More than 1500 coherent words on what I packed for two years in Madagascar from the kind of suitcase I had, and everything I put in said suitcase; don’t say I didn’t warn youI found out in July 2017 that I’d been accepted into Peace Corps | Madagascar. That left me with 7 months to pack and clean out my apartment, and seven months to obsess about what to pack. And this from someone who hates to pack. And someone who hates to shop. And then I went and bought a house in October 2017. And I had already planned vacation for December 2018. So I packed for Madagascar as well as my vacation to Germany/France in December while I was packing up the apartment for the impending move. I scoured other PC blogs’ packing lists–for Madagascar, other African countries, even cold weather Eastern Europe/Asian countries… just to see what I was up against. I put effort into packing. I drudged through Amazon customer reviews. I wandered up and down REI’s aisles without buying a thing. I enjoyed crafting the spreadsheet more than the actual shopping.Not related at all, but a somewhat ironic tangent: I was once in charge of logistics for planning my college’s fencing team flight from Greenville to Philadelphia and securing lodging while in Philadelphia. 13 college students, flying with sabres, foils, and epees constantly reminding them not to say ‘weapons’ in an airport even though that is totally what they are called collectively. Reminding people to pack clothing separately from fencing gear in case bags were confiscated, and yet I forgot socks.Other journeys have similarly been fraught with packing mistakes and my most epic one to date is getting to the airport only to find out I’d brought my recently expired passport instead of the new, active one. Thankfully it was about 1 in the afternoon, traffic was reasonable, and I lived 20 minutes away instead of an hour away like I do now.Before I start the list, here are the premises I’m working on:
Despite popular opinion, this is not a 2 year camping/backpacking trip. I will be living mostly in one place for 2 years. A place that most likely lacks indoor plumbing and electricity.
Madagascar is a poor country. No need to have $200 hiking boots when most, if not all, of my neighbors will be barefoot. All the time.
I’ll forget something. Hopefully, it won’t be my passport. Or underwear.
Packing is certainly one of the most stressful aspects of preparing for service, because you think, “how the hell am I going to fit 2 years’ worth of stuff in 2 bags?” Just so you know now, the Peace Corps country handbook is of absolutely no use. So I put together my own list of what I thought would be helpful. This will hopefully take care of a lot of your potential questions up front, but please feel free to message me or comment if you have a specific question, or if you don’t see something on this list and wonder if you should take it. [Caveat: I am the proud owner of 2 X chromosomes so this is aimed at fellow XX-ers more than guys, but most of these suggestions also apply to men… except, you know, the parts about bringing skirts, bras, and tampons.]
The first thing to keep in mind is that no amount of stuff will make it easy, and no one item will make the difference between having a great experience and a terrible one. The second thing is to keep in mind that even though 2 bags doesn’t sound like a lot, you will still have way more stuff than any of your neighbors have. Having 3 pairs of shoes to carry you for the next 2 years might not sound like a lot, but remember that most people you’ll be living near are lucky if they have one pair of shoes. It is very humbling. Hopefully my suggestions and advice below will help you avoid packing stress as much as possible but help you arrive to Madagascar well-equipped and excited to serve.
So with that being said…
To get the goods to a location, I’ll need bags. I’m allowed 4; 2 checked, one carry-on and one personal item. The checked bags must weigh less than 50# each. Since I usually try to do carry-on only, I did not have a large duffel or suitcase so I bought one from ebags. It’s my go to site for things luggage related. So my four bags are:
A suitcase. A duffel bag. Something big. Something sturdy. It’s going to get abused. It may fall apart; it may surprise me and last my full service. I’ll probably use it as storage once I have a home.
A hiking backpack. I have an old REI one. I’ll probably take the REI one; it’s no longer bright and shiny, and has already proven itself, has a cover, and I know I can pack a lot of stuff in it
A school-type backpack. Can be stuffed to capacity and carry a weeks’ worth of clothing.
A messenger bag. Good for books, notebooks, official documents, plane snacks, travel pillow, ect.
Inside the bags, things will be organized with packing cubes. If you’ve never used packing cubes, they will change your life. I also have two plastic storage boxes, 1 small and one medium. And inside those containers, I’ll have:
Tools: tweezers, nail clippers, razor + blades, make-up brush, Q-tips
Dental: toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
Body: bar soap, lotion, razor + blades, pumice stone, deodorant, menstrual cup + tampons
Mini first aid kit
And that’s it.
