Today, August 26, marks the date I was originally slated to COS (close service) from my third year extension with Peace Corps Moldova. Seems like a good time for a quick update!
At the beginning of June, three years to the day from when I reported for Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia, I said goodbye to Moldova, rang the COS bell, and boarded a plane for Zambia to take an exciting position evaluating a USAID education project supporting early childhood literacy. I walked out of the office that had been my central grounding point of three years – and for the last year, my daily workplace – on a Friday, and on the following Monday morning was sitting in front of a Ministry of Education provincial head on a different continent, all of a sudden representing a $30 million project.
The decision to leave Moldova a bit early was a difficult one, but ultimately, this position was too good an opportunity to pass up. I decided a while ago that program evaluation is a good fit for me within the broader sphere of development, and there is nothing I’d rather be evaluating than an education project. At the same time, my employer EnCompass LLC
is a great cultural fit – it’s filled with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, is small and very mission driven for a private company, and is well known for promoting mixed methods and appreciative evaluation (two methodological commitments that are important to me). The opportunity to work on a new continent was an exciting prospect and a smart career move too in a field where people are expected to have global experience. And finally, this position offered a challenging technical role that makes use of my background in econometrics/statistics to measure the effectiveness of a very large and challenging project that is ultimately aiming to improve the literacy of half a million Zambian children. Strictly speaking, the position is a fellowship, but it is very much a professional fellowship (as compared to an educational one). In practice, what that means is that my employers get somebody at entry-level salary, and I get a level of responsibility a few years senior to what I would otherwise expect at this stage. It’s win-win.
This job is not something I was planning on or for that matter, even necessarily looking for. In fact, it’s only after a couple of other more academic fellowships fell through that I even started looking for other things. But once I came across this position, things moved quickly. I only applied in early May, and was on a plane to Zambia just over a month later. This made leaving Moldova all the more hectic, but I benefited from the fullest support of my colleagues at Peace Corps and in particular my program manager, who worked hard to give me a good reference despite the fact that taking this position left her without my help for the June intake of new volunteers and summer training period. Still, everybody who knew me in Moldova was unequivocal that this job was as close to a perfect fit as things come, and it was their support that made the quick turnaround possible.
At the same time this has all been progressing, last week, USAID officially invited Bill to join the agency as a Foreign Service Officer, where he will serve as a financial manager. His training begins September 23 in Washington, D.C., where we expect him to remain for about a year before receiving his first assignment in the field. Field assignments are typically 2 years with option to extend for a total of 4 years, and short stints in D.C. in between tours.
In an ironic twist, Bill is currently in Zambia (having followed me there in late June) and I am currently in the States, but I’ll soon be back in Zambia and we will have a couple short weeks together before we swap continents and he returns to the States to report for training. My contract is through next June, which is around when we are expecting Bill to get his field assignment. When he does, I’ll follow him to wherever he’s posted. In the meantime, we’ll do what we hope will be one last long distance stint. If given the chance, we’d love to stay in Zambia, but those decisions are still a bit of a way off and for the time being we have no idea what our location options will even be.
In short, what this all means is that we’re finally off and fully on our way. That may sound strange to friends and family who have followed my global treks and travails for the past 5 years, but while identifying as a development professional for many years now, all of a sudden others are paying me to do so. Many of my college classmates have spent years doing grad school and fellowships and entry level jobs, and I’m noticing that a number of them are just now also entering the “real” paid work world. So too, Peace Corps and grad school (and for Bill Fulbright and Global Sustainability and grad school) have been investments, and they’re finally paying off. At five years out from college and four from grad school, it’s been a lengthy investment. And totally worth it. That bears repeating: totally worth it. Looking at my classmates, it seems the nature of our generation that 5 years or so and another degree is about what it takes to break into the working world after college these days. They’re fun years, and the experiences have been fascinating, but until all that investment converts itself into a career opportunity, one is never certain. An older friend from Peace Corps astutely remarked to me recently that that first job is always the hardest to get. Nowhere is that more true than the difficult-to-break-into world of international development. So that feeling of finally being “off and on our way” is with a good deal of exhilaration – and more than a little relief.
I plan to continue the blog (why stop now?), and in the coming weeks, I hope to fill in some of its major gaps – reflections on finishing Peace Corps and leaving Moldova, the path that has brought me to evaluation over the past few years, and first impressions on Zambia and my new job. But for the time being, international moves leave quite a bit to do logistically, so for now, I’m off!
