Tag Archives: pre-departure process

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.

Backstory: the interview

I did my research.

The U.S. Peace Corps does not, in fact, participate primarily in house-building. There are six sectors, or categories of service, and a university degree with a minimum of related experience is required for each. A yearlong application/pre-departure process precedes the two-year service. You have to be in good physical condition. You have to go wherever and do whatever the Peace Corps tells you. You must be flexible and adaptable and aware that you are a highly visible representative of the U.S.A. in your host country. I discovered that my creative writing degree and peer-tutoring experience qualified me as a secondary English/TEFL teacher.

I completed my B.A. in December, came home from England, and spent four months working document control for a biomedical company and bouncing aroud my family’s empty house. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a poster child for the United States. As I read through the website, flexible and adaptable took on an uncomfortable ring of weed words — words that could be used to weed out those who failed to overlap with the Peace Corps model in some otherwise indefinable way, to bind the remainder together as a mark of pride and therefore potentially of shame and silence, and to enforce unreasonable standards as representative of an ‘adaptable’ model; words which, moreover, could be used to gloss over failures of planning on the part of the organization[1]. It was harder, too, to reconstruct the excitement of travel and my sense of myself as an independent adult when I was surrounded by the people and objects of a relatively sheltered childhood.

I drafted my application. I made two timid attempts to attend recruitment events in Buffalo, but couldn’t find the recruiter — one event was canceled; I have no idea what happened with the other one. I waffled about applying for graduate school, though I really wanted practical experience before I poured money I didn’t have into a degree I might not use. Finally, in May 2014, I bit the bullet and submitted my application.

Within two days I’d heard back from my local recruiter: When would I be available for an interview? Was I able to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Rochester, or would I prefer to Skype?

I decided to go to Rochester, because I wanted to demonstrate my dedication and because it seemed awkward to interview through a screen. We arranged to meet at a coffee place the following week, and she sent me an email with preparatory instructions.

I arrived at the interview about half an hour early — I’d been that nervous about running late. I huddled in my car for twenty minutes with a Tamora Pierce book and then wandered into the coffeeshop, hoping I looked more confident than I felt.

The interview itself was a surprisingly pleasant experience. (I generally expect interviews to feature glowering monsters in black-hooded robes who declare my total unfitness for any activity whatsoever, so they are usually surprisingly pleasant.) The interviewer, a RPCV from Cape Verde, asked a set of scripted questions that echoed the preliminary email: What experience did I have that would contribute to service? What were my concerns about serving? Did I have tattoos, or piercings, or a restricted diet, and what would I do if assigned somewhere that did not permit them? How did I feel about a situation where men would ignore or dismiss me simply because I was a young woman?

I answered as honestly as I could, and asked a few questions of the interviewer, who shared her experience in Cape Verde. While I’d met a few RPCVs abroad, this was my first opportunity to ask in-depth questions. She told me she thought I’d be a great fit as an English volunteer. Based on some work as treasurer in my college sorority, I was also marginally qualified to try for a community development position (a sort of catch-all for projects that don’t definitively fall under the other sectors), but as an English volunteer, she said, I would be “more competitive”. I agreed that I was more interested in teaching English anyway.

And then she asked the big question.

“Where do you want to go?”

Where did I want to go?

I stared at the interviewer, dumbfounded. I do believe I resembled a highly bewildered fish. Nobody had ever indicated that this question would come up. Everything I’d read suggested that my placement barely took into account my preferences[2]. I was under the impression that they had some elaborate system in place to determine my best fit. I had barely looked at the current programs — the sheer number had overwhelmed me.

I tentatively suggested volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country, since I had taken Spanish in high school; the interviewer looked it up. No English teaching programs fell within the appropriate time frame. I offered a bit more blank staring and stuttering. I can’t remember if I’d heard the names before, or if she recommended them now, but both Mongolia and Mozambique came up as established programs that Volunteers quite enjoyed.

At length we decided it would be best for me to go home, do some research, and email her with my top choices from those English programs that left between April and June 2015. I did so the following week, looking up unfamiliar names on Wikipedia and making an essentially arbitrary list of countries that seemed to have interesting programs and not a whole lot of political or environmental upheaval. Mozambique no longer had an English program, but Mongolia left in May; I put it at the top of the list.

Shortly after I sent this email, I received a call from my interviewer. She explained, sounding slightly harried, that I might be able to leave sooner; they were changing their application process and competitive candidates were now eligible for empty slots in earlier-departing programs. I sent another list for the January-March 2015 slot. Thailand, due to leave in January, was my first choice.

[1] I have not myself experienced any of this, and I think the Peace Corps’ revised application process cuts out a lot of this sentiment. Still, I think the potential for abuse — especially the potential for a psychologically toxic situation — is worth pointing out.
[2] It turns out my application period fell right smack in the middle of a revamp of the process. All of the language at the time I was doing the research suggested that I wouldn’t get to pick (it’s not a vacation, this will test your adaptability, the appropriate distribution of your skills is more important than your preference, etc.), but by the time I got through the interview, they were transitioning toward a speedier and more personalized system.