One of the few things I remember trolling the internet for in the months before and after submitting my application was Peace Corps time-lines: how long it took the average applicant to get their ass in gear and actually start on their application, how long it took your boss at work to finally send in their recommendation, how long it took the Peace Corps website to register and acknowledge receipt of your documentation, how long it took for your invitation to be sent (ranging from days to sometimes even years according to some blogs), how long you had to wait between invitation acceptance and staging, to how long it took before guilt hit and reading Peace Corps blogs could no longer be classified as “career hunting” but rather plain old procrastination the night before that final paper is due.
For the record, it took me about 8 months from application submission to invitation, though that process in my Peace Corps Senegal stage (the particular group of people that you arrive in-country with, train with, learn to use a Turkish toilet with, share bowel movement updates with and ultimately swear-in as PCVs with) ranged from 3 to about 20 months. I post my personal journey here not just for the sake of posterity, but to assuage the curiosity of those prospective applicants out there who like me, are probably spending many a sleepless night wondering why that package full of documents you sent 2 weeks ago has yet to receive the green light. I am sure as I write this some of you are actively considering giving up, given the medical and/or legal holds you currently see holding you back. I urge you not to—I had to deal with both, and I ultimately received my invitation, so may this post bring you hope, however little.
For Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) around the world, all I can say is, you will learn a lot about yourself in the 9 weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST) you are about to go/are going through. This is no cakewalk, but it is also by no means representative of what the rest of your service will be like. Trust your instincts and heart to tell you whether you should go through Early Termination (ET) or not. However, I would hold off till after being at your permanent site for a number of months. My pre- and post-PST experiences were vastly different—I gained a significant number of pounds, acquired a room 6 times the size of the one in my training village, had a functioning shower and electricity: a far cry from the Peace Corps experience I had envisioned before arriving in-country. Granted, my recent move has altered my living situation somewhat, but the point is that the amount of personal autonomy is liberating, and is vastly lacking during PST and In-Service Training (IST). However, for those of you that value structure and the constant companionship of other Americans, your actual service may prove to be far more challenging.
But I digress—without further ado, my personal Peace Corps time-line to the best of my recollection.
“We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” —Mother Teresa
October 16, 2009—The time come to earn my hippie stripes and paradoxically bleed red, white and blue at the same time, I open an account online and begin my Peace Corps Application during the penultimate semester of my college career.
November 14, 2009—I somehow manage to keep procrastination to a minimum and submit my completed Peace Corps Application (save the recommendation section) a month later.
December 6, 2009—I submit the completed Applicant Assessment Interview Form, something sent to me a couple of weeks after I submitted the Application. I thank the University of Virginia for having a dedicated Peace Corps recruiter on campus for such speedy processing. Wahoowa!
December 10, 2009—I have an inordinately long interview (spanning a couple of hours) with C. Thomas Dunnells, an RPCV who served in Cameroon in the 1970’s. I really enjoyed talking to Tom, and end up having a couple of chats with him about his service following the official interview. If my Peace Corps service entails getting paid (however little) to live in a foreign country for 2 years while waxing lyrical with the locals about various agricultural techniques and American culture under the shade of an exotic sub-Saharan tree, sign me up!
December 15, 2009—The last of my 3 recommendations is submitted and received by the Peace Corps. I would like to especially thank Ethan Hamlin, as he toils away at USA Today and makes sweet, sweet music on the side in the D.C. area, and Matthew Hughey, probably working several feats of academic brilliance in the field of race relations at the University of Mississippi.
December ??, 2009—I receive a pretty hefty packet with a number of forms, including a skills addendum form, a number of loan forms and an FBI background check form with a fingerprint chart to fill out. You know what that means… A trip to the Charlottesville Sheriff’s office! $10 poorer and 30 minutes after wrestling with a machine that refused to register my apparently extraordinary fingerprints, I emerge triumphant, with nary a smudge of ink on my mitts. Ah, the wonders of technology you find next to the broom closet.
January 8-10, 2010—Submitted the FBI background form, fingerprint chart, loan forms and the Peace Corps Skills Addendum, wherein I expressed an interest in beekeeping and animal husbandry should they somehow require a completely unskilled volunteer in that realm. However, at this point, I already know that something agricultural in Sub-Saharan Africa is what I (want to, and) will probably end up doing after talking to Tom Dunnells.
