Archive for April, 2013

Historical Context

April 13, 2013

I watched a video recently that explained the importance of putting things into historical context. The person who did it, Louis CK, is a comedian. Using humor and insight he put into words something that until that day had mostly escaped me. See the video here:

Louis CK explains historical context to Jay Leno

Immediately after watching the video I felt some remorse. I have said many things in my life that displayed ignorance due to not understanding a historical context.

Just as Louis claims in the video, I have taken the white people’s stance of, “I didn’t do anything!” for most of my life. Maybe I didn’t do anything, but I was also failing to acknowledge the shockingly recent history of segregation and slavery in our country. I have grumbled before things like, “Why do we need Black History Month?” without realizing that we are not at all out of the woods of racial inequality. Unfortunately I think many people think along the same terms. Fortunately, we now have a hilarious video to help us along.

But it’s not just about black and white. It’s about all people. You must respect historical context no matter where you are. And it’s incredibly hard to do at times. I failed at it in Armenia. I never really understood why the Armenians failed to let go of the past, to move on for the betterment of their country. It just didn’t make sense to me. I remember talking about it with other volunteers and saying things like, “They just need to get over it.” Looking back, I was the ridiculous one. I wish I had seen this video during my service.

In the future hopefully I can do a better job of considering the invasions, political regimes, disasters, inequalities, and other events that have a very real impact on the psyche of a people.


What They Won’t Tell You at COS About Life After Peace Corps

April 5, 2013

Close of Service (COS) is both a conference and an event. The conference comes several months before the actual COS date, when volunteers leave the country. At the conference volunteers meet to go over administrative duties as well as reflect on the bittersweet reality of 2 years coming to a close.

COS is a cool time in many ways. But there’s a lot to think about. Sometimes too much. Hopefully this post will give someone an insight in his or her own journey. Here’s what the Peace Corps staff won’t tell you:

Finding a job is the toughest job you’ll ever hate

Peace Corps really doesn’t do a good job of hammering this point home like it does many of the other things that are forced down your throat as a volunteer, such as the word sustainability. Your friends are all going to grad school. Your site mate is just going to travel, man. But for the rest of us (who aren’t retired), there is the dark shadow of the job hunt racing towards us as we count down our final days in country.

You’ve found a job before, you reason. It won’t be that bad. But at least 2 years have lapsed since you had to really search for anything. You’ve forgotten a little bit what it’s like. And the economy still just isn’t what it used to be.

It’s not Peace Corps’s fault at all really. It’s not their problem; it’s yours. You should know it’s hard to find a job. You should expect it. But I missed that memo and am guessing that thousands of others do too every year. We rely on the Peace Corps like babies while we are serving.

The truth is that Peace Corps doesn’t care if you get a job or not. Think about this: if Peace Corps were serious about Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ (RPCV) careers upon completion of service they would be gathering metrics to understand whether or not RPCVs are getting jobs. Almost every college does this. But the Peace Corps has no incentive to see that its returned volunteers are thriving professionally. Alums donate to schools in order to help the kids or to pursue narcissistic naming rights, but RPCVs don’t give anything to PC other than some name recognition here and there when a Chris Matthews makes it big (which will randomly occur without PC doing anything).

The Most Interesting Man in the World

The Most Interesting Man in the World

So, while you attend your COS conference and get drunk in your hotel rooms while reminiscing about the last 2 years, you won’t find enough in your agenda about jobs. We had some nice sessions about resume writing and non-competitive status that were volunteer-initiated. Those were great, but I still have the feeling most people don’t come away from COS with the sense of urgency they need in regards to the job market. Many people worry about the reverse culture shock aspect of going back home; I would place employability several orders of magnitude higher than reintegration in the whole going-back-to-America picture. Take every resource and opportunity you can to get ready now.

WARNING: Unsolicited advice part

Tap the older volunteers with awesome career experience to help you with your resume. Talk about their careers and what they liked. Do informational interviews with them to see if you would like to do something similar. If so, ask for some contacts or at least advice on getting started. Tap the staff to do the same thing.

Try to figure out what you want. Many people go the whole 2 years thinking, “Yeah man, I’m going to find myself during these 2 years!” At the end of it, guess what? They never got around to it and they still have no idea what the heck they want to do. That’s okay, but at least take some time to actively think about it and try to narrow it down for yourself.

Also, use time to your advantage. As a PCV you have the luxury of having too much free time. Your secondary projects aren’t going that well, let’s just all admit it. Or your primary assignment isn’t what you hoped for. Either way you have free time on your hands to pursue things. You could pursue your 8th crappy sitcom marathon OR you could spend the time looking for jobs. The automatic direct deposits to your account stop after the Peace Corps ends. Get used to that idea. Allow it to make you hungry. Use the hunger to search for employment. Once you get some job listings that seem interesting to you, figure out if you are qualified. If you are not qualified, gain some skills. Don’t watch Game of Thrones again. Figure out what Microsoft Access is all about, finally. Or look up some tutorials on how to use Adobe whatever. Go to MIT’s free courses and expand your knowledge.

Use the time you have to train up for life after Peace Corps, because PACA tools will only take you so far (according to the Seasonal Calendar, they will help you for 1 weekend in between the rainy season and the 6 month winter). But what about living in the now and enjoying the rest of the experience? From my experience, there was definitely time to do both. I know it’s not fun to constantly think about the future when you have such a jarring change ahead, but seriously, you’ll thank yourself later.

