Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Rollercoaster Ride that is My Life

Oh boy, where to start. Well here's a little glimpse into what I have been through in the past year or so.  A quick summary, if you will. When I get a chance I will update this to be alot more thorough.

August 2009-Submitted my very lengthy application.  It consisted of several essays on cultural experience, motivation, goals, etc; three letters of recommendation; and a complete background check, including legal, financial, and all that good stuff.

September 2009-nothing exciting happened. just waiting to hear if I would be accepted to interview with a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) in the Regional Headquarters in New York.

October 2009-Still waiting. This is something I will get VERY used to.

November 2009-Granted an interview in New York.  This means that from my application I am deemed qualified, based on my skill set, to serve as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer).

On November 9th, I travelled to NYC via Amtrak to interview with a RPCV in the region headquarters at 2pm.  I studied a list of possible questions that the interviewer would ask on a peace corps wiki site, and thank god I did, because they were the exact questions I was asked word for word.  Overall I thought the interview went well, but there were some areas I could have expanded on.  My interviewer said I could expect to hear an answer in about two weeks if I would be nominated or not.  
When I woke up the next morning, I found that I had an email from her.  In it, it stated that I was nominated to teach math in Africa leaving in September of 2010.  The way this step works is if you are qualified skill wise and, I guess personality-wise, you get nominated.  What that means is I am qualified and able to teach math based on my engineering degree.  I was scheduled to leave in September of 2010, because, I was still under the assumption I would be able to finish my degree on time (June 2010) and therefore would have three months for myself to travel and visit everyone before I left for 27 months. I was also nominated for a general region (Africa).  This was based on my preference, or lack there of.  I said I was willing to go anywhere, and it just so happened that Africa is where my skills were needed first based on my availability.  Unfortunately, I was told that no matter that I was a perfect match for doing Environmental and Sustainable Engineering projects in South and Central America, I would not be nominated for these programs because I did not speak Spanish.  Oh well, I am happy with going to Africa.  
I was also told that I would receive the Medical Packet in the mail within a few weeks.  Once I received it, I would have about three months to complete it and send it back.  This is where things start to go downhill.

December 2009-By now, I had just started feeling better after having E.Coli from drinking some contaminated water in Jamaica, while on an assessment trip for Engineers Without Borders.  This slight incident put a wrench in my plan for the upcoming year.  Because of the E.Coli, I had missed about six weeks of school, in the fall term of my senior year.  I needed to finish my research and begin writing my thesis, as well as take about six graduate courses.  To make matters worse, I then got Swine Flu on top of it.  I was constantly playing catch up with school work and consequently could not start writing my thesis.  This would set me back about three months.  
Now, in addition to playing catch up with school work, I had to prove to Peace Corps that I was healthy enough to go abroad for 27 months.  I guess for normal people this wouldnt have been such a big deal. Everyone gets a cold, the flu, E.Coli, right?  Yeah well ok, that might not be thatttttt big a deal, since if I do go abroad I can definitely count on having E.Coli or another GI water-borne disease during my service.  But to make things fun, I am severely, to the point where I can die, allergic to Peanuts and Walnuts. oh and I have a history of asthma and a bee sting allergy. Right of the bat, Peace Corps has a disclaimer, if you have any number of certain diseases you will most likely not be accepted.  Severe allergies were on this list.  But I had a very encouraging friend who was also a PCV in Jamaica that pushed me to apply anyways, and that, I am a very qualified individual and that my motivation and drive would shine through: Peace Corps would make it work for someone like me.  She turned out to be right, and I could not have gone through this process without her.  Thank you so much Lindsay.  
Anyways, back to my history of illness.  so yeah, I needed to convince Peace Corps I was medically fit to go abroad where the likelihood of having medical facilities accessible was virtually non-existant.  During December, I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed, as requested by Peace Corps and recommended by my dentist.  That was fun.  Also during this time, I was in and out of my primary care doctor due to the after effects of the E.coli and the swine flu.  I had been multiple times for blood work, because my lymph nodes would not go back to the normal size.  It was apparent something was wrong, but no doctor could determine what it was, and no amount of blood work would turn up anything out of the ordinary.

