Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps

2.24.2009

2/23/09 FAQs

How long will it take from when I submit my application to when I ship out?
Will I end up in a mud hut?
I'm [a minority]. How will that affect my experience?
What about gender roles? Is it hard being a woman in a Muslim country?
How far from modern amenities will I be?
What are the jargon words I'll absolutely have to know?

How long will it take from when I submit my application to when I ship out?

It varies, of course, depending on how rapidly they can clear you medically, legally, etc. The shortest I've ever heard of was 2 months, and she worked in a hospital, so could get all of her medical tests and bloodwork - the biggest culprit in the delay - as soon as she wanted them. Peace Corps says that the average timeline is 6 to 9 months. For more details on what to expect, check out this post.

Is it better to join Peace Corps straight out of college or after doing other things for a while?


There's no right answer to this one. I will give you two facts: Peace Corps is working hard to increase the number of older Volunteers, especially those over 55. I believe the oldest active PCV is 82, and he's on his third term of service. (Personally, I can't imagine a more fascinating retirement than to join Peace Corps and just keep re-upping after each experience. What a student of the world you could be!)

That said, the vast majority of Volunteers are fresh out of undergrad. Most don't ship out within the first month or two of graduation, but only because ship-out dates are pretty evenly spread throughout the year, so there's only a 1/12 chance that the country you've been nominated to will ship out in June. :) On March 1, when my Peace Corps service began, around 20 of the 26 Volunteers in my stage had graduated the previous May/June or December.

So wherever you are in life - an undergrad, at a mid-career crossroads, a retiree - if Peace Corps is calling to you, give yourself a chance to listen to the call. Maybe it's time to live the life that so many people have longed for: traveling the world, immersing yourself in a foreign culture and language, broadening your definition of yourself.

Will I end up in a mud hut?

Maybe! Peace Corps still serves many deeply impoverished regions in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia where the most common accommodation is, yes, a mud hut. But Volunteers also serve in Eastern Europe, in Central America, and pretty much all around the globe, in every climate and in cities of every size. Urban Volunteers and those living in "developing", as opposed to "under-developed" nations, usually live in houses or apartments. Me, I live in a cement house with a steel door.

I'm [a minority]. How will that affect my experience?

Every PCV's experience is different, of course, and I hate to make sweeping generalizations...but then, that is sort of what I've been doing all month, so why stop now?

I should say that "Political Correctness" has not percolated into many of the countries where we serve, so people will probably not hesitate to comment on any perceived difference between you and them. *Any* difference. Height, shoe size, skin color, clothing choices, you name it. Also, people living in isolated areas have little chance to learn about the diversity of the world, other than what they see on TV. I've encountered some shockingly ignorant comments, even from educated people, because all they have to go on is their own prejudices and what they learn from movies and the international media.

You may encounter the belief that all Americans are pale-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, and therefore be challenged that you're not "really" American. Or, if you can "pass" for a native of the country where you serve, you may be criticized for acting differently than natives are expected to. For example, in Morocco it's inappropriate for women and girls to go into public restaurants and cafes, and no good Moroccan female would set foot in a bar...so my friends who "look Moroccan" have been turned away by bouncers and maitre d's, been refused service at bars, and generally held to a different set of expectations than those who meet the stereotypical image of Americans. Also, many folks here know little about Asian cultures, and assume that all Asian-looking people are Chinese. A Vietnemese-American friend of mine said that the first full sentence she learned, and she learned it in both Tamazight and Darija, ie the language of her village and the language of bigger cities, is how to say, "No, I'm American, but my parents came to America from Vietnam a long time ago." Every day, where I hear "Tarumit, tarumit!" (Foreign girl!), she hears "Chinois" (pronounced sheen-wa, the French word for "Chinese") and "Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan!". A dark-skinned African-American friend hears "Senagalese! Senagalese!"

I don't mean to sound discouraging; my goal here is honesty. And honestly, the best way for isolated citizens in the Third World to learn about American diversity and world diversity is to meet "diverse Americans". To see Americans of Indian and African and Asian and Latin and Native American descent, and get to know and love them.

Every Volunteer faces his or her own set of challenges. Diverse Volunteers whose deviation from the stereotyped norm is not visible, such as members of a minority religion or sexual orientation, have to make the choice of whether to publicize their difference, and live with the consequences of that choice. Here in Morocco, Jewish Volunteers may hear vehement anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments. Homosexuality is a crime, and widely considered a perversion. So do you tell the truth about yourself, risk the possible censure and distancing of your friends and neighbors, and even the chance to do work, if people stop collaborating with you? Or do you hide the truth, hide yourself away, and present a more publicly acceptable, if painfully dishonest, face?

We all have our own challenges. But they're also our own unique opportunities, whether it's to correct stereotypes, or to erode prejudices, or even just to educate. Foreign nationals will learn more about America by our very presence here than by anything we do deliberately. So we all, of whatever age, skin tone, background, religion, sexual orientation--of whatever piece of Americana we represent--we're here to bring the world a little closer together.

