JFK started the Peace Corps in 1961. Here he shakes the hands of some of the first volunteers.
It is difficult to walk up the stairs to the third floor, because for the first time in a long time I am wearing healed wedges and a pencil skirt. I’m not going to lie, I look great in them, but I’m afraid I’m about to do a face-plant up the stairs. The cute blonde secretary from the front desk is showing me to the room I’m looking for, and makes small talk with me as we walk, which helps take my mind off everything. Once we find the door she turns to me and says, “Good luck,” and walks away.
I open the door to a conference room with a table long enough to fit 15 people without anyone touching elbows. Immediately across the table from the door sits a petite woman in her early thirties with a laptop in front of her. She has a striking beauty with darker hair and complexion that contrasts her light hazel eyes. She is much more intimidating in person than she is on the phone.
“Hello, Amanda. I’m Melissa, nice to meet you,” she stands up to shake my hand, proving that even standing she is a small person. “I told them I didn’t need a room this big, but it will work.”
Maybe she’s not that intimidating. Maybe I’m just intimidated.
I settle into the seat across from her and reach for my pen and pad of paper. I can barely get them out of my purse and on the table before she begins:
“Alright, I’m just going to start and get it out there. Why do you want to join the Peace Corps?”
This is the question I had spent the entire drive to Salem trying to rehearse out loud. It was incredibly difficult to verbalize my answer. How do I explain to someone what I just know to be right? How do I verbalize in a short precise answer all of the events of my past and present that have led me to this moment where this drastic step is not so drastic? Like when I tell family and friends my decision to join the Peace Corps and they say, “That sounds perfect for you,” because this decision is such a natural progression of my life. How do I sum up that when I am older I want to look back and have the Peace Corps as my past?
“Because I believe everyone has a path; a future created by their past and present, and the Peace Corps is part of my path. If I don’t make it into the Peace Corps, I’m going to do something just like it because that’s who I am.”
Of course I said more than that, but I felt like I couldn’t have a cut and dry answer that didn’t involve getting into my deep feelings of destiny.
I met the recruiter in Salem because she is interviewing multiple people in Oregon right now. The regional office is actually in Seattle, so I was lucky to get an in-person interview as opposed to over the phone. The interview was intense, and anything you would expect from a government organization that is considering investing thousands of dollars in training, funding, and supplementing work for an individual for two years. It was over an hour, and there were the stock questions about my leadership skills and ability to work with little supervision, which I'm used to having to discuss in any interview. The other however, were all questions concerning my ability to adapt to different cultures and work situations, as well as my ability to live in impoverished areas. But it was so much more than that. For instance, I was asked how I would handle living in a village where not only am I the only American, but the only white person. I was asked how I would handle gender roles in other countries where maybe I'm required to wear a head covering or long skirts (no pants), or watch the13-year-old girl in my host family being married off. How would I handle always having people peeking in my windows just to see what I'm doing, because I will be the most interesting and odd person/thing in the whole town? Or neighbors who already know what I bought at the market (because news travels fast) and by the way, could they borrow a loaf of bread?
Each answer I gave she furiously typed away at her laptop, making note of everything I said. On occasion she would nod her head in what seemed to be either agreement or an involuntary movement associated with a good answer.
So many aspects of the interview seemed intimidating and beyond anything I’ve ever done before (as my small sample of questions revealed), but I never once felt like I was in over my head. I have felt far more nervous in interviews in the past.
After all of the questions grilling me on how I would handle not having running water, traveling a day to use a phone, or being placed in a country that not only has a different language, but a different alphabet, she asked one last question:
“When can you leave?”
“As soon as possible,” I responded.
After all that I finally got to ask some questions. The one at the forefront of my mind, "Where would I be sent?" couldn't really be asked. So I asked, "What countries are accepting the most volunteers right now?"
Her answer: Eastern Europe, Southeastern Asia, and Asia are in a great demand for English language teachers. Although 40% of volunteers go to Sub-Saharan Africa, the aforementioned regions have a huge demand right now.
And because of my background in English, I will most likely …(drum roll)…teach English.
Part of this answer was relieving. It was nice to finally have an idea of where I would be sent (although an entire continent isn’t exactly narrowing it down). However, part of me felt resigned in knowing I would not likely go to a Latin American region. I was really hoping to go to a Spanish speaking country for many reasons. It did not come as a surprise though, because I have talked to some returning PC volunteers (and friends of volunteers gone right now), and many of them had a background in Spanish and were still sent to locations like Cameroon or Kazakhstan.
I also asked how soon I would leave, and she said not until winter/spring of 2011, which really isn’t too far away. Less than 6 months away, actually. At this point I was excited, but my head started to swim a little bit and I had to focus on my breathing so I wasn’t overcome with anxiety. It’s a lot to take in, your entire life changing in less than 6 months.
I asked other questions concerning time spent on site, what my responsibilities would be, etc. We talked about food, we talked about language, and then it was time to wrap up. She read me some legal documents and talked to me about the next steps. And this is the point where I got really excited because after talking about so many things in a positive future tense she paused and said;
“I mean, I can’t officially tell you this, but I see no reason why I wouldn’t nominate you.”
To be honest, I’m not sure if I clearly heard everything she said after this point. But now the process goes as follows:
- I’m nominated by my recruiter, Melissa, for a region.
- I get medical and dental exams and have all of the paperwork sent in.
- My paperwork and medical exams are all reviewed, along with the nomination by Melissa, and the higher-ups decide whether or not they agree.
- Melissa waits for a position that needs to be filled in my nominated region.
- I’m invited to join the Peace Corps in X country on X date doing X, and I have 10 days to respond.
- I pack up my things, spend time with friends and family, and try to get my fill of American culture before I say goodbye for 27 months.
I stand up and shake Melissa’s hand, thanking her for the in-person interview, and walk out the door. I walk around the corner and head towards the stairs and I notice a girl standing nervously nearby. She looks at me knowingly and with a nervous smile says hi. She looks like she wants to say something else but doesn’t know if she should. I smile at her and keep walking. Although I have a feeling she is next in line for an interview and she would do well to hear some encouraging words, my head is somewhere else. Things will go the way they're meant to go for her, and nothing I say will change that. I walk down the steps, past the secretary, and out the door. My wedges have already given me blisters and each step hurts like hell, but I walk like I don’t notice, because I don’t really.
I get to my car and sit down, not sure what do with myself. I look at my phone and there’s a text from Mackenzie:
“So how did it go? I’m dying over here!”
I texted back, “I nailed it!”