March 2, 2010—I receive my Peace Corps Nomination! And all it took was 4 months! The online Toolkit changes drastically, and I receive another mammoth of a package in the mail filled with medical forms about a week later. And so begins a process that, given my lack of dental and virtually non-existent medical coverage, ultimately costs me about $1000. I am sure most of you are well-acquainted with the excitement of attending a doctor’s or dental appointment, so excuse me if I have no anecdotes worthy of transcribing here.
March 22, 2010—Medical check-up at the hospital, which included taking a variety of shots and tests for yellow fever, tetanus, rabies, tuberculosis, HIV… the list goes on. Fun times!
March 29, 2010—Medical follow-up. More glorious fun wrapped in a paper gown.
March 30, 2010—Dentist appointment. I emerge cavity-free and Novocain-laced after this little outing. Interestingly enough, this is the first time I experience an injection to the gums—they do things differently in Singapore, where I had all my dental appointments prior to this one.
April 1, 2010—Gynecology appointment. Evidently, the most fun of all. The fact that I can hardly remember what happened this day that occurred a little over a year ago I feel is testament to that.
April 6, 2010—Optometrist appointment. The good man throws in a couple of free contact lenses upon hearing that I am applying for the Peace Corps.
April 19, 2010—Mailed Peace Corps medical forms.
April 28, 2010—Peace Corps receives medical forms.
April 30, 2010—Dental forms are processed and given the green light in my online Toolkit!
June 7, 2010—Peace Corps sends me extra forms, which followed earlier medical and legal holds placed on my nomination online. At this point, I am in Singapore after graduating in May, and I distinctly remember thinking I’d be jobless and destitute for the rest of my life, while helping a friend with the logistics of setting up a FOREX Trading School. After pausing to reflect on the insanity that is my life, cue a mad scramble to make appointments and fill in paperwork.
June 11, 2010—Medical tests are done at the clinic, which proves to be rather tricky given the differences in terminology used in the U.S. and Singapore for specific blood tests.
June 20-24, 2010—I fax and email the completed medical and legal forms, after which a terrifying period of contemplation awaits as I watch the status of my nomination online change.
July 2, 2010—I receive my Peace Corps invitation to serve in Senegal as an urban/peri-urban agricultural extensionist!
July 4, 2010—I accept my invitation, soon after which I leave for a short backpacking trip with my kick-ass Colombian friend Sarah Bolivar through Southeast Asia spanning Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Sometime before this I manage to fill in a DS-11 passport application at the American embassy and mail this along with my Senegal visa. I fly back to the U.S. at the end of July, leaving me a little over a week to prepare for staging.
August 9, 2010—I arrive for staging in Washington D.C., a 2-day affair involving filling in copious amounts of paperwork and getting schooled on the history of the Peace Corps, plus preliminary pointers on how to acclimate to an entirely new country (physically, psychologically, emotionally, etc.). It is here that I meet the 63 other people who make up my stage, encompassing the programs of Small Enterprise Development (SED), Agro-forestry (AGFo), Sustainable Agriculture (SAg) and the best of them all (my program): Urban Agriculture (UAg).
August 11, 2010—Arrival in Senegal! PST commences at the Peace Corps Training Center in Thies: a grueling 9-week period that encompasses intensive daily language, technical and cultural training, plus assorted workshops on safety, medical health and overall well-being.
August 16, 2010—I arrive with 7 other PCTs in our home-stay village of Mboro. So begins 5-6 hours of daily language training, 6 days a week.
September 7, 2010—Back to Thies (a 45-minute ride away from Mboro) for Language Test #1. I distinctly remember shitting my pants, but more because of a gastrointestinal bug than from fear, or so I’d like to believe.
September 8, 2010—Permanent site announcements are made: looks like I’m up North in Richard Toll—a land of sugar cane, irrigation canals, and a large transient workforce from all over the country thanks to the local sugar refinery. Even boasting a black market in sugar thanks to Mauritanian imports, I can already anticipate a drastically different Peace Corps experience from the one I had initially envisioned.