I’m back to Moldova and the daily grind after finally taking my Special Leave over the holidays and January. It all seems a bit like an alternate reality – as if I have lives going in two parallel universes, one in the U.S., and one here in Moldova. Since alternate realities normally lead to messy complicated story lines in Science Fiction, I thought I’d go for something a little easier and just do it by the numbers.
18,000: Approximate number of air miles
2,740: Miles road-tripping to see friends and family across the Midwest and Colorado
73.3: Miles of jogging, cycling, hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing
44: Days gone from Moldova
16: Delicious restaurants, although I’m probably missing a couple... (I remember Mexican, Sushi, Thai, many a bar and grill, a diner, The Mercury Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant, a fun little joint in Omaha that a friend runs, and Indian.)
8: Days skiing Winter Park
3: Bottles of Moldovan wine tasted with my college roommate (who now is studying enology in Sonoma)
2: Days in a cabin at my old Boy Scout camp with Mom and Co.
2: Concerts in Denver (Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Ben Folds Five)
2: Number of paintings Bill and I bought in Chicago
2: Movies (The Hobbit and Skyfall)
2: Awesome nights in Snowmass reconnecting and having fun with Lindsay
1: Run with the Denver Hash House Harriers, and trip to the Colorado History Museum
Countless: Number of friends and family reconnected with, great home cooked meals, liters of amazing micro-brew, hearty laughs, and deep conversations.
That last one, I’m quite convinced that’s not an alternate reality. One interesting thing about this trip is that for the next many years, this is probably what life will look like – especially with Bill nearing the end of USAID pre-employment. So it was a good learning experience as well in terms of how to do 30 days back in the States without sacrificing our sanity. The other nice thing about month-long vacations? It leaves me really motivated for work when I get back.
In my last post I had submitted an extension proposal and was awaiting an official decision from Headquarters while meanwhile going about the rest of my life as a regular teacher and PCV finishing up his 2 years of service.
There's a couple better posts forthcoming, but since that was about 4 months ago, a bit has happened since then. Actually, more than a bit, quite a lot more. Hence the radio silence here on Embarkations. So I thought the quickest way to dispatch with the news would be a quick and dirty list. In bullet form.
The context: In March, we hosted the Simulation Games Development Conference, we launched Public Achievement with the training conference, and on March 28 I officially submitted my PCVL and extension proposal. Since then, it's kind of been a blur.
- Early April: Our SPA Project "To Teach with Care" is approved to build school technology and interactive teaching capacity
- Mid-April: PCVL Transition Team Meetings begin for Health Education (HE) Program (basically, moving things from the previous PCVL to me)
- April 18 - 21: Bill and I manage a vacation to Kiev over Easter break
- Focus In/Train Up (Peace Corps-wide initiative) revision of HE Program begins in earnest
- May 3: Program Manager and Director for Programming and Training visit Carahasani for a site identification meeting to determine if a follow on volunteer should be placed there after me; this is also my first time in one of these meetings (something I'll be doing more of as a PCVL)
- May 4-5: Site visit to Susan Adams' site for her Hygiene Campaign (we want to develop new training materials based upon her campaign in order to encourage this model in the future)
- May 7: Simulation Game Project Meeting, then back to site
- May 9 - 11: Back to Chisinau for Close of Service (COS) Conference for M25 Volunteers and M24 Extendees
- May 12: Haiducii Training for our newest members
- May 14: Another Simulation Game Project Meeting, then back to site again
- Ongoing: medical clearance for year 3 tests and appointments
- May 19: Final HE Partner Conference
- May 20: Planning for M27s' Pre-Service Training (PST) begins
- May 21: Bill's bday in the village (my host mom wanted him to have a Moldovan birthday)
- May 23 - 26: Bill and I attend a conference sponsored by a Romania Fulbrighter and RPCV on Public Health and Social Services in Romania
- May 28: Medically cleared!
- May 29-30: Last days of class, last days as a teacher
- May 31: Last Bell, the school does not realize I am leaving but does ask me for a toast at the celebration afterwards
- May 31 (evening): I look at my June calendar and realize that when I leave for Chisinau the next morning, it is effectively for good. Packing and purging begins...