January 2010-I continue with all my Peace Corps Medical paperwork.  This includes a physical, blood work for things I had never heard of (example: GP3 something, which determines if your able to take malaria pills), urinalysis, and numerous shots.  I had to get ANOTHER MMR and Polio booster shot. Ouch! In addition, I had to go to the Eye Doctor, back to the Dentist for more X-Rays to prove that my wisdom teeth were in fact removed, and to my PHCP (Primary health care physician) numerous times for signatures.  Also during this time, luckily my Pediatrician is a family friend, because I needed records of all my immunizations.  I also thought I would have to go back to the Allergist to prove the severity of my allergies.  Luckily, the Peace Corps OMS (Office of Medical Services) told me that I should only have to provide my history.  So here I go again, calling and asking for all my files sent to me.  I cant even tell you how many times I went into Yury's Office to use the Fax machine to send/receive my medical files and give authorization to have them released.  It took forever!

February 2010-I think by now I have finally sent in all my last paperwork.  Phew! Thats done, for now at least.  Its all out of my hands now.  Now I just wait for an answer.

March 2010-Waiting, waiting, waiting.  Perhaps during this time, I was contacted for supplemental forms, but honestly I cant remember, its a bit of a blur.

April 2010-This time sticks out in my mind in particular.  Its been months since I have sent in my medical forms and I just want an answer.  I cant take the waiting.  If you are going to reject me, just do it already.  It was the end of Spring Break (I had gone on Alternative Spring Break to South Carolina), all the girls on the trip had gotten wish bracelets?  I naturally had wished for an answer regarding my medical clearance, with no hope that this stupid bracelet would actually work.  It was the next week after I had returned home to school.  It had broke on a tuesday night.  
Wednesday I had a letter in the mail from OMS.  It stated that I had been conditionally medically cleared.  What this meant was I was cleared but could only go to certain places based on my medical needs.  It stated that Peace Corps would do its best to accommodate my needs, but at times it was simple impossible, albeit rare.  Wow. What a relief! I was actually cleared medically to go and serve!!!!

May 2010-So for normal applicants who dont have any medical issues, they would be medically cleared and placed to a country and program relatively soon.  In my case, Peace Corps needed to do an extra step before I could be invited. This obviously meant more waiting...Oh and now Im back in the doctors because I havent had my period in over 7 months.  This cant be healthy.  More bloodwork, nothing.  Everything comes back perfectly normal.  Maybe its because I have lost more than 20 lbs in about five weeks when I had E.coli and still have yet to gain it back. Maybe its because my immune system is stilled messed up, maybe its stress.  The doctors give me a 100 different reasons.

June 2010-Waiting..Waiting..Starting to get a little nervous since I was supposed to have graduated by now, but yeah because of that stupid E.coli I was way behind schedule. So now the pressure was on to finish, wait I should say START my thesis and then finish it all by September, which was when I was scheduled to leave. 

End of June, I traveled to Kansas City, MO for my roommates graduation party.  First night Im there, I end up in the ER due to an acute allergic reaction.  I think to myself, GREAT! I just spent 4 months trying to convince Peace Corps that I am healthy and that my allergy is controlled, possibly even less severe because I havent had a reaction in more than 10 years.  And now im in the ER, my body covered in hives and a throat that is slowly swelling shut. GREAT GREAT GREAT.  And now I have to send all the ER paperwork and reports to OMS.  Im surely going to be rejected now.  My dream is over.

July 2010-Writing writing writing my thesis.  It sucks. I have no life.  and Im so afraid PC is going to reject me now.  I procrastinate at sending the ER Report, and partly because I am caught up in my thesis I forget. Eventually, I get around to it.  End of July I get an email from a PC Rep.  It states that she needs copies of my Official Transcripts showing the date my degree was completed in full.  Im freaking out.  I still havent technically graduated. I am only about half way done with my thesis.  OMG after all this medical stuff and now Im not going to be able to serve because I didnt graduate on time.  She also needs an update resume to include any new volunteer experience and a Skill Set form outlining all my skills and any professional development courses I have taken, etc. At the bottom it says not to send anything unless its all at once.  Great now I have to wait until I graduate. Everything is over. Im not going to graduate until september which is when I was supposed to leave.  She calls a week later, but I miss the call.  On the voicemail she says that if she doesnt hear from me by the end of the week, she will consider it that I am no longer interested in serving as a PCV and my application will be withdrawn.  Im panicking. I call her back immediately and explain the situation. She explains to me that she really only needs my resume and skill set form.  The transcripts are more of a formality and those can be sent later.  Crises averted. Phew!  Again that is, but not for long Im sure.

