Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor...

Ok, not really, but I want to step back from my ruminations about the Peace Corps for a moment and talk about another group that I've volunteered with and believe very strongly in.

Tonight was my last meeting as a Trustee of Windsor County Partners, and I would like to mark this occasion by asking you all to give a little something to this wonderful organization.

In December of 2009, I was approached by a member of the Windsor County Democratic Committee, which I was involved with at the time, to see if I would be interested in serving on the board of a local nonprofit. The gentleman who approached me was on the board of this group, and said they were interested in inviting me because I was much younger than their typical board members, and because I am an attorney. He thought that, for those reasons, I would be able to lend a valuable perspective to the board.

I met with him and WCP's Executive Director over breakfast a few weeks later, and was really excited about what I learned. See, WCP is a 35 year old non-profit with its headquarters located in Windsor, Vermont. WCP's mission is to provide volunteer mentors to the children of Windsor County. We focus on high quality matches, which means that our Executive Director makes sure, through detailed applications and interviews, to match a Senior Partner--a volunteer from the community--with a Junior Partner--a kid from a local school--who has similar interests and is in geographic proximity with the SP. This last part is important, because WCP expects the partners to meet two hours a week. WCP also does a lot to support the partnerships by keeping in contact with both partners to make sure everything is running smoothly.

During my tenure as a Trustee and then as Treasurer, WCP significantly expanded its mission by adopting a school-based mentoring organization in Springfield, Vermont that was in danger of going out of business. This group, called "Let's Do Lunch" matches a child in the Springfield schools with a community member for a one-hour lunch meeting once a week. This adoption was big for both WCP and mentoring in Vermont, and the program has been wildly successful there.

I did a lot while volunteering with WCP. Our board is a working board, and we spend hours each month doing everything we can to make sure this group remains healthy so it can continue to serve the children of Windsor County for another 35 years, and beyond. Over my year and a half working with the group, I came to deeply respect each and every board member and staff person for the level of dedication and love they have for this organization and its goals. Their work was unparalleled, and I was proud to work with them.

WCP is fortunate in that it recently received a matching grant from the Permanent Fund of Vermont. Through that fund, donations to WCP are being matched dollar-for-dollar until the end of June.

As my last act as a Trustee of this organization that I have come to love and believe in over my short time working with it, I want to ask you, dear reader, to give a few dollars--whatever you can spare--to help insure that the kids of Windsor County will continue to have this awesome resource for years to come. Again, this is a perfect time to give because of our matching grant.

Donations can be made out to Windsor County Partners and sent to PO Box 101, Windsor, VT 05089.

Thank you for any help you can give, and I will now return you to my regularly scheduled ramblings about the Peace Corps, already in progress.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adventures in Applicationland

After being a Peace Corps Applicant twice over the past three years, I've come to a simple conclusion about the Peace Corps Application Process: its job is to weed people out, to challenge them, to see if they'll quit, so the Peace Corps can be sure that living in a third world country for 27 months won't make them do just that.

As I said, I've gone through this application process twice. The first time weeded me out pretty quickly, and I think that was good. My desire to join the Corps the first time around wasn't very well thought out. I didn't know as much about it as I should as I struggled through the two separate twenty page applications, and at the first sign of difficulty I balked. I learned a lot from that, a lot from the nagging feeling that in quitting so easily I denied myself what could have been one of the most awesome and significant experiences of my life. I also learned a lot more about the Peace Corps, and when I applied the second time around, my expectations were a lot more realistic.

I had actually thought that after dropping my application the first time around that the opportunity was gone. Based on absolutely nothing except my assumption that once you apply for something and unceremoniously drop it that they wouldn't even look at your application again, I figured that I would have to wait years at the very least to ever apply to the Peace Corps again.

Fortunately I was wrong. Almost a year ago I was standing outside under the pine tree when I got an e-mail. Apparently the Peace Corps had more funding than they expected, and they wanted me to reactivate my application. I took a few days to think about it, to talk it over with my wife and some friends, but I knew the second I got that e-mail that I was ready this time, that I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The reapplication process was pretty painless. I called the office in Boston, told them I wanted to reactivate my application, and within a day or two a recruiter called me. We chatted a little bit and set up an appointment for an interview at the end of July. When that day finally came, I took the Dartmouth Coach down to Boston, stayed the night at this cool little boutique hotel in the Back Bay, and, the next morning, took the T in to the Federal Building. I had an excellent, rambling three-hour conversation with my recruiter. I was open to teaching English this time around (I wasn't open to it the first time around, and that was the main reason I withdrew my application), but my recruiter seemed more interested in my work on the Board of Trustees of Windsor County Partners and in my experience as an attorney. He asked me all sorts of questions, and apparently it went well because at the end of the interview, he said, "I'm nominating you to become a Peace Corps Volunteer." He talked to me about various programs he felt I was qualified for, and told me he'd get back to me in a couple of days about my nomination.

When I finally heard back from him, I was in luck. I had two options: a nomination for teaching English in Indonesia, or a "provisional nomination" as an NGO specialist in the Caucasus region. The second one was my dream position, and I said yes. He said he needed to get approval from Washington since I didn't meet the educational requirements for that position (hence it being a provisional nomination), but he was sure that between being a lawyer, a teacher, and on the board of a non-profit, they'd say yes.

