As you know from last week’s post, Rob and I recently early terminated (ET) our service with the Peace Corps. Though many volunteers ET from their service for a huge variety of reasons, it’s a rather mysterious process to those who aren’t on their way out. ET happens differently for each volunteer, but there are a few set of norms. Today, I want to demystify this process (to the extent of our experience).
Here’s what happens when you voluntarily decide to leave the Peace Corps.
Rob and I got notice that I had been offered a PhD position in Norway early this month while we were on vacation with my parents (who were visiting from Alaska!).
After much squealing and excitement, we knew we would have to ET from our service. We were actually really unsure of what to do at this point. We knew that we wanted to spend our last week with my family and then return to our site, but we had also heard that Peace Corps wants to get you out of the country ASAP once you announce your intentions to ET. We reviewed our handbook (the Bible of Peace Corps regulations for PCVs) and decided the best course would be to inform our program manager and go from there.
Our program manager is wonderful and has backed our efforts throughout our service (from net grants to marriages!). He congratulated us on our decision and facilitated passing our intentions to ET on to our Country Director. From there, we worked with our CD to determine a good time for us to make the transition from site to getting on the plane. For us, we had three major steps:
1. Leave our site in an orderly manner
2. Visit our provincial house and work with our volunteer leader to return Peace Corps-issued items (bikes and our water filter).
3. Travel to Lusaka to complete our medical clearance and administrative clearance with Peace Corps staff.
We chose a busy week to ET where provincial staff were not able to come and get us from our site. So, we had two busy days packing up all our things and giving away everything else (Christmas in July in our village!), and then we had to arrange our own transport to our provincial capital. I think if we had ET’d at a less busy time, Peace Corps would have been willing to come and pick us up.Leaving our village was both really hard, and surprisingly easy. We returned to our village with just three full days to get ourselves ready to go. We knew that our leaving would mean that people would be all over the emotional map. Some people would be very sad to see us leave. Some people might feel betrayed by our departure. Some people might feel happy to see those damn muzungus get out of town. And, as we were dreading, some people might feel that it was free reign on all the stuff in our house.
So, to negotiate all of that, we told our closest friends and neighbors about our departure. They were sad to see us go, but Zambians also handle departure and loss with grace and aplomb. As the village gossip mill spun wildly over the weekend, people from other villages began arriving at our doorstep to verify the rumors that we were leaving. We had to sadly explain, “Eh mukwai, twapita.” Yes, we are going. It was hard, but the goodbyes and “we hope you returns” from so many people were heartbreakingly wonderful to receive. We hadn’t appreciated that so many people knew us, cared about us, and were sad to see us go.
Over the weekend, we packed up all our things and began to give away all our household goods. Each of our neighboring families (like Tamar, who you may remember) received a giant bucket and shopping bag full of food items, plastics, and other items difficult to find in the villages. People were very happy to receive goodies, but contrary to our expectations, there was no horde of people waiting to adopt our things. This may sound very negative on our part, but people in the village have long and openly coveted many of our goods and had placed claims on certain items over a year in advance of our original departure. So, knowing that Zambia always wins in the end, we planned for the worst and were delightfully surprised by the sane and sensible departure we had.
We left the village on a Monday morning thanks in huge part to our missionary friends, Rita and Steve, who went way beyond the call of duty and picked us up with our mountain of junk (where did we even get all this crap?). Our best friends gathered around our hut as I locked the door for the final time. There were big smiles, big hugs, and many hands shaken in a farewell. I exhibited extreme emotional control to not bawl like a child in front of everyone, as Zambians aren’t big on tearful emotional displays (except at funerals, but we were just leaving, not dying). It felt like suddenly our last 16 months of struggle and illness and work and sweat and toe-infesting parasites were suddenly coming down to these few minutes of goodbye. These last few moments with friends whose depth of love and care for us is indescribable. I had a sudden feeling of homelessness as we pulled away and the hut disappeared behind the wall of waving hands and smiling faces. This place had been a home, even if I had never quiet gotten away from the feeling of a being a stranger in the village. And now were were leaving. Yes, for a big, wonderful, fully-funded adventure of my academic dreams, but we were also giving up this dream to do it. Peace Corps and Zambia and all that those things had entailed for us, was over. I know it would have ended 10 months later anyway, but somehow it felt a little harder because were were choosing to end the adventure early. But, that’s the difficulty of decisions.