August 2010-I have sent the ER Report and now Im just waiting to be rejected, even after making it this far.  Im so close to an invitation and now this stupid allergy is going to ruin it for me.  August 9th: I receive an email from my PO (Placement Officer). She explains that she as completed the preliminary review of my placement but would like to know how I feel about service, since its been so long that I first applied.  She asks a series of questions and I am required to answer them and send them back to her.  She also includes a note about my medical clearance:

Medical accommodations are quite common and are given to some applicants who, as determined by the Office of Medical Services (OMS), are allowed to serve in only specific countries and/or sites where Peace Corps can medically accommodate Volunteers. Now she need to grant me placement clearance and from there it will go to OMS to be cleared medically. 

As soon as I grant you placement clearance then I will need to submit a request to OMS to ensure that Peace Corps can medically accommodate you in the country where I would like to place you. It is not until I receive approval on the medical accommodation that I can issue your invitation to serve. In the event OMS is able to approve my request then I will be able to move forward with an invitation immediately thereafter. In the event OMS is unable to approve this request then I will identify another program match for you and request approval, and so on and so forth. Great, she needs to approve me for a program and then OMS needs to approve the same one based on my medical needs and accommodations.  How likely is it that they will both agree on one.  And now shes telling me it can take up to three weeks.  The pressure is too much! But I just need to focus on my thesis so I can graduate.  This process can go on forever, what if there isnt a program that im skilled for in a location that can accommodate my medical needs? Im freaking out.

In the event OMS cannot approve my requests for Education placements in the Africa region then, in order to 'cast a wide net' and increase your chances of receiving a placement, I will need to explore other regions and perhaps other sectors (i.e. Science Education, Agriculture, etc). I understand you did express flexibility and willingness to serve where possible based on Peace Corps' greatest need, an admirable trait Peace Corps looks for in all applicants. I assume you are still flexible and willing to accept an invitation, regardless of the location.

Luckily based on my answers to her questions, she qualifies me for placement.  Now I just need to wait. what a surprise that is! Ha! In turn I have my own questions.  Its now August, and I was supposed to leave in September, thats not feasible is it? No she tells me, but shes waiting medical approval for programs in Africa that leave in October and November 2010. Looks like Im still going to Africa!

August 16th, I am at Rosemary's (the Vice Principal of Our Mother of Sorrows, who has been a very important person throughout my application as well!) house dogsitting, I am explaining to her the latest updates in my process, when the phone rings.  Its a 202 number.  By now, I recognize 202 to be Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC.  I answer the phone.  Its a Rep from OMS. She wants to discuss my ER Report.  She asks me some questions; why didnt I use my epipen? Do I know how to use it? Would I use it if I had to? Would I know when I needed to? Overall it was not a very promising call.  She sounded very unsure that I could take care of myself in the event of an emergency.  I was freaking out (again).  This was the end.  I was SOOO close to an invitation.  I had been in contact with the PO things were moving along and now this call.  the Rep at OMS said she need to talk to the doctor and reach a conclusion.  Im heartbroken.  But now all I can do is wait. wait. wait.

August 25th I wake up to find an email.  The subject line is: Peace Corps Invitation.  I nearly die. Finally, I made it! Im going to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Dear Valarie-

I have received medical approval to send you an invitation to an Africa Secondary Math Teaching Program departing in early November.  It will go out in the mail tomorrow, via UPS.  You will learn which country you were invited to upon receipt of the package!


For me this is the most magical news I have ever read.  But I feel bad that this news comes on Chris's birthday. :-(  What a horrible birthday present, to know that your girlfriend is leaving in 2 months.

Anyways, the invitation is going to my permanent address at my parents house and Im still in Philly. But I'll be going home this weekend, but can I wait to open the letter myself? I tell my mom not to open it, and that I want to open it myself to find out exactly where Ill be going.  Friday comes, and the letter comes.  I cant wait. I tell my mom to open it and call me immediately with the news.  Im going to Lesotho November 2nd. Im ecstatic. I can barely concentrate on moving out and finishing my thesis because I am so excited and just want to learn as much about Lesotho as I can.
By the end of the following week I have to confirm my acceptance as well as send an Aspiration Statement and another updated resume.  I need to apply for my Special Govt Passport as soon as possible as well. Im officially going to Lesotho now! OMG!!!! and in a week I will officially have a Masters in Materials Science and Engineering, my thesis defense will be over! and did I mention, Im going to Africa to be a Peace Corps Volunteer!!!!!!