- June 1: To Chisinau; may days of PST planning meetings ensue
- June 4: Susan Adams and her husband Curt become the first of our group to COS (i.e., leave), Matt Mockerman will follow suit later that month, as will MacKenzie (the M24 Healthie who was our program's previous PCVL)
- June 6: Comments back from Headquarters asking for clarification on our PCVL work assignments (not the easy process we were looking for)
- June 7: The M27s arrive! (more commonly known as the "newbies" or, more bureaucratically, the "trainees")
- June 7: I opt instead for a monitoring and evaluation trip out to 2 Public Achievement groups on the borderlands with Transnistrea (the newbies will see plenty of me soon enough)
- June 8: Bill's going-away BBQ
- June 11: Health Education technical sessions ("tech") for PST begin; my personal life ends
- June 11-15: First week of PST
- June 14: Elvira (the HE Program Manager) has an accident and suffers a severe contusion to her foot, effectively taking her out of the first 5 weeks of PST and complicating things for everyone a bit
- June 15: Lease ends on Bill's house (earlier than expected) and 2 months of vagabondage begin
- June 16: Final Public Achievement Conference
- June 18 - 22: Second week of PST
- June 23-25: Two sacred nights back in the village
- June 26: Bill and I leave for vacation! Desperately needed.
- June 26 - July 8: A great 2 week romp begins that takes us to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Annual HIA Conference and a week in Italy with Jess and her fam
- July 8: I return to Moldova but Bill heads off to Poland
- July 9: Back to the grind, while luckily the trainees are on visit to their future site and it gives me a couple days to catch up
- Also, the Stenbergs (Heath and Leigh) COS, marking the full start of COS season and a constant string of goodbyes to the volunteers I've served with for 2 years
- July 13: One treasured night back in the village, it will be the only one this month
- July 14: Opening of a SPA-funded basketball court outside Chisinau
- July 17-18: Trainees conduct micro-lessons, their first time teaching in Romanian
- July 19: We finally simulate the simulation game designed as a Peace Corps training tool!
- July 22: A day off. Strange.
- July 25: Lindsay Wing, my best friend of the past 2 years COSes. F@!#.
- July 27: Final Practice School prep time with Trainees; first Practice School tears
- Sometime in July: apartment search
- July 30 - August 4: Practice School Week 1, more tears ensue
- Bill gets back
- August 6 - 11: Practice School Week 2, slightly fewer tears
- August 10: Moving day! (Finally get to move into a permanent home)
- Aug. 15: Trainees swear in and become Volunteers! Immediately leave for their new sites. They're a great group, pretty well prepared, and we didn't lose a single one from the Health Program.
- Exhale sigh of relief.
- Aug. 20: Facilitate Haiducii for a summer camp
- Aug. 21: PCVL training (better late than never)
- Aug. 26 - 29: In the village (now officially my former site) for 4 days of facilitating technology seminars
- Aug. 30: Technology training for another volunteer's school (luckily close to Chisinau that it was a day-trip)
And that pretty much brings us to today. Cheers!
Over the past couple months, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of extending my Peace Corps service. In fact, this post comes a bit late – my proposal is already submitted, and if post (Moldova) and headquarters (D.C.) accept me, it’s almost definite I’ll be sticking around in Moldova for a bit longer.
One thing that has been surprising while mulling my possibilities is the dearth of materials out there for current volunteers who are trying to decide whether or not to extend their service. While a quick search turns up thousands of pages worth of advice on the initial decision regarding Peace Corps service, there is little other than the scarce blog post to be found on sticking around once in country. In any case, here are the various factors I have considered:
· Ongoing projects
· Opportunity costs
· Potential for impact in Moldova
· Potential for impact on Health Education program
· Potential for impact on Peace Corps/Moldova
· Realistic need to eventually begin earning a more serious income if I ever want to support a family
Fleshing those factors out a bit yielded a healthy set of pros and cons, with some serious heavyweights on both sides.
(in favor of extension)
· Guaranteed positive use of next year of time
· Due to lack of time to conduct a job search at present, there would probably be a gap in employment post-Peace Corps if I leave this summer; thus, I probably wouldn’t be sacrificing a full year of employment to extend.
· Life in the States/Western Europe is expensive (see opportunity cost above re: probability of joblessness)
· All living expenses, plus medical expenses are taken care of here. Combined with the two pros above, this seriously mitigates the financial disincentive of extending.
