From Application to Peru…how’d I get here again?

Since sophomore year of college, I knew that I wanted to join the Peace Corps and serve in a developing country for two years.  It was going to be a great chance to travel, live, and work abroad, and also give me a taste of whether or not development work was for me.  My application process took around 11 months in total from the time the application was submitted until I touched ground in Peru.   Here’s some thoughts on the whole application process, a year and a few months into service…

Application: Nothing I remember.  I think the essays were hard to trim down if there was a word limit.

Interview: Awkward because the recruiter had to type down EVERYTHING I said onto an older Dell Laptop, so I would have to stop talking at some points to let her catch up.  And the interview took 1.5 hours! But other than that, no issues.

Placement:  This is where things get interesting. 

My application (in my eyes) looked something like this:

  • 2 years experience in youth development, including responsibility for small and large group teaching/leading, designing lesson plans, visiting parents, etc;
  • 3+ years working as a research assistant for two international clinical juvenile diabetes research studies;
  • Semester abroad studying in Oman (SIT/World Learning if you’re asking), living with a muslim family for the duration, and beginner level Arabic;
  • Other activities: Theatre carpenter, International Relations major with a few classes in Spanish, handsome devil
  • Preferences: Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Pacific, East Europe (I like the cold)
  • Possible placement: Youth Development, Health
  • Departure date: June 2009

Makes sense, right?  Youth development with the 2+ years working as a summer teacher for a reading program, plus the background and willingness to live in a Muslim country. 

Here’s what the recruiter saw:

  • Theatre Carpenter 3+ years: Knows how to build stuff
  • Spanish Classes: (=) Can Speak Spanish!!!!
  • Studied abroad, did some other work
  • Nomination: Water and Sanitation
  • Departure Date: Fall 2009
  • Region: Central/South America

Makes sense, right?  I talked to the recruiter about it and she told me that this was a good placement and although it might not be what I wanted (especially regionally), I might not receive another nomination or may have to wait longer to leave (which meant getting a real job in the meantime!!!!).  So, slightly reluctantly, I accepted the nomination and continued on.    (Note: Later on, I talked with a returned volunteer and he told me that if they thought you were qualified, you could turn down the first nomination and they’ll give you another.  A bit of a gamble, and not sure of the truth).

Medical Packet: Slightly frustrating because it was in sooo much detail.  Thankfully, our family dentist was willing to do all the paperwork and exams for the Peace Corps reimbursement funds (which didn’t cover what she charged…I think she was excited about the Peace Corps and that I had known her since I was 5).  But getting the medical stuff was challenging, since I was still in school and didn’t have a regular doctor, so my paperwork was scattered.  The attending doctor wouldn’t sign off on my papers until I had 10+ year records about some procedures faxed over, so that delayed everything.  Then finally, around December everything was turned in.  Your move, Peace Corps.

Invite:   I got an email around the 2nd week of March saying my ‘online application status has changed’ and that I would be receiving information in the mail.  Cool! No info about what’s in the mail, but figured it was the invite.  The brutal part was waiting.  I did some research and thought I was going to the Dominican Republic (Peace Corps Wikis didn’t have the placement probability tool yet).  My big packet with folders and information arrived on a Tuesday or Thursday and turns out:

Placement: Peru
Program: Water and Sanitation
Departure: September 11, 2009

Weird day to be flying, and didn’t know nothing about Peru…but hell, I’m in.  Now all was left was to wait 5+ months.  Funny note on that: the majority of volunteers got their invites 2-3 months ahead of time, and I think 2 or 3 received them right at the last possible day (6 weeks before departure).

So there ya go, a lot of rambling and a little information

A Response to 20/20’s ‘Peace Corps Gang Rape’

Recently, the popular ABC news journal 20/20 released a piece on the Peace Corps and volunteer safety, specifically focusing on the 1,000 reported sexual crimes against volunteers since 2000 – including roughly 15 or so rapes a year.  The report interviews six former volunteers who were raped during their Peace Corps services, including a brutal recollection of one volunteer being gang raped an hour after reporting the same group of men for sexual assault at the local police station.  The former volunteers not only talk about their experience, but also the Peace Corps response to the incidences or lackthereof.  The reporter drills into the Peace Corps and the then deputy Director about their responses to the rapes and violence against volunteers. 

While they say any press is good press, extreme coverage of rapes and implying that all Peace Corps volunteers are getting ‘gang raped’ during their service is something else. 

First off, the title of the report is outrageous and should already allow the viewer/reader to prepare themselves for the extremism of the piece.  Beyond that, it was clear this is extreme ‘Michael Moore journalism’ where the reporter tried to show the darkest side without allowing a voice against it.  Especially frustrating was the interview with the deputy Peace Corps director, as the report simply laid in question after question about incidents, although tragic, that happened over 10 years ago and before she was in any sort of administrative position.

However, I’m not sure where to stand on the Peace Corps response to these issues.  As far as I know, at least on a country level, it’s rare to hear any of the announcements of sexual violence (or any incidents, really) against volunteers. Rather, we wind up hearing it through the volunteer grapevine.  Usually, the central office is hush on any events against volunteers, largely out of respect and confidentiality to the volunteer. 

Do they also do that to try to protect their image?  I’m not entirely sold on that.  The statistics on crime and violence against volunteers are publicly available and shared yearly with the volunteers.  

And as for post-event counseling, I do believe Peace Corps was struggling with this for some time, especially with psychological support.  While we have 3 Peace Corps Medical Officers for roughly 200 volunteers here in Peru, we have no psychologist on staff nor a ‘go-to’ psychologist in the regions.  Normally, volunteers would have phone conferences with psychologists in DC…and while it’s a resource, talking on the phone is not the same in person (especially if the signal is weak). 

The crimes against the volunteers are heinous and regrettable, and I thank the volunteers for sharing their experiences.  However, I would like to say that Peace Corps is safe and the vast majority of volunteers complete their service without any major incidents.  Especially in their communities, volunteers are heavily socially supported by the community and it’s actually one of the safest places to be.  Most crime happens in the larger cities, where volunteers are more anonymous as are the perpetrators.  And being white in a foreign city does make you a target, whether you’re a Peace Corps volunteer or not. 

It’s a shame that such a great organization such as the Peace Corps received such a shoddy story with amateur coverage and analysis, especially seeing as how it has evolved from it’s former image of a two year vacation into a respectable development organization.