September 2010-I successfully finish my thesis (all 204 pages of it) and defend (I passed), giving my best public speaking appearance to date.  I couldnt be happier.  Except for one thing.  Not a small thing either.  On the front page of CNN and the PC website an article concerning a PCV in Lesotho-the country I am schedule to serve in for the next 27 months in about 2 months.  A Volunteer was shot and killed.  Such horrible news no matter what the circumstance.  But this is just awful. Why would something like this happen at all, let alone in the country I am supposed to serve in?  My family will not respond well to this, they are already nervous about my imminent departure to a third world country in Africa. I expect to hear something from PC within the next few days about it, but nothing.  So I continue to prepare myself for service.  
I enjoy the last few weeks in Philly and plan a trip to Florida to visit my Grandparents and Lauren, and then to LA, Cali to visit Lesli!  

Ocotober 2010-By now all of the staging info has come.  I will be flying out of Philly on Nov 1st. How ironic.  I just left philly, my home, and now I am going back one last time before I leave the country for 27 months.  I plan for Chris to pick me up from the airport to see each other one last time. 
By the time I return from my Farewell Travels I only have two and a half weeks before I am scheduled to leave (Monday Nov 1st at 7am), and the time is precious and booked solid with stuff to do and people to see.  I will be having a farewell party October 16th and the following weekend is my best friend Stacey's Engagement party.  The last weekend I will be in the States my mom plans to have the family holidays all in one day.  Thanksgiving has always been our favorite holiday.  My brothers will be traveling home from Washington DC to celebrate thanksgiving, Christmas and my birthday all in two days (and I guess halloween too, since its the last day I'll be here).  Then its off to Philly for a day to meet all the other PCVs and get the last of the shots and fill out and hand in the last of the paperwork.  Then on tuesday Nov 2nd at 2 am we will leave to go to JFK where its off to Africa! 

But before all that, I get a phone call.  A phone call that will change my life forever.

October 12th: I am enjoying my last day in LA with Lesli.  We are at an Art Museum and the weather is absolutely gorgeous.  We had just about gotten there when my phone rang.  It was my mom.  I answer.  She tells me that PC called and they need to talk to me immediately.  I try to get all the facts, but she doesnt really have a clue.  The PC rep didnt give any info other than that she needed to speak with me as soon as possible.  My mom gives me the number of the Rep and I call her. She answers and asks if I have a minute to talk.  Then she tells me: You will no longer be able to go to Lesotho. I immediately break into tears but try to hold them back so I can get some answers. At first I think it is due to my allergy and think to myself, now, you wait until now to tell me I can go? I ask why and she explains the situation.  There was some violence involving a PCV and PC has deemed the country not safe enough to send new volunteers.  The program has been canceled indefinitely, but they are working to re-place me as quickly as possible, my understanding and flexibility is appreciated.  She asks if Id like to be transferred to the placement office. Im switched over, but get no answer.  I hang up and cry hysterically for about 15 minutes.  Im outside, but being that I am at an Art museum there is a statue behind me and people are trying to take pictures.  They got a bonus, me in the background hysterical. A guard tries to pry and ask whats wrong, but at this point I am on the phone with my mom, so I shoo her away. 
I cannot begin to describe how I felt.  I was absolutely heartbroken.  Mentally I was already in Lesotho.  I was completely devastated.  I never cried so hard in my life.  I felt like part of me died.  This may sound a bit extreme, but oh well.  When you give everything for one goal and then two weeks before its taken away from you, then maybe you will understand. 

I return home, and decide to still have the Farewell Party.  This is just another bump along the way, and I will still be leaving, just not for another couple months and to a completely different country. No Big Deal.  The party was fun, but after only 3 days I am still devastated and not in a good mindset.  Family Holidays were temporarily postponed, until when I actually leave.  Instead I go to Philly to visit Chris.  

While in Philly, I have the opportunity to represent Drexel EWB at the PaAWWA Conference and I also get to Substitute teach at Our Mother of Sorrows as well as speak to the 6th grade class about my service.  I will be corresponding with the 6th graders to teach them about another country/culture and to teach the community I serve about me and where I come from.  The students have many questions and overall they seem excited about the connection.