· Since Jess can’t do the Iron Curtain bike trip, extending doesn’t mean sacrificing that opportunity (the two were mutually exclusive for a variety of scheduling issues)
· For 1 year extension: 1 month paid home leave
· Ongoing projects, particularly the national simulation project, which I’d like to see through to evaluation stage
· Great job flexibility, plus, I love my job
· Health program undergoing a strategic re-orientation at the same time the Moldovan education system going through a significant set of reforms, meaning this could be a particularly exciting moment to be involved at a higher level in the health program
· Potential to positively impact Peace Corps Moldova
· The pay’s not so hot here
· The gap in employment probably wouldn’t last a year, so at some point during the extension I am sacrificing a fuller salary. Ultimately, if finances are a key consideration, there’s little doubt I would do better outside of Peace Corps.
· For less than 1 year extension: no home leave (long time without seeing family/friends)
· Relatively little support for ongoing professional development, i.e. it will be primarily experiential and self-driven
Then there are a number of factors which are a wash:
· Family/friends: I’ve chosen a life abroad, so even if I’m not here, it’s unlikely that I’d be based near them. In a new job I wouldn’t get vacation right away, but there would probably be an employment gap during which to visit family. On the other hand, even with extension there is the month of home leave if extending for a year.
· Career #1: I’ve been unable to find any advice from RPCVs (former volunteers) who have extended, so I’m not really sure about the career impact of staying for another year. On the positive side, 3 years shows a strong commitment while 2 years is a shorter time, and my increased responsibilities during the third year would be similar to a promotion, thus showing growth in the position. On the unknown side, some employers may look at all PC service as the same, regardless of function.
· Career #2: without having a tangible job offer, it’s very hard to know if an unknown potential job would be a better or worse experience.
In the end, the most important factors ended up being that last one: in the face of the unknown, it is very difficult to walk away from something that is so obviously going well. So, too, was my final judgment regarding my potential to impact Peace Corps Moldova and the Health Program (last 2 bullets in the pro/con list). It was up in the air for about a month as to which column those two factors would fall into; going onto the con side of the ledger would have tipped the balance.
The bigger strategic questions aside, there is also the fact that it is the volunteer’s responsibility to craft the proposal. Even as a PCVL, there would be significant leeway in which leadership tasks I choose to assist with, as there are far too many to take them all on. And it’s not necessarily 1 year or nothing, I could also do just 6 or 9 months. So on top of the decision of whether to extend are a number of smaller decisions regarding how long to extend, whether or not to move, which tasks I want to do as a PCVL, and who my Moldovan partners will be for the portion of my job outside of Peace Corps. The effect of all this is to make the extension decision less one of black and white and more a shades of gray issue.
On these points, our Country Director, Jeffrey, made it pretty clear that he would like me to stick around for a full year extension. I initially remained hesitant, but it is much easier to leave early during an extension than it is to re-extend an extension, a subtle but effective push toward submitting a proposal toward the longer end. The home leave also made a big difference. I have requested the leave over the winter holidays, which while slightly later than Peace Corps would prefer, makes sense given my responsibilities next year and our training calendar. Also, this naturally builds in a mid-point chance for reflection to evaluate whether the extension is working for all parties. Meanwhile, with my Program Manager, Elvira, we seem to have found a workable relationship that gives me enough of a stake in the Health Program’s direction during its revision, but does not diminish her position as the program’s top staff person.
Combined, these reassurances convinced me that while the decision can involve many varying degrees of commitment, the right decision was to go all in. Ultimately, the chance to help re-shape the health program at a strategic juncture won the day. Having submitted the proposal, once again it’s up to the fates! Though this time, instead of a shiny FedEx package I’ll just have my fingers crossed for an upbeat email.
This is the second post in this series on extending service beyond the initial two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The prelude to this post gives the story of my thoughts on extension for the first year and a half of service. This post covers practical policy aspects of extension.
Before covering my decision-making process regarding extension (pt. III) and the specifics of what I would likely be doing during an extension (pt. IV), it occurred to me that for those readers who aren’t familiar with the bureaucratic details of my world, a brief overview is in order so as to make sense of the rest of these posts. As such, this one is mostly for those back home who aren’t so steeped in handbooks, policy guidelines, and other such light reading on the details of Peace Corps.
Upon the successful completion of two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (not including training), a small group of volunteers may elect to extend their service. The “extension” is calculated from the original Close of Service (COS) date, which is two years from the day that a Trainee takes the oath and becomes a full volunteer. They then receive a new COS date reflecting the term of extension. In the PC vernacular, a person who has extended beyond their original COS date is an “extendee”.