Less than a week later, I got an e-mail confirming my nomination.

After getting nominated, the next step was the (miserable) medical and dental clearance process. I don't want to dwell too much on this because it was a significantly unfun period in my life, and more than once I thought it was going to do me in. The dental part sucked, mostly because I hadn't had dental insurance for years and thus needed a lot of work done. I was in the dentist so much over three months that I became fast friends with my dentist and his staff. At one point he even jokingly suggested that I should take over one of their spare rooms as an office since I was at the dentist more than I was at work.

The medical clearance went fine as I'm in relatively good health, but, having a few chronic conditions, my doctor had to fill out reams of paperwork and then had to fill out even more paperwork after the (dreaded) Office of Medical Services, or OMS, decided it didn't like some of the first set of paperwork. It worked out fine in the end, but there were a few hairy moments there that added to the grey streaks that the bar exam had already put in my hair.

Not two days after I got medical clearance, I get an e-mail from placement saying they needed an updated resume ASAP so they could begin placing me. Things started feeling very real. I combed over my resume, got everything together, put it in the format they wanted, and, less than two days later, I got them my resume…and then didn't hear from them for two months.

This was another stressful two months, because it involved no news whatsoever, just waiting for a call with a DC area code or an e-mail or something, something that would let me know if I was about to go live in a third world country for two years or if I should start applying for new jobs, or whatever. More grey hair appeared, until, finally, one day, I got an e-mail from my Placement Officer. She wanted to have an interview with me at 9:30 AM the next Monday. I said that would be fine, and spend the next week trying to anticipate what questions they might ask me and what my answers would be.

As luck would have it, two days before my placement interview, I completely and utterly lost my voice. I couldn't believe it: here I was, on the threshold of the interview that I had been preparing and hoping for over months and months, and I couldn't speak even a single word. I spent the entire weekend in bed, drinking copious amounts of tea, and not speaking a word to anyone for any reason.

When Monday morning finally rolled around, I could hardly speak, was on multiple cold medicines, and hadn't slept well in days, but I was determined to get through the interview, come what may. The interview focused mainly on two points: 1) why I thought it was OK to be a PCV without my wife/why serving without my wife wouldn't make me quit early; and, 2) why I got three speeding tickets 11 years ago (the answer I gave, word for word: "I was young and stupid."). Yes, these were the two things that the Peace Corps, after all these applications, all these essays, all these medical reviews, wanted to know about me. I guess my answers were fine because after the interview the Placement Officer told me she had something in mind for me, and gave me a vague description of being an NGO volunteer. I told her that was my dream job, and we got off the phone.

Two days later, I woke up at 8 AM, and checked my e-mail, like I do every morning. Whenever anything happens to your Peace Corps application, you get this e-mail saying that your online status has been updated and to check the website, and one of those e-mails was sitting in my inbox. Unfortunately for me, the website tends to choke my internet connection (yay dialup). At any rate, the way I found out I was a PCV was when I clicked "log in" and saw the URL change to a string of characters which included the word "invitee." I didn't actually get to look at the website until I got to work a few hours later, but I raised my arms up above my head--victory. Getting invited to the Peace Corps was one of the happiest moments of my life. After all the time, expense, and anxiety of the application process, it was done. I was invited, and I was crying tears of joy.

It's been a blur since then. I ran afoul of OMS for getting sick for a couple of weeks, but it all worked out in the end. I got my Big Blue Envelope, found out that I was, indeed, just as I wanted, going to be a NGO/Community Development Volunteer in Armenia, and that I was leaving June 1. I started taking steps to transfer my cases, started to figure out what needs to be done to sell my house, and started to make lists on packing, on things I need to buy, on forms I need to fill out.

As of writing this post I am about fifty days out from my staging date. That seems like forever, but I know that, before I know it, I will be on a plane to Armenia. And then, this entire adventure of the past few years, of slogging through the application process, getting more dental work done than I thought possible, and dealing with the inevitable bureaucracy, will be done.

Then the real adventure will begin.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Liminal States

When you choose to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you choose to step in to a new world, a world where the boundaries begin to blur, where the familiar becomes strange, and where your concept of home begins to dissolve long before you step on the plane.

It's hard to describe what I'm going through right now. I know that in two months I'll be half a world away, trying to navigate a new country, new friends, new alphabet, new family, new job. Everything here has an expiration date on it. How many more times will I see those friends? When will I visit my family before I go? How many more days before my things must be packed, my life put in storage? The liminality is overwhelming.

As melancholy as those thoughts are, this liminal state has been one to revel in as well.  The idea of doing things "for the last time" electrifies everything. I know that in two months this huge chapter is opening up in my life, something that I am privileged to experience. Two years volunteering, serving a foreign country, giving my time to help see that county improve. Two years learning about new foods, new music, new friends, new people, new ways of living.  Two years seeing the world in a way that few other Americans have had the chance to see it, by being immersed in the life of another country.

This is the liminal state I live in right now, one I do not see an end to anytime soon.  Transitioning between worlds, trying to retain my American identity while trying to learn as much as I can from my life in Armenia. Seeing what life looks like outside the safe, beautiful Green Mountains I have called home for nine years. And forever living with the new perspective that only an experience like the Peace Corps can bring.