Note: At training I’ll be provided with a Peace Corps’ first aid kit. Again, this is my pre-service packing list. Overall I feel pretty good about it, but that’ll change: Things will break; I’ll send things home, and hopefully I will have some awesome friends who will send me things while I’m here.
It’s about four weeks until I go, you see, and in theory, I should have something heartfelt and sincere to say. Perhaps a few final thoughts I care to leave behind? A legacy? A farewell?
But I don’t. Nothing.
I’m still working… being a nurse and all, saving every $ I can so that I can fit some adventures in during my Peace Corps service. I’ve packed, but only because I moved out of my apartment in October. When I moved, I got rid of all the things I don’t want to keep. I haven’t done a lot to the house other than make it stronger to weather any particular storm. I’m doing a lot of overnight camping and hiking/backpacking. I’m crashing with friends. Molly and Lucy are in charge, so to speak. I essentially bought a house for the cats. They even have their own expense account so their new caretakers can provide for them like I have.
I have always been more on the private side; careful of what I say out loud, or in this case, put in print. Truth be told, I have very little that I care to say out loud. I, alone, am privy to my thoughts, as they are rapidly changing and I can’t seem to keep up. I’m nervous. Of course I’m nervous. No matter how much I try to prepare, it’s still the unknown. I’m scared. Of course I’m scared. Even though I’ve done some version of this before, this is a unique period in my life. I’m excited, thrilled even. I know of no one in my family, friends, or even acquaintances who has been a Peace Corps volunteer. In many ways, this is everything I’ve always wanted. And in many others, it’s nothing I ever expected.
Of course, I’m saying this now, before I’ve even begun. What will I say when I am two weeks into training? How will I feel? Will I be as self-assured as I imagine I will be? Or will I be as the other PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteer) say; wondering what on earth possessed me to do such a thing?
How can I, now, at this very moment, possibly make a statement? There is so much I don’t know. How am I to predict how I’ll feel in the coming weeks and months, when I can’t even get a firm grasp on how I feel right now? My mind is a chaotic whirl. I’m busy preparing for my departure, anticipating my arrival, and trying to juggle work and spending time with friends in between. Everything has been moving so fast, and in these next final weeks, they’ll only continue to speed up.
I’m working through February 20. My birthday is February 24, and I leave for staging on the 26. I have a to-do list at least a mile long. I’ve essentially got to set up my life for two years so that someone else can manage it. I’ve got to get what’s need to apply to graduate school for when I return. I need all those addresses and phone numbers now. I’ve got to get friends to download WHATSAPP, and before I know it, it will be February 26.
My world will likely be flipped upside down in ways that I never saw coming. I’ll say goodbye to my home, my friends, my kitties, and my family. I’ll give up the creature comforts that I knowingly take for granted. I’ll bid farewell to a community for whom my appreciation came unexpectedly.
But these are the thoughts running through my head. Every time I get in my car and drive around the country. When I am in a store looking for something I *need* for Madagascar. When I sit in my house and look around and think, ‘we’ve only just begun.’ I’ve had my house for a total of four months and yet it’s already filled with me. At night, with Lucy curled at my feet, and Molly by my side, I stare at my ceiling and convince myself to stay calm…
…Because I wanted this. I wanted the uncertainty. I wanted the fear. I wanted the unknown. 18 months ago, I decided I was ready to give up what I know in exchange for the adventure of a lifetime. The world is mine and my future belongs to me. The Peace Corps will test me, push me to my limits, and force me to rise above. I will grow and I will change. I will not be the same person I was when I started, but I look forward to meeting her in the end.
The Peace Corps is a volunteer job and although So how much does joining the Peace Corps really cost? The answer to that question will vary for everyone depending on what country you will serve in (do I need a visa?) and what tests/exams the Peace Corps deems it necessary for you to have. It will also vary depending on what if any medical insurance a person has, and it will vary depending on where you live. So lots of variables, but I’ll give you my costs so that you may get a general idea of the costs.
Fingerprints–$10 at the local county law enforcement center
Mailing fingerprints–$7.21–at UPS sent certified which requires a signature
Total Legal Cost =$17.21- Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 = $17.21
Passport + Visa
I renewed my passport earlier in the year and have already been to Canada, England and Wales on it. Also, getting a PC passport the easy way just involves getting passport photos, filling out the forms, and mailing it in. Getting the passport the hard way, requires blood, sweat, tears, and promise of your firstborn, AND $25 for an ‘execution fee’. The problem with this is most places that issue passports are unfamiliar with the No-fee government passport, and that is where the headache come in. Originally, I had planned to go to a Nursing conference in Toronto in October. Then I got my invitation and decided to forgo the conference (save that money for other travels). Even knowing that I didn’t NEED the passport for anything, it was still hard to let it go.
