I am not a spontaneous guy. I have always sought the comfort of structure and floundered without it. This may explain why I am borderline obsessed with filling out forms. When I am handed the medical history checklist in a doctor's office, the pleasure center of my brain lights up like I've just been given chocolate. I'm pretty sure that I've had my identity stolen by a scammer pretending to be my bank and asking me to fill in personal information. What's that? You don't have my social security number, address, passwords or account info? Man, this must be my lucky day! I thought the Peace Corps application would fulfill my craving of organized forms and I was hoping there wouldn't be any surprises.
Peace Corps policy allows a volunteer to apply one year from the date he/she wants to leave. My girlfriend and I decided to apply in October of 2008. We read that Peace Corps required couples to be married for six months before they leave the U.S., so our original plan was to have a small family-only wedding in February, followed by a large bash in the summer and then leave for our service in the fall. A nice structured plan.
The first part of the Peace Corps application requires a potential volunteer to submit a lot of personal details online and then go to a local office for an interview. Tens of thousands of people enthusiastically take this first step each year. However, Peace Corps can only accept about 8,500 volunteers, so competition is fierce.
Even though Peace Corps was my girlfriend's dream, seeing the online document brought out my desire to complete forms and I felt the need to finish before her. The application asks for education, health, work and volunteer history, skills, and two essays: one about cultural experience and one about why you want to join the Peace Corps. You also have to send in three references from a friend, volunteer supervisor and work supervisor. The best part of the application for me was listing the top three regions of the world where I wanted to volunteer. There are no guarantees of being placed in your top choices, but it was exciting to picture myself on different parts of the globe. We breezed through the requirements and sent the info off to the recruiters in the Los Angeles office on October 1, 2008. For the record, I finished first.
Two days later, I was driving back to our apartment in Venice Beach, when I got a frantic call from my girlfriend. Her tone varied between anger and confusion as she explained that the Peace Corps was now requiring couples to be married for one year before they leave for service. Apparently there were problems with couples that were married for only six months before moving to a foreign country. Our options were to get married as we had planned in February of 2009 and leave later than we hoped, or drive to Vegas the next day and stick to leaving in the fall. We got this news on a Friday, so a shotgun wedding in Vegas would have to happen that very weekend as both of us were going to be traveling for work the rest of the year. We chose Vegas!
We called our immediate families with the news and sent a text to our friends (yes, a classy text message wedding announcement). My fiancé went to find a suitable wedding dress at 4 p.m. A wedding on 24 hours notice was a little out of my comfort zone. I searched for some structure by going to do laundry while excitedly answering the most texts I have ever received in one day.
On October 4, 2008 we drove the four hours to Vegas, constantly making eye contact followed by laughter. We checked into a fancy five star hotel. The front desk attendant told us she dreamed of joining Peace Corps and immediately upgraded us to a suite larger than our apartment. (She was the first person to give us something free, while telling us she wished she could do what we were doing.) My beautiful bride's dad and stepmom flew in from Boston to join one of my brothers and a bunch of our devoted friends for the memorable ceremony. As we held hands and said our vows, we were both in a love struck daze. The random Vegas minister instructed me to kiss the bride. Next, it was time to hit the tables and earn some money before volunteering!
Online application? Check. Married? Check. The next part was the in-person interview in the Peace Corps office. We went for the interview in mid-November when we were both home again. Our lovely recruiter, who was also the first person to know we were getting married, told us to bring résumés, transcripts, any certifications we have, an explanation to fulfill financial obligations while we would be away, fill out a questionnaire if we are vegetarians or serving with or without our spouse, and a birth certificate or naturalized certificate for naturalized citizens. And yes, we also got to bring our fancy new marriage license that was mailed to us from Vegas... with advertisements for quick divorce. Oh capitalism!
The interview consisted of a lot of questions on how we would deal with adversity. Recruiters want to know how a potential volunteer will handle learning a new language, not having work or programs move fast, deal with missing family/friends, what region of the world we want to volunteer in and reasons for volunteering. They asked us about our flexibility, and we kindly reminded them we got married on 24 hours notice. I was interviewed with my wife and we were also interviewed separately. Maybe by dividing us the recruiter could see if one of us would crack. After the interviews we had our fingerprints taken for a background check. Our recruiter told us she was recommending we move to the next phase in the process, which is trying to place us in a country. Peace Corps staff works hard to match volunteers' skills, with a country's needs in a region of the world where the volunteer hopes to work.
Part one was finished. As we walked out of the office, I knew I had a trump card for anyone that said I wasn't spontaneous again! If you are ready to sign up for the Peace Corps click here.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. To honor this occasion I will be writing blogs about my experiences as a currently serving volunteer. It would be impossible to capture the unique differences of all 200,000 plus volunteers that have served since the Peace Corps started in 1961. However, I am hoping to provide more insight into what a volunteer goes through from the time they decide to apply until they get to the country they are serving and all the funny, somber, and moving stories until the day they leave.