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2/5/09 What Comes Next: Your First Nine Months in Peace Corps

Every other day throughout February, I'll be posting information specifically targeted to potential Peace Corps Volunteers. My last PCInfo post (see labels below) was devoted to the timeline for applying to Peace Corps. Today, I'll discuss What Comes Next: Your First Nine Months.

So you've applied, interviewed, been nominated, been invited, and accepted your invitation.

Congratulations! So what happens now?

Pre-Service Training - 3 days: Welcome to Peace Corps, Trainee!

You're In The Peace Corps Now...but you're not in your country yet. In fact, you're not even a Volunteer yet. You won't become a Volunteer until you've sworn in, at the end of your training. For now, you're a Peace Corps Trainee. You'll spend two to three days in an American city, learning some basics about the Peace Corps, making sure that all of your paperwork was filled out correctly (and they collect it at the orientation session, so be sure it's done before you get there!), and meeting your fellow Peace Corps Trainees. These folks will be your support network for the next 27 months, so start getting to know them as soon as possible. I have more details about these days here, written back when I was going through it.

Pre-Service Training (PST): Welcome to Your New Country, Trainee!

This varies a bit by country, but the principles are the same. You're now a Peace Corps Trainee - PCT - and you'll spend something between 8 and 12 weeks being introduced to your new home. In Morocco, we spend the first few days in a major city near the coast, so the Peace Corps staff has easy access to us for medical things and overview sessions (and so anybody who gets cold feet can be quickly flown home), then move onto our Training City.

Once in your Training City, you'll begin learning your target language and some of the major ideas you'll bring to your work. What is the role of a Peace Corps Volunteer? What is the role of a PCV in development? What projects can you expect to work on? How will you engage in cultural exchange? Etc, etc, etc. Expect eight-hour days broken up into 2 hour sessions. If you've ever attended any kind of workshop or Management Training, you have some idea what to expect. Flip-chart paper, big markers, big ideas, group discussions... That's while you're in your Training City, ie a minority of PST/stage. (Given how many acronyms there are, everyone in Morocco refers to PST as "stage", with a French pronunciation - stahzh. I don't know how widespread it is, but I like it. The corollary is that your fellow PCTs are also known as your stage-mates.)

So if you're only in your Training City for a minority of the time, where are you for most of stage? Community-Based Training, aka CBT. You'll live in a village where they speak the language you're trying to learn. You'll live with a host family, with whom you'll spend evenings and weekends, and you'll spend your days studying language and culture. When I went through stage, we alternated between a week or two in CBT and a few days in our Training City...but the stage scheduled to start in March will be only be in the City for a week or two, and will spend the entire rest of stage in their CBT village. Here is the information about stage that Peace Corps sent me a week or two before I left the US.
Pre-Service Training + 5-8 weeks: Site Visit

A week or three before the end of stage, you'll take a visit to the site you've been assigned to. This is your chance to learn the route, experience unaccompanied travel in your country, meet your host family, and see your village. Most of us had a great site visit, but a few folks had a really wretched time, due to food poisoning or other complications. Two actually refused to serve in their village, because of the severity of their medical problems and the fact that there was no phone service (landline or cell phone) with which they could summon help. Peace Corps staff listened to their concerns, had some long conversations with them, and ultimately assigned them elsewhere.

Swearing-In: Par-tay!

Congratulations! You've successfully completed PST/stage. You've mastered a new language (more or less), you've learned what you're expected to do for the next two years, and you're being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This is a Life Moment, so don't be afraid to savor it. You'll hear speeches from your Ambassador or his/her designate, from your Country Director, and from the PCT with the highest score on the Language Proficiency test. Your host family will have been invited, so they'll get to see you with all your fellow Peace Corps folks. After the ceremony, you and your family get to feast at a banquet. When the banquet ends and the families go home, the newly-fledged Volunteers get to celebrate however they see fit. My swearing-in was held at a fancy hotel with a gorgeous pool (and I do mean *fancy* hotel - it's where Brad & Angelina stay when they're in Morocco!), so we all busted out the bathing suits and had a pool party. The details will vary, but trust me that this will be a celebratory moment for you - plus your last chance to socialize with your stage-mates, except for those few who are placed near you.

Swearing-In + 1 day: Leave Stage

It's time to say farewell to your training city, the Peace Corps staff, and your stage-mates. You'll probably travel with other Volunteers - there aren't *that* many transportation options in developing nations - so you'll get to postpone your goodbyes with a few for another couple of hours or even a day, but after that, it's time for homestay.

Swearing-In + 1 or 2 days: Homestay

Welcome to your new home! You've just arrived in your site. Your host family, who you met a couple weeks ago during your "site visit", helps you bring your belongings from the bus/tranzit/taxi station to their house, where you'll be living for the next two months. Here is your opportunity to enmesh yourself in the life of your village. Use it as best you can. Visit your neighbors. Help your family with their chores/work. (Girls, yes, you can go to the fields; guys, yes, you can help in the kitchen. You may need to insist, but they will eventually let you.) Befriend your siblings and their friends. And here's a tip: keep studying your language diligently. It's easy to slack off without the structure of stage, but trust me, the faster you're comfortable in your new tongue, the faster you'll be comfortable.

Swearing-In + 2 months: Leave homestay

It's time to say goodbye to the family that has hosted you, fed you, cared for you, and made you one of their own. Or, if you're in the unfortunate minority, you get your Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free-Card. Most of us enjoy our host families - I really love mine - but a few poor souls feel like they've been under house arrest. But however you feel about it, it's time for you to move into your own house/apartment and start taking care of yourself...unless you're in the tiny minority - no more than one or two per stage - who choose to stay with their host families for their entire two years of service.

Swearing-In + 5 to 6 months: In-Service Training (IST)

Spend a week in a Moroccan city with your entire stage. This is a blast for several reasons, not least of which is that you probably haven't seen more than a handful of your stage-mates since Swearing-In. But now you're all back together, in a city which undoubtedly has more going on than wherever you live, since Peace Corps doesn't place PCVs in major cities (for security reason). You'll present information on your site, discuss challenges and potential solutions, learn about applying for various kinds of funding, and hang out. You'll also get various vaccine boosters and your first in-person access to English-speaking doctors since stage.

After IST, you'll meet back up with your stage-mates at Mid-Service Medicals, at the one-year mark, and then again at your Close-of-Service conference, three months before you leave country. The rest of the time, your only exposure to other Volunteers comes through people posted to your region and any traveling you do. Does this sound lonely? It shouldn't. It just means that most of your friendships and interactions will be with Host Country Nationals, aka the people born and raised in your new country. This is a good thing; after all, two-thirds of the Peace Corps goals focus on cultural exchange. More on that next time, on February 7th...

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