Passport photos–$22.98 (+ tax with $2 off coupon code x2).
Mailing passport and visa application–$ 10.12 (once again, sent trackable via UPS)
Total Passport + Visa Cost = $33.50 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 =$33.50
[Add $110 if you need to get a personal passport]
Medical + Labs
General Medical Exam
Women’s Health Exam–> I got my women’s health exam done at Planned Parenthood. I used my regular health insurance that I have through work (which costs about $400/year and this is the first time I have used it) and it was covered at 100% so my cost was $0. Those $400 in premiums actually paid off this year.
Total Women’s Health Exam Costs = $0
Labs–>HIV screening was a required lab for my assignment [and maybe for all of them?] and I had it performed as part of my women’s health exam. On a whim, I asked if they could do my other labs since I knew they weren’t set up as a primary care facility. They said yes, and amazingly enough, it was also covered at 100%. I did have to have a special lab drawn based on my medical history. I had a physician write a prescription for it and had it done at LabCorp.
Total Lab Cost = $50
Complete dental exam with panoramic X-rays $344.00 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $60 = $284.00
Dental treatments required =$0 Luckily, I didn’t need any treatments, had no cavities, or have anything wrong with my teeth or gums.
Yellow Fever Vaccination [ had to get this one even though I currently have one. Mine will expire on June 4, 2020 so PC is making me get a booster.]
TDaP booster [Working in the hospital the last 15 years has afforded me access to most vaccines, but as luck would have it, my current immunity will run out while in Mada, so another booster it is)]
Total for all things required: $330.71 (current running total)
The Peace Corps does provide a cost share program for some expenses but the expenses are segregated. What I wish is that they would provide a flat fee of say $500 to pay for these expenses. They will provide up to $290 for a medical exam yet my actual costs were $0, but only $60 for a dental exam (including x-rays). My actual dental costs were $344; I wish I could have used some of that $290 for my dental exam. I am grateful that I have health insurance and I am grateful for federal laws that allow preventative care to be covered at 100%. It hasn’t always been like this, and I can only hope that these laws won’t be repealed.
It was nearly 18 months since the time I first submitted a Peace Corps application until I got on the plane to Philadelphia for staging.
September 2016: I officially decide to submit a peace corps application nearly 20 years after hearing about the program for the first time. My application was immediately selected as ‘under consideration’ for Peace Corps | Lesotho for Healthy Youth. Not overly excited but decide if selected, I would go.
January 4, 2017: Peace Corps interview. Quite possibly the worst interview ever. I interview at home via web cam in scubs after 24 hours of being on call/work. I was barely coherent and only remember that the interview lasted 45 minutes when I was told it would most likely last 90. Probably not a good sign.
March 1, 2017 : I was notified that I was no longer under consideration for Peace Corps | Lesotho for failure to receive recommendations on time. I was not surprised based on the atrocious interview and one missing recommendation. Found out one of recommendation writers never received the form. Begin new application for Peace Corps, and submit with an updated resume, and different recommendation writers. Hit ‘submit’.
March 8, 2017: Once again, I am placed ‘under consideration’. This time for Peace Corps | Madagascar–Community Health. I am much more excited about this opportunity. Talk to recruiter by phone and says interviews won’t start until the application cycle ends… so July 1st would be the earliest opportunity. Tell my recommendation writers not to expect anything until then.
May 4, 2017: Recruiter was wrong. Interviewed for PC | Madagascar. Interview went much better than the last time lasting almost 1.5 hours. Feel much better about my chances, but realize the know by date is September 1, 2017. So I’m still not getting my hopes up.
May-July, 2017: Check my email about once a week [usually on Saturday night while I am at work] as to not miss anything and to not be obsessive. And to preserve my sanity.
July 27, 2017: Receive invitation. Almost miss it due to the ‘checking email once a week’ strategy.
July 29, 2017: Formally accept invitation.
August 2, 2017: Received a bunch of tasks to complete with a deadline of September 30, 2017 5:52pm.
August 4, 2017: Get fingerprints and mail off fingerprint card for legal clearance.
