Advice to Incoming Peace Corps Volunteers

February 5, 2010

An incoming Peace Corps Trainee sent me a message the other day, asking about my story, and what information I could give on the disciplinary process and standards of the Peace Corps – the “dark side” if you will.  Here is my response to him, and to anyone else wondering the same:

Congratulations on the PC acceptance – that application process is an ordeal wrapped around a shit sandwich, and I still remember the immense relief and joy I felt at finally KNOWING that I was going somewhere, anywhere, and that it hadn’t all been in vain.

Yes, to answer your question succinctly – they really will kick people out for bad behavior, as defined by them, by the Peace Corps handbook, and (this is the kicker) for Trainees, “at the discretion of the Country Director.”  What this last one means is that during training, from day 1 until you swear in, you can be removed from the program without warning, without any specific rule violation, and without ANY RECOURSE WHATSOEVER.  This was my situation – I was removed from FBT a week before Swear-in and subsequently given the options of 1) resigning my post, getting what small sum I had earned for my service, and going home immediately, or 2) refusing, getting kicked out, getting nothing, and being forever barred from serving with the PC in the future.  What I wasn’t told was that in order to have any legal or formal grounds to protest my dismissal, you MUST make them expel you from the program, but even that ground is very, very slim.  As the regional director of Central America in 2009 put it to me “we don’t interfere with the discretionary decisions of Country Directors.”  To conclude: as a PCT, you have no rights, you have no standing, you are there are the pleasure of the PC.

That said, the best advice I can give you is simply to not fuck around, at least not before Swearing in!  Really, it’s 90 days, unless you’re a total idiot, you should be able to keep on your best behavior for at least that long!  Granted, it’s degrading, constrictive, and insulting to your basic humanity, but the reward is 2 years of much looser supervision and a much healthier relationship with the administration.  Volunteers have rights again, they are protected by the rulebook, and are infinitely more autonomous and free to act than Trainees.  If you can make it through training, you will probably not get kicked out so long as you aren’t blatant about your rulebreaking.

You will break rules.  Yes, you.  I’m guaranteeing this you, and if you read through your rulebook, you will probably see why.  The rules aren’t written for you, the human being, but instead for you, the idealized model of a Peace Corps Volunteer.  They protect the organization from being liable for things that happen to you, and give them a better means with which to control you.  Yes, some of the rules, if followed, will keep you safer, but no, that isn’t the primary goal.  The organization comes first, in their eyes, and you are a distant, far-off speck of a third or fifth.  If you stay with the PC, you will eventually come to terms with this in your own way – everyone I’ve met has found their own workarounds and coping methods, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who lives inside of all the rules.  You’d self-destruct, most likely, from the sheer insanity of contorting yourself that badly!  Thus, I’m pretty confident that you will break the rules, and often, during your service.  The advice I give you assumes that you will.

Here’s the take-away portion of this ramble: different violations are weighted more or less heavily based on your personal circumstances.  If you are a nurse, teacher, or engineer, you can bend or break a lot more rules than if you are a 23 year old college grad with no experience.  It’s just a fact of life – to the organization you are a tool, and thus your personal usefulness to them and their goals is taken in as a factor in disciplinary action.  If you were a 40 year old pediatric doctor with  perfect Spanish who happened to be having a midlife crisis and doing an amazing job volunteering, I’d give it about 50% that you could have an illegitimate child with a local teenager, and the PC would cover for you.  As a recent college grad with basic language skills and no specialized degree, you are a pity case in many ways, and don’t get nearly the same leeway.  Don’t get angry, just keep this in mind – I’m not trying to discourage you, but giving you the warning that I wish someone had passed to me.

This might help you to keep in mind – here are the Peace Corps’ top priorities as I see them:

1) Liability
2) Their Image
3) Washington DC Politics (Ex: Honduras’ program is rated against the other nations, lets appear better than the others, and get more funding and attention.)
4) Your Safety
5) Your Work and Progress
6) Your needs and wants

Bear in mind, that’s my opinion – I don’t have a magic list of how the admin thinks, but I’ve seen the Peace Corps from a position very few volunteers get to, which is to say living in the same nation, working in the same fields, and from across the Director’s desk as she kicks you to the curb.  You’ll see some of this regardless, like in Safety&Security briefings where you are advised to not resist rapists and possible killers in any way, but much of it is impossible to see without being first inside and later out.  A lot of the Peace Corps’ partners, the local and foreign NGOs you will be interacting with, will express a lot of frustration about the organization, it’s policies, and limitations.  Again, not discouraging, but giving you a view of how some people see the group from the outside.

Anyway, just be forever wary of everything higher than you on that priority list – those things are more important than you, and so you’d be well advised to keep them in mind when deciding what you should and shouldn’t do.  You do have allies – you aren’t alone in this, and I would never want to leave you with the idea that this is some sort of strict, rule-centric environment where nobody has any fun. The volunteers are your allies in this, as they have had to go through the same ordeals, and have a much clearer picture of how things work.  Befriend them, intimidating as things might seem in the first days and weeks, and you’ll find that they have a lot of very good advice and guidance.  Some of them might even teach you what you can do, what is particularly frowned upon, how to jalon, and they’ll give you your best view into how things work – I’ve been out for too long, things have changed, the rules are enforced differently.  Know that they have been in your shoes, have had your doubts and fears, and are stronger for the help of the volunteers above them.  Let them help you.