Non-competitive status is probably a joke

Let me be frank with you and save you a lot of time: non-competitive status is nearly worthless. Show me a room full of RPCVs and I’ll show you a room full of people who a.) still don’t really know what non-competitive status means and b.) did not successfully use it to get a job. Why don’t you hear stats about RPCVs being placed in Federal agencies due to NCS? Because 99% of them never end up using their NCS (okay, I’m guessing). I have done countless Federal job searches. Setting up an advanced search where you indicate your NCS does nothing but create false hope as you are subjected to awesome sounding but exclusive opportunities open only to vets or current whatever agency employees. Besides that, government job postings are the most disorganized pieces of garbage on the internet, which at least for me completely sucks my soul of motivation to ever apply for another government job. I keep coming back to the website out of my own insanity.

Short anecdote time: I defied logic and returned to the US jobs site for the hundredth time. This time I applied for a job. It took quite a while longer than usual because this job required me to mail in my application. That’s right, only the Federal government would be so inefficient. Anyway, I was happy to try to finally use my non-competitive eligibility. Well, after doing some more research after sending my little envelope on its way I learned that the agency I applied to has a hiring freeze. But obviously you would never remove your online job postings if you’re not hiring for those positions. This is the government, after all. I pen this whiney story only to caution future RPCVs that these are the kinds of disappointments you face with your NCS after service. I’m not saying don’t try to use it; I’m just saying… it’s not any kind of silver bullet. Sorry.

Bad Luck Brian

Bad Luck Brian

Your hard earned language skills will plummet in value

Peace Corps likes to make little lame jokes about your language skills. “You can use your Swahili to impress your friends at parties!” Yeah, that’s lame. And no one cares, honestly. Before you went to Peace Corps did you ever care what other languages someone spoke? Probably not. And that didn’t change just because you learned a strange language. Honestly, there won’t be much use for your language any more. Using it in a job is highly unlikely since America is a melting pot of immigrants, some of which probably speak your Peace Corps language natively. They can easily fill any roles that require their language. And sadly, about half of the jobs I apply to don’t even have Armenian listed in their foreign language drop down boxes. And that’s for a Peace Corps language I would consider in the upper half for name-recognition. So you can’t even brag about your language skills in a job application in many cases.

Also, you will have a hard time forcing yourself to stay sharp in your learned language. It just happens. There would be rare exceptions for those with more widely-spoken languages, but for most of us the language is tucked neatly into the Peace Corps Experience Box in our brains, which gathers dust rather quickly.

First World Problems

First World Problems

Will they fade away completely then? That depends. I’ve heard people say they forget very quickly, while others hang on to what they had. I have spoken with my host family a few times and read a few stories. I have lost vocabulary but it hasn’t been major. I also talk to myself in Armenian sometimes, envisioning scenarios where I meet a bewildered Armenian immigrant on the bus who just happens to not know English so I can swoop in and save the day. Am I crazy? Probably. YMMV.

The insurance is not very good

Something about pizza and french fries

Something about pizza and french fries

That statement probably didn’t surprise you. You get 1 month of insurance free after your service and can sign up for more if you choose. I signed up for 1 additional month. I’m glad I did just one. It was around $200 for the month, which seems pricey for what it is. I did go to the doctor during this time and had a minor procedure done. The billing was a nightmare. If you do go for the insurance, make sure your provider understands how the insurance should be billed. There was a lot of confusion with mine because I had also gone to the same provider for some of the PC-mandated things that use special PC forms for payment.

It took a good 6 months to sort everything out with them. I have to give them credit though; they eventually did pay most of my claims. I’m happy about that. But here’s the bigger message: take advantage of the doctors while you still can.

It’s no secret that having 2 doctors sitting there waiting for your visit is one of the glorious benefits of PC service. So, if there is anything nagging you or if you’re thinking, “I should get this taken care of sometime…” then NOW is the time to do it. Don’t wait!

Your 2 years = Everyone else’s 2 years

Yes, you did something strange. You had the experience that will shape the rest of your life. You discovered that the world is not monocultural. You now know an archaic language, sort of. You sat in an uncomfortable form of public transportation for long periods of time. You pooped your pants. You did some cool projects. You overcame immense barriers. You made friends out of a motley crew. You gave it all up for that stuff.

Yes, you did.

And while you were away those 2 years everyone else kept plugging along in what to your mind seemed like a chasm devoid of time. They kept going to jobs they hated. They got promoted. They got fired. They got hired at new places. They went back to school. They had babies. They got sick. They had successes and failures, just like you. No, they weren’t living in a foreign country. No, they probably weren’t as uncomfortable as you were. But they didn’t choose to go anywhere. Your 2 years is not more important than theirs just because you were in the Peace Corps. Until you care as much about their 2 years as you want them to care about yours, you will be disappointed.

Another thing to keep in mind: it is natural to block the experience into its 2 year chunk, comparing the before and after of your life. But for all the other people in your life this is just an arbitrary 2 year chunk. It means nothing to them. They won’t remember what it was like exactly when you left. They probably won’t even remember exactly when you left. As PCVs I think we have a tendency to see the world as revolving around us. After all, we’re saving the world. Shouldn’t everyone else stop and watch? We need to avoid that thinking. If you can be open minded and accepting towards reintegration and other people’s experiences during the time you were away, your reintegration will be a big success.




Think about the things that I wrote. But also just enjoy it like you should. There is definitely a balance to be struck between thinking about the future, which will be waiting there for you whenever you choose to face it, and living in the now. The incredibly spectacular, unique, once-in-a-lifetime now that you have.