August 4, 2017: Make dental and medical appointments for later in August.
August 5, 2017: Get passport photos and fill out requisitions for Peace Corps Government Passport and Madagascar visa
August 9, 2017: Received notification fingerprints have arrived and the FBI is opening a file on me.
August 24, 2017: Dental visit…Teeth are in good condition.
August 29, 2017: Medical Exam. Body in good condition
September 15, 2017: Have special lab drawn that could not be drawn
October 6, 2017: Finish my last activity for my Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Graduation isn’t until December, but I’m not attending.
October 2017: On going saga with med office about a missing lab. Frequent communication with PC med office about missing lab. Deadlines extended for lab.
November 6, 2017: Received final medical and dental clearance so as long as nothing happens between now and then, I’m in the clear.
December 29, 2017: Receive final legal clearance
December 30, 2017: Receive more ‘tasks’ in a new portal. Paperwork very similar to starting a new job with banking info required, emergency contacts, press release info, ect.
I have never been one to make lists, or more accurately, I have never been one to follow what’s on the list, but for an undertaking of this magnitude, I started preparing and list-making as soon as I submitted the application. Just last week I left my job. I transferred to another location for the next three months. I haven’t told the new people that I’ll be leaving, and probably won’t–at least not until February.
I started preparing myself for departure soon after receiving the acceptance letter.
Here is a look at the massive to-do list that I created and have been checking it off since March and in earnest since I received the acceptance letter in July, approximately in chronological order.
Change bank accounts. I moved my primary checking and savings to Charles Schwab. From everything I’ve read, they are the best deal around for travelers. I’ve banked with a credit union for years, and while I love them, the lock-down on my card overseas [even going to England is a hassle] and the massive fees I incur while traveling are enough to make me switch. I’ve kept my account active so that it’s still there, and also in case I run into trouble, I’ll have someone local to help out. Yes, I know the Peace Corps will set me up a bank account in my local area once I’m there, but it will be nice to have the safety net of my American bank account too.
Give myself a pay cut. I set up direct deposit to my savings account so that $350 every week goes directly to savings. This savings will allow me to keep my house, take a PC vacation or two, and maybe even travel some post-service.
Get another job. [to explore a new area of nursing and have some additional savings]
Determine a savings goal. I looked into accommodations and transportation costs for possible destinations and read about other traveler’s expenses for long-term travel to come up with a savings goal of $10,000. I don’t know if I’ll meet it or not, but it’s a goal.
Track my expenses. I m not nerdy enough to set up a spreadsheet and keep track of every dime I spend, but I did create a spending log recording [most of] everything I spent. This allowed me to identify areas to cut back and I could see how close [or far!] I was from my savings goal. I could also see when I needed to lay off Amazon or cut out trips to Target.
Re-design my blog. I started blogging in 2005 mainly for myself. Over the last 12 years, blogging has still been mostly for me [and the occasional friend or family member who wanted an update to see if I was still alive]. Over the last year I’ve made a concentrated effort to do a little more on the technical side, learn a little bit more about photo post-processing, teach myself a little bit about making videos, get more comfortable exposing myself to a public audience, and maybe build a loyal, if not small readership before I leave.
Connect with other travelers. I still hate Twitter, don’t really know how to use my blog’s Facebook page, and can’t for the life of me figure out Instagram’s algorithms, but through my blog and through reading other travel blogs, I have connected with dozens of other PC volunteers, returned PC volunteers, and bloggers who have traveled long-term or made blogging into a full-time career. Their advice and inspiration have been invaluable.
Renew my passport. My passport was set to expire while in the Peace Corps, and while yes, I will get a Peace Corps’ diplomatic passport, I do want to travel some on my own either before, during, or after my service. I renewed it in April and opted for the one with the most pages available.
Find a home for my cats. I hated the idea of giving my cats to random strangers on Craigslist or to a shelter, so a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when a friend volunteered to foster the kids while I’m gone.
Figure out what to do with my stuff. I don’t consider myself a minimalist by any means but I also didn’t want to pay $1700 for a storage unit. So I bought a house. What? you say? I found an incredible deal, made the purchase in October 2017. I moved most of my old furniture into the new house and plan on doing some heavy remodeling when I return from the Peace Corps. To date. I’ve painted all the walls, removed a ton of wallpaper, replace most light fixtures and ceiling fans, and tried my hand at
tile-work. The house now has appliances from this century, and I’ve gotten a lot of tree/scraggly bushes removed. This is about all I’m doing until I come back.
