A foreigner in a fishbowl

Last year, Meaghan Eicher (’13) was riding a roller coaster of time, emotion and effort. The JMU English graduate with a minor in humanitarian affairs was eagerly seeking a spot in the American Peace Corps. Recently, we heard from a jubilant Meaghan who has finally finished the extensive application and interview process, finally gotten her invitation to join, and finally — in a matter of days — will begin her Peace Corps service. She’ll be traveling to the Republic of Benin in West Africa, on the adventure of a lifetime. While in Benin, Meaghan will serve as a secondary education English volunteer. She’ll be keeping a blog while she’s gone, and we will be following her.  

Today in a guest blog, Meaghan explains more of the process that has her headed to West Africa…..

Becoming a foreigner in a fishbowl

by Meaghan Eicher (’13)

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

If anyone decides to apply to the Peace Corps, my advice to you would be: buckle up, it’s going to be a long ride. But I promise you, it’ll be worth it.

The Peace Corps application process will test your patience. It will have you sitting on the edge of your chair every moment of every day. You will wonder if in the end it’s all worth the pain and agony of not knowing. Many people drop out of the process because other opportunities arise, they aren’t medically cleared, or the process simply takes too long. It’s not for the faint of heart, but don’t let it deter you. If you have the volunteer experience, if you are healthy, and if you have the desire to serve and see it through, then you have a fighting chance.

My application was on the tail end of the Peace Corps’ old system. This simply means that in my interview, I was not told what I would be nominated for or the region where I would be going. It wasn’t until months later during my placement interview that they told me the general region and the sector. The exact country and program finally came on my Invitation. The newer system, now in place, allows prospective candidates to choose and rank the countries that they would be interested in, based on their qualifications and what programs are open. This isn’t to say the country you choose is the definite location, as anything can change. But it gives you some sense and a general idea of where you’d be going and what you would be doing.

After you receive a nomination, then you must provide your medical history. You will obtain and submit various doctors’ notes, and the PC medical office will review your file and pre-medically clear you. At this time, you will also fill out paperwork for a legal clearance. If you are pre-medically cleared, your application is then moved to the placement queue. They will ask you additional questions about your volunteer experience and about your goals and expectations. A Placement Officer will then contact you and interview you for a placement. If you are deemed qualified, and upon accepting an invitation for service, you must then go through the final medical clearance process. This is when you have to get all the necessary check-ups and shots. Nothing is set-in-stone until you receive that final medical clearance. Though the whole application process can seem lengthy, it is created that way for a reason. Upon receiving final medical clearance, the last step is simply to get ready, physically and mentally.

Preparations too, vary from person to person. One volunteer could end up living in an urban city in a nice apartment with hot water and electricity, while another volunteer could end up living in a little bungalow on a small island with no running water and no electricity. It all depends on the region and the specific site placement. But each volunteer knows that he or she needs to pack smartly — and lightly. You just don’t know what your site placement will be or what you’ll have access to until you arrive and are assigned a site. So, pack culturally appropriate clothes, the proper electronics, and only the essentials but enough of them until you can figure out where and if you can restock. Sound confusing? Yes, it kind of is. But many current volunteers will share packing list ideas with the future volunteers, so in the grand scheme of things, packing is the least of the preparation worries. The most important pre-departure preparation is to spend as much time as possible with friends and family. Their love and support are the biggest things that you will need to take with you when you go.

The last piece to pre-departure preparation is mental. Yet this is something that starts way before the application process — when that first inkling of an idea forms in the back of your mind that you might want to join the Peace Corps. That’s when it starts. Living in a developing country alongside your community members will not be easy. You will be a foreigner, and you will live in a fishbowl with all eyes on you, all the time. You will have to work hard to dispel common stereotypes, and integrate into your community as best you can. You will have to learn a new language, sometimes two, and adjust to a simpler way of living. You might be the only volunteer in your community, and you might have to travel long distances to visit a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. But they say that the physical hardships will get easier. You adapt and adjust to the weather, the food, washing your clothes by hand, and taking bucket baths. Though tough at first, that turns into the easy part. They say that it will often be difficult in ways that you do not expect. You will have to work within very limited resources, with limited supervision. Working amidst the cultural norms that you don’t agree with will be hard; It will be completely different from everything you were taught and grew up with. It will challenge you mentally and force you to analyze your own culture and question everything you thought you knew.

You will experience culture shock when you arrive in a country, and reverse culture shock when you return home. You will wonder and question what your role is, and what impact you are having.

Yet amidst all the questions, the nerves, the packing, and the saying goodbyes, there is a thread of excitement. There is this prospect of adventure, and wonder, and this mysterious feeling of not-knowing. You will get the opportunity to be challenged in ways you never thought possible, and you will grow from those experiences. You will learn about a new culture, rich with history. Your community will share their culture, and you will share yours. You will get to work and live alongside people completely different from you; they will teach you, and you will teach them. You will share skills, and work side-by-side toward a common goal. You don’t go into the Peace Corps expecting to change the world… that isn’t a realistic expectation. But you can go in with the expectation that you will be able to assist a community with their goals and projects. It will be difficult, but it will be life changing. There’s a reason they call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s volunteer experience will be different. You could have read a million different PCV blogs (like I did) to gain a sense of what it might be like to serve overseas. You could read some of the hundreds of memoirs and books published about PCVs. Many do offer great insights and realistic views of the PCV life. But while there may be similar themes found throughout each volunteer’s story, each service will be unique and no two people will have the same experiences. Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith, and let your own story unfold before you.

You can find and follow Meghan’s Benin adventure at her blog: http://meaghaneicher.wordpress.com/





About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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