Lastly, let me give you an idea of the things that I did that would constitute bad behavior, what got me removed from the organization, and a few final thoughts on the matters of behavior, discipline, and rulebreaking.

Here’s what I did that would constitute “bad behavior” by PC standards:
-Left training site without informing administration
-Went to a concert in Tegucigalpa without permission
-hitchhiked, repeatedly
-rode a motorcycle
-didn’t wear a helmet
-Went to bars in my site, smoked cigarettes
-Was drunk in bars in my site
-Smoked weed with volunteers
-Smoked weed with locals
-Left site during my volunteer visit to go to the beach
-Separated from my volunteer during the visit

Here’s what I was removed for:
-Writing in a US college newspaper, without permission, attempting to persuade graduates to consider volunteer work in lieu of immediately entering the workforce or continuing their education.  (Key part: get permission!)
-Using bad language in this writing, painting the organization in a negative fashion.
-Writing unflatteringly of my work and local customs online (Twitter, titles of blog posts which were passworded)
-“Cultural Insensitivity”
-“Subversive attitude”

As you can see from this, I did a lot of things that could have justified my removal from the Peace Corps.  Despite this, what did get me in trouble were not the things that endangered myself, or went against my work.  Instead, the things that got me thrown out were those that threatened to damage priorities 1),2),or 3) – Liability, Image, and politics.  If your goal is stay in the organization, the rules you need to follow are those which protect the highest priorities.

You can get away with a whole lot if you’re careful, and a whole lot more, albeit for a shorter time span, if you’re reckless.  There are “bad” volunteers that don’t spend any time in their sites, travel around to party, smoke, drink, and party their way through service, who never get in trouble for it.  There are dedicated, serious volunteers who get thrown out for stupid, idiotic reasons, or for first time violations of petty rules.  It’s all about how good you are at hiding what you do, and how smart you are about your behavior – don’t get cocky, cover your bases, and you can do anything you want.

Am I advocating rulebreaking?  I guess I am, but that’s consistent with my personal philosophy – I don’t condone following regulations that you don’t personally agree with.  If you like smoking pot, taking vacations, or living with your boyfriend, and are willing to accept the consequences of being caught for this, then by all means do it!  Better to murder a nursing infant than to nurse an unacted desire – the very attempt to hide yourself, to lie to the world and your own soul is so much more deeply damaging!

I am the conundrum I suppose – the guy who got thrown out but chose to stay, the black sheep who somehow has a rather good reputation with the remaining volunteers.  All I can say is be true to yourself, and if that jeopardizes your service, then perhaps you weren’t meant to be in such a restrictive, conservative organization.  Many people are not!  A full 40% of my H14 class has since returned to other lives, mostly in the US, though I know a few have gone on to other locations.  Honduras is not for everyone, the Peace Corps either, so you should feel no shame in leaving if that is your desire.  It will prove better for yourself, and for the organization too, than for you to remain unhappily and help no one!

Just one last piece of advice, and this will apply somewhat to everyone, but mainly to those who get kicked out – you are a human being, a free, intelligent, and interdependent soul.  You are not scum, you are not a tool, you are not the property of the US government, the Peace Corps, or your director.  It is easy to forget this in the training process – subservience is one of their goals in creating successful volunteers.  If you find yourself facing disciplinary action, remember all of this above all else – you don’t owe them anything!  You enter your service freely, willingly, and as a gift to them.  Never let anyone make you feel guilty for what they have given you, for your gift was far more precious.  Never let them intimidate you, make you cry, or feel worthless.  The Peace Corps does not play nice with those it has discarded, and so you should not attempt to “be the bigger person” or act reconciliatory.  Fuck that!  They owe you volunteers everything, but act as if you are their property.  Never surrender to that sort of attitude, and you will have a much healthier time in your service, and especially in leaving it.

Thanks for taking the time to read this ramble – if you found it useful, pass it along, and if you have any more questions, I’ll happily answer what I can, or pass you along to those who will.  You can and probably will have an amazing time in the Corps, my experience was an outlier and an unfortunate one at that, so please – enter this commitment free, open, and ready for anything.  I just can’t let anyone go off without knowing the darker possibilities!  Have the best of times, and keep in touch – I wish you only the best.  Mucha suerte, contestame pronto!

Ciao -k

PS: here is the longer version of how I got kicked out of the Peace Corps


8 Responses to “Advice to Incoming Peace Corps Volunteers”

  1. Smoke Relief Says:

    Will anyone be ready to smell a smoke smell on me?

  2. tsch Says:

    so does that mean that you cant smoke cigarettes at all…or do they just let it pass, im confused by this and i am an avid smoker. but id love to go to the peace corps.

  3. fml Says:

    i’m getting ready to do complete the medical kit, so i’m not an official volunteer or trainee yet. but would it affect my eligibility if they found weed in my system?

  4. ttime Says:

    Any experience/knowledge regarding the PC accepting/rejecting volunteers who have/had a medical marijuana card? Is that something that comes up in the medical history check?

  5. fffff Says:

    i’m actually preparing to depart next month for training. I haven’t been drug tested, do they at any point in the trainee stage test you?

  6. Carmon Says:

    I just like the helpful info you provide for your articles.

    I will bookmark your blog and test again here frequently.
    I am relatively certain I’ll learn lots of new stuff proper right here! Best of luck for the next!

  7. WAVErealm Says:

    I got kicked out today. call me, I could use a few words of wisdom. 2083139515

  8. Ha, I got kicked out in training back in 2010. Never did anything illegal, but man, I didnt recover for a long, long time.

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