Doctor and dentist appointments. While I still have good insurance through work, I made a point to get an annual physical exam and a dental cleaning and check-up. Also see Pre-Service Medical Clearance.
Vaccinations. I went to South America in 2010, I got the yellow fever vaccine and the Typhoid vaccine. Through work, I’m up to date on my tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, flu, and hepatitis B. I added a Hepatitis A vaccine and cholera + what the Peace Corps recommends. Lucky for me, my insurance covered everything except the $110 consultation fee, saving me about $500.
Get extra passport photos. Who knows what I might need them for [traveler visas perhaps], but I’m getting them while they are cheap.
Buy stuff. I have tried to keep the purchases to a minimum because after all, I am going to a third world country where the daily income is around $2, but some must-haves that I have picked up so far include a new [used] laptop [with DVD drive so I can copy all my DVDs and CDs, a new-ish backpack [it’s been on a few excursions already], extra camera equipment [lenses mostly + a few memory cards and extra camera batteries], a Steri-pen, and new hiking shoes.
Explore ways to connect. Skype account, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, all vaible options, but will they work well with rural African internet. .
Give notice at work. I haven’t done this just yet, but when I do, it will be when this whole thing starts to feel real!
And there is still more to come over the next few weeks:
Notify my banks and credit card companies.
Withdraw cash in the form of bills that are recent and in good condition [once again, you never know when crisp dollar bills might be useful].
Create a list of bank and credit card info.
Update my Couchsurfing profile [because you never know…]
Study and practice French some more.
Update my resume.
Assemble the documents I need to apply to graduate school so that when the time comes, I’ll have everything I need, and applying from the middle of Africa won’t be quite so challenging.
Not everything on the lists above will apply to everyone, but my hope is that this will be helpful for those of you who might be starting to think about taking some time off to travel or joining the Peace Corps.
I am in the medical/legal clearance stage right now so I haven’t told a lot of people that I’ve been accepted to the Peace Corps yet, but the ones who know have questions.
Question 1: What exactly is the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:
Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2: Tell me about Madagascar.
Peace Corps | Madagascar began in 1993, and more that 1000 volunteers have served since its beginnings.
Currently, about 130 volunteers are serving in Madagascar. Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and is located in the Indian ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa.
French and Malagasy are both the official languages.
The population is about 22 million, and 90% of the population live on less than $2 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Climates vary. It generally has two seasons: hot and rainy from November-April and cooler and dry May-October. The east coast contains tropical rain forests which can be hit by tropical storms and cyclones. The central highlands are cooler and dryer, and are the main location of Madagascar’s agriculture. The west coast contains deciduous forests that lose their leaves during the dry months. Finally, the southwest is the driest and some parts can be considered desert.
Madagascar is considered a “biodiversity hot spot.” Over 90% of the wildlife is found nowhere else including lemurs, fossa (relative of the mongoose), and different types of birds. There are almost 15,000 different plants species, are 80% are found nowhere else on earth.
There are 18 different ethnic groups. Madagascar was originally settled by people from Africa and Asia, and the culture now is a unique blend of the two. Much of the Malagasy population are predominantly animist. Many aspects of behavior is determined by cultural taboos, including treatment of the dead. About 50% of the population is Christian, and 2% are Muslim.
Medical centers and hospitals are concentrated in urban areas, and medical care is very expensive relative to the average income. In 2010, Madagascar averaged 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The infection rate of AIDS is low compared to other African countries with about 0.9% of the adult population. Malaria is the main health concern, and was responsible for over 15% of hospital admissions in children under 5 years in 2008.
Question 3: What will you be doing?
I will be a Community Health Adviser helping to train health educators in my area. Together, we will work on implementing a communication system to improve health workers’ ability to communicate health information. I will provide education and identify interventions to promote safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]
Question 4: What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training late February-mid May before a swearing-in ceremony. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.
Question 5: Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose where I live.
Question 6: What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village without consistent electricity or running water. My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.
Question 7: Will you have electricity or running water?
It depends where in the country I am. The cities have electricity available, and the rural towns not so much. If electricity is available it will be probably be inconsistent. In addition, Internet access will most likely be limited.
Question 8: Will you have a cell phone?
Most volunteers buy their own cell phone but the service is spotty. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.
Question 9: What will you eat?