So on friday October 15th I had the first correspondence with my new PC PO.  She explained to me that they were working as hard and fast as they could to place me in a new country.  However, as I explained before I had the extra bonus of having to be medically approved before I could be invited.  Unlike the first round, they would submit a request to Medical to all the countries that I was skill-wise qualified for. These countries included Belize, Guyana, Ukraine and Eastern Caribbean.  And I would no longer be doing Math Education, but instead could be doing Youth Development or Community Health. 

Also unlike the first round, I had the choice of which country I would ultimately end up going to.  She told me that the request was being expedited but it could take a few days.  So I had no answer to give any one at the Party.  The following week I call.  Get no answer, but leave a message.  My call was returned but there is no answer for me yet.  However, she tells me that I have been approved and cleared for EC (Eastern Caribbean-Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada and Carriacou, St. Lucia,  St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis). Although this was news to me.  Originally, I was only informed of Belize, Guyana and Ukraine.  This was definitely good news.  But I still wanted to wait to hear back from the other countries before I made my decision. 

Another week passes and I can only get through to a voice mail-still no answer. Finally, friday October 22nd, I am told still no answer about medical clearance and she will be out the entire following week.  Sometimes it can take a while, my files need to be encrypted to the country and the country must make a decision and it can take a while with lack of telecommunication and a number of other factors.  By Nov 1st, she reassures me I will have an answer, but If it were up to her she would just accept the EC program.  She informs me that it is my best option, and I am most qualified for this program, not to mention it leaves the soonest (end of January). I tell her I will call her back by the end of the day with my decision.  An hour goes by, and I decide that I need to wait. I call back and ask if I do not accept the EC program now, will I lose my spot.  I am assured that my spot is reserved, so I tell her that I need to wait until I hear back from the other countries.

November 2010-Ironically enough I was riding on a train from Philly back to Troy, NY.  Never thought I'd be back in Philly so soon, but I did miss it already and it was great to be back so soon.  
So when I had taken that train ride along the Hudson River about a month and a half ago, thinking to myself this will be the last time I do this, here I am doing it again on the exact day I was supposed to be heading to Lesotho. Nov 1st goes by and I hear nothing from PC.  Tuesday I decide to call, but again no answer.  Wednesday goes by and I just dismiss hearing anything anytime soon. By now, I have given up most hope of having an answer let alone my dreams of being a volunteer.  

Thursday I am awoken by the annoying ring of my phone.  Its a 202 number.  I instantly know that this is the PC, but I am apprehensive as to what they will say.  She informs me that I have been medically approved for Ukraine, but the other countries still have yet to respond. She goes into detail that I should just accept one of these and that the programs are mostly the same so nothing will change drastically, other then the location.  I tell her that I am just unable to make a decision because I honestly havent thought about it;  I am still stuck on/heartbroken about Lesotho.  Eventually she convinces me to choose between EC and Ukraine, rather than waiting for Belize and Guyana.  I tell her I still need to think about it though before I can make a decision.  After a lengthy discussion about her service in China and how at first she was miserable with her assignment, but eventually loved it, it was the best experience of her life, she offers to make the decision for me.  I have to say, there isnt any one else that PC could have had call me during this whole ordeal.  The PO was great, very understanding, etc.  She thanked me numerous times for being so open-minded and flexible under the current circumstance.  She said that my attitude is hard to come by and is the best attribute a Volunteer can have. With this attitude I will be very successful. This is reassuring, but I still have no idea what to do/where I am going/when I am leaving. This process is even more nerve wracking than being told I am going to X country.  She understands, and knows, now that she works for PC, and consoles my feelings/apprehension. We discuss the roller coaster that is the PC process; the ups the downs and the in between.  

So, in conclusion of this phone call, I am convinced to end my waiting and that my invite is in the mail and will be here most likely on monday November 8th. She appreciates that I am so open and willing to go anywhere and it can be assured that I will go where I am most needed/most able to help.  PC knows where they want me, but because of the circumstances they are willing to give me the option to choose.  She does not want to back me into a corner with my choice, but convinces me that I will be placed in a stable country.  She will make the decision (as it should be).  Come monday it will all be over-I will know where I am going.  And I can start the process of getting pumped up to do my service all over again.

In the meantime, I had to find something to do to get me out of the house and occupy my time and distract me from the misfortunate in Lesotho.  I am now working at Target for the holiday season. We will see how that goes...

1 comment:

  1. This is good news Val! No worries. It's about the service not the location! Miss you!