An extension may last a maximum of 2 additional years (making the total service 4 years + Pre-Service Training) and occurs in the same country as the initial tour. A volunteer extending less than a year simply tacks on the additional time and gets a new, later COS date. A volunteer extending for 1 year or more, however, is entitled to 30 days “special leave”, during which Peace Corps pays the expense and grants what is essentially extra vacation time in order to travel home. The leave cannot be taken before the original COS date, but one is encouraged to not delay it significantly into the extension. Additionally, the extendee is allowed to receive up to 1/3 of their readjustment allowance (the approximately $7,000 one gets at the end of service). Readjustment allowance is calculated on a monthly basis ($250/month), but for extendees, regardless of the term of the extension the rate is increased to $350/month. Basically, what this boils down to are some pretty hefty bonuses to those who have been living the Peace Corps lifestyle for just over 2 years. Still with me?
In order to extend, a volunteer must be in good standing with the agency, which in Moldova essentially boils down to good conduct and positive evaluations from one’s program manager. Additionally, it requires medical clearance, something that cannot be granted until 90 days prior to the originally-scheduled COS date.
A volunteer must also submit a proposal outlining what they intend to do during the extension and why they think it is important. In the case of a short extension – sometimes even just a month or two – this often involves closing out a key project or ensuring its sustainability in a situation where for whatever reason that cannot happen in the volunteer’s original timeframe. The final decision is made by the Country Director in consultation with the post’s Senior Staff, though of course Washington always gets the final say.
In the case of a longer extension, a the extendee may also move sites (home and workplace). Regardless of whether or not the extendee moves, their service should represent “expanded duties”, i.e. one cannot extend simply to continue doing exactly what they were doing for the previous two years. There has to be a growth. In this way, one is not only extending length service, but also the scope or depth of the service itself. From the agencies perspective, after two years a successful volunteer shouldn’t really be doing what they were originally brought in to do – there are new volunteers being rotated in for that – one should be moving on to new challenges.
Finally, globally Peace Corps has one particular track known as “Peace Corps Volunteer Leader” (PCVL). Broadly, the position is described as such:
The Peace Corps Act authorizes the Agency to enroll Volunteer Leaders whose services are requested for supervisory or other special duties or responsibilities in connection with Peace Corps programs overseas. It is Peace Corps policy to enroll Volunteer Leaders when their assistance provides added value to the Agency's overseas programs...Volunteer Leaders provide direction or guidance.
Different countries structure PCVL programs differently, but common tasks include:
· Acting as liaison among Volunteers, host country supervisors, and Peace Corps staff;
· Assisting Peace Corps staff in site selection and placement of new Volunteers;
· Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and implementation of Volunteer training;
· Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and evaluation of Volunteer projects; and
· Assisting Peace Corps staff in the provision of logistical and administrative support to Volunteers and Trainees.
Not all countries have PCVLs, though Washington has been very encouraging of the program in recent years. Overall, a post should not exceed a ratio of more than 1 PCVL to 25 volunteers. For Moldova, that caps us at around 4, which is fitting since our PCVLs are programmatically focused, essentially making them the senior volunteer in 1 of our 4 projects (English Education, Health Education, Agriculture, and Community Development). Moldova piloted a limited version of PCVL during my first year of service (2010-11) and last summer brought in the first full PCVLs on 2 of the 4 programs.
While a PCVL’s primary focus is improving the project they are assigned to and supporting broader post-initiatives, they are still volunteers. As such, at any given time they must be involved in at least one activity aimed to build capacity amongst-host country nationals, although that activity may represent a small amount of overall work time.
So, what does this all mean for me? Well first, as probably guessed by this point, the specific extension I’m considering would be as the PCVL for the Health Program. As such, it is highly encouraged that the extension be for a full year, but not mandatory. A serious PCVL proposal, however, would need to be for at least the better part of a year. Which brings us to second, which is the decision of whether to opt for a shorter 9 month extension or go for the grand tour of a full year, which effects many other things like whether I get 1 month home leave. It also informs the broader question of how I propose to craft an extension, including PCVL to host-country national balance, where I live, and what partnerships compliment PCVL responsibilities. Third, it means I have until 5/9/2012 to submit the final version of my extension proposal, after which point I will be at the mercies of higher powers. Finally, it means that formal approval cannot come before May 18, as that is the 90 day mark before my originally scheduled COS date of August 18 and that is the earliest day I can be medically cleared.
So, with that, we blaze on bravely ahead, coming up to our next post, part III of this series, where I will consider the pros and cons of whether or not to chum about with the Moldovans a bit longer.