Rice is the top food in all of Madagascar [Rice is not something I love or even like]. Rice is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. There are many fruits and vegetables that grow in Madagascar and are sold fresh and in their correct season.
Question 10: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months or my last three months.
Question 11: Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during training.
Question 12: Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way! See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.
Question 13: Do you get paid?
Yes, but not much. Considering that most Madagascar natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Madagascar. However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon in Madagascar so that addiction has been curtailed.
I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Madagascar. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.
At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.
I have made it a point in life to not regret the past. Sure there are things that I wish had not happened, but I also think that for better or worse, these life experiences have shaped me into the person that I am today. That being said, my one regret is that I didn’t study abroad when I was in college. It wasn’t as if I actively made the decision to not study abroad; my college, being a small (tiny even) liberal arts school did not have contracts in place with foreign universities.
And also, let’s be honest. Even if they had had those agreements in place, most likely I would not have been able to afford it. It was all I could do to afford college to begin with. I worked full-time hours throughout my entire college career. Going abroad for a semester or a summer would have meant 3-4 months of no job and no income. Putting that together with the added expense of being overseas and it just didn’t add up.
I did manage to travel while in college so it wasn’t as if I never left the country. I turned a two week vacation into a three month tour of Northern England, Scotland, and Wales with a side of Ireland after my freshman year. While my friend were actually graduating college, I did an ‘independent study’ in Mexico AFTER I’d taken all my other classes needed to graduate thus delaying my official graduation for a year.
I am quite certain that if I had studied abroad, my life would be 99.9% different than it is now–or maybe I would have arrived at the life I have now a lot sooner. I am quite certain that NOT studying abroad in college led me to take a ‘career break’ in 2010. And that ‘career break’ in 2010-11 led to me changing my career over the last 5 years. That career break also led to me choosing an elective where I got to spend time in both St Petersburg and Moscow (studying plants of all things) , Russia and Cardiff, Wales (studying the UK’s National Health System). Both of those experiences, while amazing, was not the immersion experience I was looking for. And while travel nursing in the US is totally a thing; international travel nursing is not.
All these experiences (and lack of experiences) has led me to the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is not something I’d even strongly considered even though I had heard its existence while in high school. I pondered joining after I graduated college, but there was always this reason or that reason holding me back. But it is something that has been nagging at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bit more force over the last 15 years.
So maybe not studying abroad in my initial college experience was a good thing; after all, it has brought me to the Peace Corps where I’ll finally have that immersion experience I have been craving since I was 19 years old. Let’s only hope I don’t regret joining at this stage of life.
The Peace Corps’ sent my invitation to serve on July 27, 2017 via e-mail. I was past the point of obsessively checking my email like I did for the first few weeks after my interview. I popped in randomly to check my email, only to be disappointed by the lack of updates. My check-ins were getting further and further apart.
Which is why I almost missed my invitation to serve!
I sat down at my desk on a late Sunday night, checking my email, thinking it would be full of spam yet again when I saw it…
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departingFebruary 25, 2018. By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.Here’s what you need to do within 3 calendar days:
Review all assigned materials. Please review the assignment-specific information sent to you via email previously, as well as the Peace Corps Volunteer handbook.
Respond to your invitation within three days:
See that second bullet point–respond to your invitation. It was already Sunday, July 30th at 11:45pm. Did this really mean I only had 15 minutes remaining or my invitation would be rescinded? I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. But by my getting my invitation so late in the game, meant that I had absolutely no one to talk to about it. Except my coworker. Who thinks I’m crazy for wanted to join the Peace Corps (she’s roughly twice my age, and thinks I should be getting married and having kids instead of running off to an island).
Trusting my gut, I responded to the accept link in my invitation. And that was that. On August 2, I got inundated with the first set of tasks–getting my fingerprints done and sent off to legal and getting my passport and visa application sent to the appropriate place.
You see how ‘pending medical and legal clearance’ is bolded in the original offer? That’s because medical clearance is no joke–and with only two months (60 days to be precise) to complete them, it’s a race to complete on time.
Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context. I don’t really like talking about myself. I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.
Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession: this was my second Peace Corps interview. The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later. I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true]. Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.
In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.
So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.
So here’s is what I’ve determined…
Practise is important
Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it. It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.
From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and ready. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting. I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting. My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to actlike its a face-to-face meeting. Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.
When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.
Research the country
The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.
Know Your Assignment
My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development? Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.
While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be their mistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident. Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.