“We are our choices.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
After we left our village, we spent one day at our provincial capital handing over our Peace Corps items and buying tickets for the bus to Lusaka the next day. We were lucky to come to the house during our provincial meetings, which meant we were able to say goodbye to all the volunteers in our province. Sometimes you don’t realize the friends you’ve made until it’s time to part. We had some really special goodbyes and got on the bus at 5am the next morning with full hearts (and suitcases).
Our time in Lusaka was surprisingly easy. Peace Corps has a checklist of things you have to complete/write/sign/etc. before you can leave the country. Peace Corps booked us tickets all the way back to Homer, Alaska (where I’m from and Rob had changed his home of record to), and we spent a full day checking out with various administrative folks. We met with our country director, our program manager, and medical. Because we were departing the next day, medical staff didn’t have enough time to complete a physical and so sent us home with lots of vouchers to have our post-Peace Corps medical work done at home. We each wrote a Description of Service (DOS) report that detailed our trainings, project goals, and our actual work as volunteers. This DOS is what will prove our service and act as a “Peace Corps resume” for future employers. We didn’t ask for non-competitive eligibility because we’re not returning to the states for work. I’m not sure if they would have give it to us, but we qualified for it (since we had completed one full year of service prior to our ET) and I’m reasonably certain they would have granted it if we had asked.
There was a surprising amount of money involved in our departure. We had received our living allowance for July and a payment to attend our provincial meetings, both of which we had to return to Peace Corps (as well as the pro-rated part of our June living allowance that we weren’t using since we were leaving before June 30th). Peace Corps then gave us per diem for being in Lusaka (as is standard PCZambia policy) and “transit money” for our trip home (about $32USD), so there was a lot of money being handed back and forth at the cashier’s office. We were pretty frugal with our living allowance, so we ended up with about 4000 Zambian kwacha (about $550USD) we had previous saved (which we were allowed to keep). So, overall, a pretty nice chunk of cash to go home with. On top of that, all volunteers accrue their readjustment allowance (the money you receive at the end of your Peace Corps service) throughout their service. For us, we received about $4,600USD (each) after 14 months of service and 16 months of being in Zambia. So, financially Peace Corps worked out really well for us and fully-funded our move to Norway and our time back in America visiting family (where we are now).
A final note on medical: so far we haven’t run into any obstacles in receiving the post-service care Peace Corps promises, but we’ll wait until the final bills have been paid (hopefully in full by Peace Corps) before I breathe a sigh of relief. Because we had recently had our mid-term conference where all volunteers undergo a medical evaluation (including dental), there were some things we didn’t have to do when we arrived home. Sadly, stool samples were not one of those things and so we’re busy collecting three days worth of that before we’re able to turn all our tests in and wait for results (stool samples are important for parasite and ova detection). Bleah.
Additionally, Peace Corps gives volunteers who ET the same one month of insurance coverage that COSing volunteers receive. So, we’re covered up until the end of this month. Then, we have the option to buy two additional months (it’s about $250USD/person) of coverage. I like this option, but since we’re moving to Norway (hooray socialized medicine!), we won’t have need for additional coverage.
So, there you have it. That’s what happens (to us, anyway) when you ET from the Peace Corps. Overall, I felt really good about our departure. Peace Corps lets you go pretty easily when you decide you want to leave, and staff are well-trained (in Zambia, anyway) to handle the departure. When we ran into staff in the office and they learned we were ETing, they had obviously been trained not to ask why. We told them, and their faces brightened with happiness for our new opportunity, but it was clear that volunteers are supposed to be treated with discretion and respect for their choice to leave Peace Corps, no matter what the reason may be. There were a few communication problems that created stress over our ET, and I know not all volunteers have had the pleasant experience that we did. But, I hope that this post sheds some light on the process for anyone who is curious.
Last note: if you do plan to ET, I highly recommend not telling Peace Corps until you are absolutely, 100% ready to leave your village/community. We almost didn’t have the opportunity to leave our village gracefully due to some communication problems and some misunderstandings about our intent to leave. This post could have had a really different ending if we hadn’t had a good relationship with Peace Corps administrative staff and were able to work things out with them. So, if you’re ready to leave the Peace Corps, be sure your bags are pretty much packed before you make that phone call.
And to all those who are in the Peace Corps and considering an ET, remember that there is no wrong reason to ET. Life is full of choices, and your service will ultimately be what you bring home with you and the memories you leave in your community. Do what you can to make those memories fond and what you bring home with you luggage, not baggage. Enjoy your service and remember to let it change you, and if it’s time to come home (for whatever reason), be proud of your decision to go in the first place.