Peace Corps Placement Is Like Flying Standby

I experience a surprising amount of emotions when flying standby. It starts with anxiety from not knowing when I will reach my destination. As time drags by, anger builds -- first at the airline, then some misplaced anger toward the other passengers. I get irritated and mentally judge the guy who keeps going to the desk to see if they will break policy and let him on. Helplessness sets in, as I am no longer known as Ross Szabo. According to the monitor, I am now the acronym "SZA R." Jealousy runs through me as I look up at the abbreviations listed before my name, wondering what makes them so special. Eventually, my emotions build to anticipation, as the names are called one by one. I either make the flight and act out the plans I've been dreaming about for the past two hours, or I'll have to come up with different options that could include being on standby again.

Waiting to find out what country you will be sent to as a Peace Corps volunteer can be pretty similar to flying standby.

After completing the first part of the Peace Corps application, which includes filling out a lot of information online and going in for an interview, a local recruiter informs you that the next step is finding the country where you will volunteer. It can take months or more than a year to find this country. Recruiters try to match your qualifications, skills and personal preferences with positions that are open. The result can be months of really disappointing emails -- until the day the recruiter calls you to say you have a placement. Waiting for news from the recruiter is a lot like watching everyone board the plane before you. My wife and I started this process in November 2008. In early May 2009, we got a call nominating us to leave for Eastern Europe in March 2010 to do NGO capacity building!

After you receive your nomination, you have to clear a medical screening. This part of the process is one volunteers tend to complain about the most, because you can incur some major costs with the doctor visits, depending on your health care (or lack thereof). Peace Corps does reimburse costs for some things, but not all. I had my wife's union health care, so it didn't cost much for me. Peace Corps provides medical care to volunteers for the 27 months they are in service, and they want to know everything. Depending on how honest you are, the process could take a while. I chose to go the honest route.

I had to get a physical, dental exam, clearance from the mental health professionals who had treated me for the past 15 years and an eye evaluation. The physical was easy. A quick conversation about joining the Peace Corps, some shots, turn my head, cough and I'm out. The dental exam is tough and can be expensive, because you need X-rays showing that you don't have cavities or any spots that are weakening, but it's nothing a few fillings can't fix. The mental health piece is important. Apparently, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features could be a concern when moving halfway around the world. I sat with my most recent therapist as she filled out a couple of pages of information. I got a letter from a psychiatrist who had a phone book-thick file on me from my tumultuous teenage years and early 20s. I also had to fill out a questionnaire about coping mechanisms, which I turned into a 10-page creative writing piece.

The eye evaluation took the longest. Peace Corps doesn't recommend that volunteers wear contacts, because there may not be medical services available for eye care in most of the countries they serve. I had wanted to get LASIK forever, so I decided to get some first-class treatment for my eyes instead of wearing glasses for the next two years. The highlight of all of my medical visits came after my LASIK surgery. As I sat partly blind, still dreamy from the anti-anxiety meds in an extravagant Beverly Hills office, the surgeon told me he dreamed of joining the Peace Corps, but his parents made him go to med school. The "poor sap" ended up being a multimillionaire who helped create the new type of surgery I had just received. I had to wait for three months after I got LASIK to see if everything was okay before my wife and I could turn in our medical clearance.

We sent our last documents to the Peace Corps in mid-September 2009. In the meantime, we had a large wedding celebration we called Lovefest '09 with an Eastern European theme. We also learned fun facts about Moldova's growing wine industry. Needless to say, we couldn't wait to see where we were going. Peace Corps headquarters got back to us in October to let us know that the Eastern European country we will be serving in is... wait, what's that? The program is full? We're not going to Eastern Europe? Apparently, just like the fated flight I couldn't make in the airport, Peace Corps opens positions to more people than they have posts because some fail medical clearance and others drop out. In this case, everyone made it before us (maybe due to my bad eyes) so we were going on standby!

A couple of weeks later we were nominated for Africa, leaving in April 2010, which we happily accepted. We had to do some quick Google searches to update our knowledge of potential places we could be living, but were a little more cautious this time because we feared something could go wrong. Luckily, everything went smoothly. In November 2009 we received our official invite to serve in Botswana, leaving on April 3, 2010 to do NGO capacity building with orphans and vulnerable children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. We were going to the motherland! Botswana is known for diamonds, The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency and animals, but it also has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, so there is a lot of work to do. Our flight was cleared for takeoff -- now we needed to prepare for it.

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 experiences 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.