Print out your resume and aspiration statement
Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?” or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.” On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.
Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up a whole hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance. I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
Of course you do. Write them down so that when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”
Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French. How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions: If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]
At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.
Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show. Go to a movie. Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork and clearances that you have to complete.
Welcome to the Peace Corps!
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departingFebruary 25, 2018. By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.
It was just another Saturday afternoon where I was procrastinating writing a paper on some topic in health policy by watching my beloved Volunteers stomp the Gators and surfing the net when I clicked on over to the Peace Corps website. I thought why the hell not?
It’s now or never, right?
I can already hear what you are saying…
“The Peace Corps? Really, but aren’t you’re already a nurse.”
Yes. Yes I am. I am already a nurse, but let’s rewind just a bit– Spring 2013.
I was all set to go to medical school. I studied hard, kicked the MCAT’s ass, and been accepted to the medical school only 35 minutes from where I was living. I was as ready as one can be to start such a grueling undertaking as medical school, and then, well, life, as it has a tendency to do, got in the way.
Without going into too much detail, I withdrew my spot in the class of 2018, and looked for other options to pursue my goal of providing medical care to those who need it most. I enrolled in the local nursing school and graduated in the fall of 2015. I passed NCLEX, started to work on my BSN, and promptly got a job at a local hospital.
Which I hated.
To say I was stuck in a rut is an understatement. I started feeling lost and wasn’t sure what my next move would be; did I want to move? [Not really] Start a new job? [Probably, but I was more than burnt out after working in hospitals for the last 10 years, and could not fathom what I’d want to do] Run off and travel for a year? [No, I’d already done that when I spent 16 months traveling in South America] I knew there was something else for me but I had no idea what it was.
I’m not sure exactly how the Peace Corps came up, but once it did, it turned into a nagging thought in the back of my head. Of course, I’d heard of the Peace Corps. I’ve even done international volunteer work before. I even casually mentioned it to a few friends in the way of “So if I joined the Peace Corps, would you come visit me?”
More time passed until that September Saturday where I was looking for motivation to write a paper for school, and upon finding none I started looking into the revamped application process, open programs, and countries they were currently sending volunteers to. Health was an obvious choice, but I also opened up my application to agriculture and environment, and community development. What I know about community development can fit into a thimble, but I’d feel as if I were cheating if all I do is end up teaching English.
So I applied. When it came time to pick countries, I wish there had been an option to exclude certain places. I’m fairly open to most countries and would really like an adventure, but I know without a doubt, that the South Pacific Islands are not for me. Equally, I’d prefer to not go to Western Africa. So I choose Kyrgyz Republic [I’d really love to learn Russian and travel the area of the Silk Road], Mozambique [south-east Africa on the Indian Ocean has a certain appeal also near a few countries I’d like to visit], or Guyana [a South America country on the Caribbean that I’ve only passed through]
I’ve lived in a thatched hut in the middle of the Amazon with a compost toilet before. I’ve had my own apartment in Peru and Mexico where electricity was sporadic. I camp and hike a bit so indoor plumbing, running water, and electricity while certainly nice are all things I know I could do without. A least for a predetermined time.
So it is now or never. I’ve only told one person that I’ve submitted the application. I have an interview Friday. We shall see how it goes. Stay tuned on how this new adventure shakes out.
On January 4, I had an interview for Peace Corps| Lesotho. I was less than enthusiastic about this interview for several reasons: 1. I do not want to go to Lesotho for several reasons. 2. The program was youth development. That was not one of my choices I put down as an interest and when I asked about that I was told the health and youth programs were combined. I was less than thrilled. 3. One of my reference writers didn’t get the reference in until 3 days before the deadline 4. I had just worked 16 hours the night before; my interview was at 8:30am, and I was most likely barely coherent. It was a bad interview that ended after 50 minutes (I think most of them last 90 minutes) and it was to no one’s (meaning me) surprise, when on March 1, I got the email that said I had not be selected for Lesotho.
And I was relieved.
But not deterred. I submitted my application yet again mentioning health as my only choice and choosing Madagascar, Guyana, and Ethiopia as choices and lo and behold, two days after submission, I was ‘under consideration’ for PC | Madagascar. And I’m excited. Of course, it will be an eternity until I find out anything; the program stops accepting applications in July. I’m already doing things differently; I’m learning French. I’m learning more about Madagascar. And I’m excited. Let’s only hope that I am offered the chance to interview for this program.