What about gender roles? Is it hard being a woman in a Muslim country?

I can't speak for Volunteers in Jordon or other Muslim countries, but here in Morocco, the answer for many of us would be that we're in the "third gender". Moroccans see enough tourists to realize that the customs governing the behavior and dress of Moroccan women don't have to apply to non-Moroccan women. (Of course, this means that friends who do look Moroccan have a different set of challenges, as I discussed before.) There are a few, very remote, very conservative villages where the female Volunteers have found that they need to dress identically to the women in their community in order to be accepted. Most of us do not experience that. I brought scarves to Morocco in case I'd need to "cover", as they say here, but I've never been expected to. I've gotten dressed up in Berber clothes more than once, from the top of my covered head to my bangled wrists to my henna'd toes, but it was always for fun - playing dress-up. I am expected to dress modestly, to show no skin from my neck to my elbows to my ankles, but that's mostly because Moroccan prostitutes wear revealing clothing as a signal to their potential clients, and my friends and neighbors don't want me to send inadvertant signals. Gender roles in Morocco, as in many developing and under-developed countries, are very different...but not uniformly so. In some villages, it's shameful for women to work in the fields. In others, it's shameful for them *not* to. Regardless, as a non-Moroccan woman, I'm invited to share in whatever customs I choose to, but my choices are respected, either way. My neighbors all think it's odd that I buy bread in the shop instead of kneading it myself, but they don't look down on me for it. It's just another arumi oddity, like wearing a parka or having pale skin. A male friend got stares from the women in his village when he did make his own bread, on an external wood stove like everyone else's in town, but they decided (after they got over the shock of seeing a man kneading) that they liked him for it.

That said, the experience of PCVs in Morocco varies widely, and I'm sure the spectrum of acceptable and unacceptable behavior is different in whatever country you serve in. This is one area where I can't give you a clear expectation before you go. You'll just have to go and figure it out. Flexibility, remember, patience and flexibility. :)

How far from modern amenities will I be?

It absolutely varies. If you're serving in a big city, they may all be within a few blocks of your doorstep. If you're in a tiny rural village, you may have none. Here in Morocco, just one country the size of California, we have PCVs living without electricity or water...and we have Volunteers in Posh Corps with hot showers and wireless internet at home. You'll get some say in how "posh" your post is. By which I mean, you can talk to your recruiter about it, and then once you're in-country, you'll have an interview with your staff

What are the jargon words I'll absolutely have to know?

Well, they introduce them a few at a time, so you'll learn them easily, but here's a short list:

Country Director - The buck stops there. Well, for your country anyway. They can always reach up the food chain to Peace Corps/Washington, the world headquarters, but within your country, the Country Director has the final say on matters of policy, making exceptions to the rules, deciding whether to send you home (Administrative Separation), etc.
Program Staff - The shorthand for referring to your Program Manager and/or Program Assistant. As in, I contacted my Program Staff about taking vacation next month, but haven't heard back yet.
Program Manager - The head of your sector. As an Environmental Education volunteer, I get training, resources, guidance, and work ideas from the Environment Program Manager. Each sector gets its own PM.
Program Assistant - The right-hand man or woman to your Program Manager. The job responsibilities differ on levels I don't see, like in setting the major goals and country plan for the sector, which I think is just done by the PM, but in terms of PCV-Program Staff relations and support, the PA can generally do whatever the PM does.
PCT - Peace Corps Trainee - Someone newly arrived in country, still going through training (aka stage). This is what you'll be from the day you travel to your American jumping-off point until the moment you swear in, 8-12 weeks later.
PCV - Peace Corps Volunteer - You, after swearing-in. A Peace Corps term consists of 2-3 months of training as a PCT followed by 24 months of service as a PCV. We usually refer to it all as "two years", just because it's simpler, but you'll be in-country for 26-27 months.
HCN - Host Country National - Someone who was born and raised in the country where you serve. Here, the HCNs are Moroccans, but for a PCV in the Ukraine, the HCNs are Ukranians. By referring to them as "HCNs", Peace Corps/Washington can make policy that affects all countries, without having to belabor "Moroccans and Ukranians and Russians and Jamaicans and South Africans and..." every time.
In-country - The shorthand way to say "in your assigned Peace Corps country." As in, How long have you been in-country? or I went home for Yom Kippur but got back in-country a week ago.
PCMO - Peace Corps Medical Officer - One of the doctors or nurses responsible for you. Here in Morocco, we have two doctors and one nurse, all HCNs fluent in English. They're collectively referred to as PCMO. One of them will be available by phone 24/7 (assuming you can get to a phone), as in, Ooh, you did you call PCMO about that?

I think that's all the ones you'll use in your daily conversation with fellow Volunteers. Those are the ones I've found myself using (or consciously avoiding) on the blog, just because they're part of my ingrained vocabulary.

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