September 12-15, 2010—I spend 6 hours in a sept-place for a site visit hosted by the PCV I am to replace (also known as my ancien), Casey. This is followed by a couple of days spent in St. Louis, a city 2.5 hours west of Richard Toll, where a regional Peace Corps office is located. I along with several other PCTs get to witness our first urban gardening formation (training) at PCV Richard’s garden.
September 25, 2010—Language Test #2 is taken, and apparently my Wolof language skills have improved since the last test. No accident in my pants this time!
September 30-October 1, 2010—Counterpart Workshop in Thies is conducted, where I get to meet Cheikh Oumar Diatta, the wonderful man I am blessed to have as my counterpart in Richard Toll.
October 3, 2010—Trip to Popenguine beach, where my stage rents out a beach house and enjoys a break from PST. Midnight swims in a sea of fluorescent phytoplankton, diving off rocks, fireworks and numerous games of beer pong are had.
October 4, 2010—First trip to Senegal’s capital, Dakar!
October 12, 2010—Final Language Test: I pass and escape extra classes in Thies and the consequent postponement of my installation. My underwear stays skid-free.
October 15, 2010—Swear-In: We officially become PCVs! The ceremony at the American Ambassador’s house in Dakar is followed by a reception of sliders, deviled eggs, tuna melts and brownies, after which I plunge into a food coma by the poolside of the Club Atlantique (sort of the American Club in Dakar).
October 19, 2010—Installation in Richard Toll, which is prefaced by an exciting sept-place ride involving a sharet (a donkey or horse-drawn cart) scraping past the side of the vehicle and taking the rear door off in the process. Save for some cuts made by flying shards of glass, we escaped unscathed for the most part, alhamdoulilah.
November 23-25, 2010—Annual North Regional Meeting in Ndioum, with all PCVs from the Walo and Matam regions of Senegal in attendance to discuss work strategies. This is followed by Thanksgiving festivities at the Ndioum regional house involving 2 turkeys and 5 chickens, not to mention pecan, pumpkin, and apple pies, plus copious amounts of beer and conversation about American football.
November 27-28, 2010—Urban Agriculture Summit in Thies: an opportunity to discuss work strategies in the realm of urban agriculture, and learn improved techniques such as drip-irrigation and permaculture.
December 3-4, 2010—West Africa Peace Corps Volunteer Conference in Thies: involving PCVs from not just Senegal but the Gambia, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo. Best practices in the field are discussed, ranging from behavior change, nutritional supplements, to waste management.
December 6-18, 2010—IST: where my stage gets back together for more technical training after spending 8 to 10 weeks at our permanent site. For some of us, it is the first time we see each other since installation.
February 17, 2011—SENEGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Conference in Thies, where best practices in the realm of gender and development are discussed, as well as strategies to promote female literacy, Michele Sylvester Scholarship implementation, and the logistics of organizing girls’ camps.
February 18, 2011—All-Volunteer Conference in Dakar: NGOs and PCVs gather at the Peace Corps Head Office to discuss ways to increase the efficacy of projects by promoting communication and synergy through the sharing of information.
February 19-21, 2011—WAIST (West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament) in Dakar: A series of softball games played between teams comprised of PCVs from different regions of Senegal, PCVs from other countries in West Africa (the Gambia and Mali, for instance), and schools and clubs from within Dakar. The North’s theme is Jersey Shore, and much of my experience involves adjusting by Snooki hair pouf while imbibing copious amounts of beer throughout the day interspersed by inadvertent bouts of dancing in a bikini and hot pants. All I can say is, I am glad this is an annual event. For better or for worse, this monster of an event happens once a year, and once a year only.
April 9-11, 2011—Urban Agriculture Summit in Kolda: Yet another opportunity to discuss techniques and strategies that worked, and those that didn’t for UAg PCVs.
April 18, 2011—I relocate to my new site Temeye, a village located just 10km south of my original site, Richard Toll.
And… there you have it: my Peace Corps career milestones to date. The prose deteriorates as you read on, but I’ll be copying the contents of this post in the “Time-line” tab, as a reminder to update it on occasion. Inshallah, I’ll edit a couple of the last few entries and flesh them out a bit more at some point, but in the meantime, I hope you guys find this a worthwhile read. Ba baneen yoon!