Despite the title, I want to reassure everyone that as of today, December 23rd, I am still IN the Peace Corps, and have no immediate plans to leave. Although this could change at the whim of the US Government, I could be heading home via airplane at any given moment. Just know that as of now, I am still in Rwanda, and I HAVE NOT left the Peace Corps. But now is as good of a time as any other for information about how one does in fact leave the Peace Corps.
After getting reassigned to Rwanda, my mantra was “It’s not prison. I can leave whenever I want.” Perhaps this is surprising to some who thought that maybe, while not prison, the Peace Corps was kind of like the army, where getting out is hard. It is not. If I want out, I’m on a plane back to the USA within a few days. I think.
But before we delve into how one leaves the Peace Corps let’s back up: Most people imagine that one leaves the village, tearfully, after serving 27 months [in actuality it’s about 23-25 months], in which the village has erected a permanent [at least for the duration of the remaining tenure in said village] shrine to said volunteer. There is a ceremony of sorts where the volunteer is gifted some local [but often meaningless] trinket, and the volunteer cries and promises to come back after some period of time.
THIS IS A MYTH. FAIRY TALE. WISHFUL THINKING… Although in some [very few] cases it could/does happen like this; the truth is more complicated and there are lots of ways people leave. Here are the main ones:
Close of Service: The “normal” way. In PC | Rwanda Health cohorts, COS conference occurs in March, and actual COS can occur anytime between June and August. This conference occurs 21 months after having arrived in country. The reason for this is the month of April is an official/unofficial month of mourning for the entire country and at the government level NOTHING is scheduled or gets accomplished. So March it is. Everyone remaining from your original cohort gathers for a final conference to discuss reentry into post-Peace Corps life. You get information about what your post Peace Corps benefits will be [a months’ worth of medical coverage, a bit of “re-settlement” money that should fund a security deposit on a place to live and if you’re lucky dinner and a movie]. You decide if you want Peace Corps to buy you a ticket back home or if you want cash in lieu so you can travel on your own or find a cheaper ticket and pocket the extra cash. Then people head back to their sites for a final two months or so and, regardless shrines and trinkets, say goodbye to their communities. There are exceptions of course. Some get permission to leave up to six weeks early if they have a pressing reason–job, grad school. Conversely, some attend the conference but aren’t leaving: they’re extending service for six to twelve months to finish up a project or start a new one; or they married a local and decided to settle here.
Administrative Separation: “Admin Sep” happens when you screw up and get caught breaking the rules. There are big rule breaks like possession of, buying of, and selling of drugs or leaving the country without permission ‘ie crossing into the Congo just because‘, but it can technically happen for relatively minor violations of PC policy like riding a moto without the PC approved helmet or traveling [to the next town or even your banking town] without telling the Peace Corps where you are going. Depending on the rule(s) you break, you might get booted right away or be put on a Corrective Action Plan and then booted after several offenses.
Medical Separation: “Med Sep” is when a volunteer gets sick/injured in a way that can’t/shouldn’t be dealt with in country. Sometimes it’s automatic but sometimes you and the medical staff have a longer conversation about the pros and cons. No one from our cohort has been med sep’ped yet, but if things keep heading in the direction they are heading, I might be the first. Sometimes it’s an automatic thing and sometimes much deliberation is required. I guess I’m in the much deliberation required category as here it is almost four weeks after the original injury and I’m still in limbo.
Early Termination: ET’ing is probably the most common way to leave early. Why just leave? Maybe Peace Corps just isn’t for you. Maybe you need a little more direction in your work activities. Maybe you need a little less harassment [sexual or otherwise in you life]. Maybe you’ve decided that pizza is the true love one for you. There’s a million reasons, most of which you don’t figure out till you’re actually here. Maybe the mismatch is with PC or maybe it’s with the specific country you’ve been sent to. Who knows? I do know it happens all the time and it’s okay. It’s not easy to go from one of the most privileged societies the world has ever known to living in developing nation. Despite beliefs to the contrary you’re not on vacation and the daily stress of living in a new culture shouldn’t be underestimated. You might also ET because stuff happens at home that makes you rethink your commitment. Or maybe something bad happens here. You’re going along fine but then get robbed and no longer feel safe in your community. A site change is possible but ultimately you might think “Screw it. The pay’s not high enough to put up with PTSD.”Or you could ET for positive stuff. Like you got a kick-ass job or accepted into your dream university for grad school. Basically, I’ve heard a lot of different stories. What leads one person to ET leads another to shrug and keep going. If you do decide to leave, PC generally pulls you out pretty quickly and you’re home within a week.
Interruption of Service/Evacuation: Sometimes civil war breaks out in a host country. Sometimes the U.S. makes foreign policy decisions that are unpopular in a host country and Peace Corps thinks they should move volunteers out of country while things cool off. Sometimes Ebola breaks out and PC decides for the safety of all to evacuate the country. Or the methane deposits under lake Kivu decide to explode. Ideally this doesn’t happen a lot. But it does happen. For the record, if they evacuate Rwanda for civil unrest or Ebola, my time in the Peace Corps is just over. I don’t see myself signing up for a new 27 months somewhere else. I recently heard that the Interruption of Service can be given for a few other reasons as well like if your spouse is Med Seped and you want to join him/her at home. These different labels matter because they relate to your post-PC status, benefits you might accrue, and how easy it is to rejoin the Peace Corps at a later date, etc.
Crazy combinations of things: Oh the stories I have heard. Any and all of the above can combine in ways that you would not expect. A low-level stomach upset has been plaguing you for months. Your best friend has a baby while you are away. Your best friend here in the PC gets mugged which makes you feel unsafe even though nothing happened to you. And while none of these things by itself is enough to send you home, you start to think maybe sticking it out isn’t that important. So you ET or you ask PC to med sep you and they agree or they give you some other label that sends you home with some other status that I’ve never heard of. And depending on when in your service you leave and what label they stick on you, you may or may not still be able to claim the label of RPCV.
In the end, PC loses a lot of volunteers every year. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. The process to get into the PC is long and involved and while I am sure there is always room for improvement, it’s not like they just let anyone in and then shrug it off if it doesn’t work out. I do think that sometimes the PC probably manipulates its drop out rate to make it seem lower–which is not helpful to anyone involved. My cohort started with 24. We lost one only a couple weeks into PST and the other one in early November. Our drop out rate is currently 8.3%, however, if I am med sep’ped, I’ll be leaving early and it jumps up to 12.5%.
Having just passed the six month in country mark I am relatively confident that even if I leave early [for whatever reason], it will still have been a worthwhile opportunity.