My Peace Corps Saga

As I’ve mentioned before, most of these posts are written and scheduled to publish a few weeks before they are actually posted. In most cases, the emotions and events I write about happened well before you actually read them.

Next week there will be a few posts that talk about how hard I’ve worked to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and, although it is tough, I’m not giving up. Last week was pretty brutal, personally and at work and I’ve had to remind myself of what I went through to get here.

I am sure I wrote about my Peace Corps struggles on my other blog and the time between my first application and actually being sworn in Lesotho is outlined on my timeline, but it may be good to remind myself of that struggle. Also, I know other invitees and applicants scan PCV blogs looking for clues and hints to their own service. Or maybe you read this blog but don’t understand some of my references and maybe this back story will help clear those questions.

We all have our own story to volunteer hood. Here is mine:

The first time I considered applying for the Peace Corps was during my sophomore year of college, right after my first heartbreak. Realizing that first loves don’t always last, I was hit with the idea that I could do anything. Anything.

The idea didn’t stick as I decided on a journalism career after college and took a sports reporting gig in Idaho. I loved writing sports features, but got sick of nightly volleyball games. I thought I could fake being a sports nut; I couldn’t. After five months, my editors switched me to the state and local government beat, which I thought would make me happier. It didn’t. I was unhappy in the newspaper business, mistaking it for a location issue. By December 2007, I was developing some great relationships in Idaho but hated my job. When I was offered a job back in South Dakota – one with better pay and better hours – I felt like a complete failure for going home, but augmented it with the decision that I would finally apply for the Peace Corps. That dream never left me.

It took me a few months to work up the courage to do so, but in August 2008 I applied. A few weeks later I got a call from a recruiter. There were budget cuts – Bush in his final months as president – and Peace Corps needed to be very specific about who they accepted and my qualifications didn’t meet the standards. I needed more experience, he said, and until then my application would go on hold, where it could stay for a year.

I was heartbroken. I thought that was the dead end sign to this Peace Corps dream. I still volunteered at my church and the local domestic abuse shelter, but I gave up being a PCV. I still needed to sink my teeth into something, something bigger than myself.

Then, through social media, I met a pair of brothers. They were starting their own business and they wanted it to have a partner project – an alternative news publication. They enlisted my help and I created “The Post,” an online magazine for South Dakota. That actually wasn’t the initial concept for the publication, but it was what we could realistically do with limited resources. The month I began making an outline for the publication, I went to a Peace Corps meeting. I still couldn’t let go and decided to reactivate my application.

I received an invitation for the Community Development in the Sub-Sahara Africa in August 2009 and “The Post” launched Sept. 1.

In November, I got a call from the health office. Before I could even complete my medical application, I needed five sessions of counseling. My initial application showed some mental health issues and a professional counselor needed to sign off. I’ve dealt with an eating disorder since my junior of high school, going in and out of counseling and on and off medications. The eating disorder peaked in August 2008, but by that time, I had learned to deal with my emotions and feelings without purging and starvation. (Side note: It’s been four years since I last purged, yeah for me!) Still, I needed my college counselor and a current one to sign off on my treatment and medications, even though I wasn’t in counseling at the time and finding records in an university health facility is nearly impossible.

That took some time, but I was finally approved to move on with the medical portion. I got hung up again on paper work because I had two moles removed a few months prior and needed several doctors’ signatures. It also didn’t help that I often see PAs and Peace Corps refuses anything but MD signatures so there were lots of trips back and forth to clinics.

Finally, in March 2010, I received medical clearance. Dental came a week later and then there was waiting. Lots of waiting. In May, the invitation to Niger to be a community and youth education volunteer came and I left “The Post” behind. (Another took it over, but it eventually died a year later). I started PST in July and was sworn in September – nearly two years ago.

Then, at the six-month mark, we were evacuated because of security concerns with Al-Qaeda. We were given options to transfer and I was chosen to go to Namibia. I was so excited about not having to end my Peace Corps service and being able to stay in Africa, this time working with HIV.

Less than 10 hours before boarding a plane to start this new adventure I was given some hard news. I was not going to Namibia. There are certain countries that will not accept volunteers with a mental health history – no matter how long ago – and Namibia is one of those countries. My medical officer and the one in Morocco (where we went when we left Niger) defended me and tried to get PC Namibia to make an exception, but they wouldn’t. So, in February 2011, I went home.

It took about a month for me to decide that I wanted to try Peace Corps again. So, I submitted my re-enrollment and waited. When we left Niger, we had to do medical exams, as part of any close of service process. At that time, they knew I would transfer and said I didn’t need a PAP or HIV test. I did have amoebas but they gave me medication for it and it was fine. Back at home, they said I absolutely need both tests and need to submit another three stool samples to make sure my system is clear. I did all that, but there was yet another hiccup. My PAP came back irregular, which is EXTREMELY common in women my age. It never happened before and I was not at all nervous about it, but the doctor recommended another in six months. Peace Corps wouldn’t continue on with my application until the second one but I didn’t have six months so my doctor and I made an agreement: she would sign off on my medical forms and I would come in for another before I left. Because my brother was getting married in October, the time frame worked and I hoped to get an invite that would have me leaving shortly after the wedding.

After months of going back and forth to the doctor’s office, coaxing my dad to fax medical papers to PC DC and arguing with PC nurses, I finally received medical clearance. But, there was another problem.

Like every other federal program, Peace Corps was making cuts. They were not sending invitations until they had an approved budget, which took awhile. I was matched with a super sweet placement officer who promised me I would be the first to get an invitation as soon as they had an approval. Finally, in June, I received my invitation to serve in Lesotho as an education volunteer. I left in October 2011, four days after the wedding, and have been here since.

I first applied for the Peace Corps when I was 23 and became a volunteer when I was 25. I will end my service when I am 29. Nearly all of my 20s has been dedicated to the Peace Corps. Sometimes, I wonder if I will regret that but I doubt it.

Not everyone has had such tumultuous journey to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, but that just makes me appreciate it more. And, on these really tough days, it’s good to remember all the work and that it is absolutely worth it.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it. … It’s the hard that makes it great.” – A League of Their Own

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2 thoughts on “My Peace Corps Saga

  1. Heather, your dedication to following up on your dream is always inspiring to me, but I wanted to comment to thank you for including that quote from A League of Their Own at the end. It’s one of my favorites but I’d forgotten it, and I really needed it today. 🙂 There’s a letter on its way to you!

  2. Well done. I went into the Peace Corps after I graduated from college in 2007, when I was 24, served for 8 months, and subsequently ETed because I felt I was losing too much weight. Sometimes I regret it; most times I don’t. I worked for several years, went back to school, and now I am about to finish my master’s degree. I intend on applying for re-enrollment for the Peace Corps, despite my student loans (which can be deferred). By then, I would be 30. Like you, I have spent my 20s caring about the Peace Corps. I found this page by looking for stories like yours. Solidarity!

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