamiliar with New York State geography, is one of the snowiest cities in the U.S. — we get around eight feet a year. The past few years have been especially awful thanks to climate change. I began to joke with my friends and coworkers that of course I wasn’t going to Thailand — instead we’d have a horrible winter, and as soon as it started to warm up, they’d ship me off to one of the coldest countries in the world.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Sure enough, in the middle of September, I got an official email: As the Placement Officer for the Thailand program, I am writing to inform you that all positions for the program to this program have been filled. Your application will now be prioritized and considered for the next possible program for which you qualify. … Specifically at this time, we are looking at Mongolia which departs May 2015.

I replied that I was willing to wait until May to get into the Mongolian program. Less than two hours later, I got my formal invitation to join the Peace Corps as a Secondary English Teacher.

This, of course, meant that Buffalo had the coldest, snowiest winter I have ever experienced.

The invitation came with about a hundred pages of PDFs: a description of my responsibilities, notes on the history and culture of Mongolia, a safety and security primer. The email politely requested that I read these and respond within seven calendar days.

I flew through the readings over the course of a weekend (at that point I was working the document control job full-time) and accepted my invitation. I got an autoresponse informing me I would be contacted within few days. This was September 18th. On the 22nd my legal kit was mailed out — I had to find a place to get fingerprinted and return it through FedEx — and my medical portal was updated.

I had planned to attend a science fiction/fantasy writing workshop the week of October 13th. Not yet having heard from anyone — not, in fact, having any points of contact known to me — I shot an email to my placement specialist to let her know I would not be able to respond to emails.

She responded that I now had four main points of contact: the Mongolia country desk, SATO, Medical, and Staging. I was supposed to have received an email with a checklist, and could I please “let us know” if I hadn’t received it.

Having no idea which of the contacts was applicable here, I replied to the placement specialist, CC’ing the country desk, and asked to have the checklist resent. I left for the workshop; it was an absolutely wonderful experience, andI developed an entirely new perspective of myself as a writer and a professional. I threw myself into my writing when I returned home, and two months flew by.

December: I still hadn’t heard anything from the Peace Corps. It was just over five months from my tentative departure date, and I was a bit worried. I checked my email history and realized the placement specialist had never gotten back to me. I sent an email to the country desk and received no response. The following week I sent an email to Staging, asking for the checklist or at least direction to the appropriate email — and, lo and behold, within twenty-four hours I had access to two new portals, fifteen Mongolian language lessons, two online classes, a series of forms, a new resume request — oh, and a passport and visa application I was supposed to have filled out within a week of receiving my invitation.

I was understandably rather panicked.

Laying the groundwork

All right. Time for a proper introduction.

Hi. I’m Renee. I write fantasy and like to teach people things. In nineteen days, I’ll be leaving my home, friends, and family to spend two years teaching Mongolian kids English with the U.S. Peace Corps.

It’s a fun bomb to drop into the middle of a conversation. “I’m going to Mongolia in June!” Cue the double-take, the blank look. “Mongolia?” The second dawning of emotion as the word sinks in, gains context, blooms within the framework of another’s worldview and vision of who I am.

At first, to be honest, I was terrifically nervous to share. I worried that it would be construed as rejection or abandonment of the things I’ve taken up at home. I worried that the blank look would preclude any possibility of shared excitement. And I did get a lot of comments that signaled incomprehension: “I would never do that!/The world is so dangerous, you won’t be safe!/What are you doing out there that you couldn’t do right here?”

But I’ve gotten a lot of support, too, from more corners than I expected. And virtually everyone I’ve spoken to has more questions than time to ask them. (I answer some of the most common ones here.) I was surprised — astonished really — by the number of people who asked extensively about where I was going, what I would do, how I would live, who I would meet. Even more by the number of people who told me they wanted updates. Around a month ago I made a rash promise to blog about my adventures. And then I said it again. And again, and again, until I was sort of obligated to create this thing due to the sheer number of times I’d told people it would someday exist.

The Second and Third Goals of the Peace Corps are to foster cultural exchange — to share my experience as a U.S. citizen with people whose idea of the USA is largely shaped by the big screen, and to convey (in my case) Mongolian customs and values with Americans in a way that builds meaningfulness and mutual respect. I am tremendously excited that people seem to be up for that.

My adventures in Mongolia are not the only purpose of this blog. As I said, I’m a fantasy writer, and I figure it’s about time I set up a platform for updates and writing thoughts. (Twitter is not especially conducive to in-depth rambles.) A significant portion of posts will be dedicated to writing craft, and those posts will continue after my Peace Corps service winds down.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be writing a series of posts about my application and pre-departure experiences. I’ll use that to gauge a potential post schedule: I hope to write at least one Peace Corps post a week, and writing updates/discussions biweekly or monthly, but I’m not sure whether that’s manageable — I’m new to structuring blog posts (and tbqh I have an instinctive aversion to writing nonfiction) and so far it’s proving a significant timesink.

Fellow PCVs: Care to share an interesting discussion that stemmed from your decision to volunteer? And to those of you remaining in the USA (or who call other countries home!) — what do you want to know about the Peace Corps or Mongolia? What experiences do you want me to share?