Peace Corps Vs. Teaching Abroad: Finding My Path After Graduation

As my college career at Chestnut Hill College (CHC) is quickly coming to an end, like most graduates, I’ve been struggling with what I want to do with my degrees in psychology and global affairs. CHC let me expand my leadership skills, both academically and socially, as well as gave me a place to make new friendships. With only 2 months left (specifically 44 days but who’s counting) until my graduation, figuring out the next steps for my life has been on my mind daily. But let’s back track for a second.

In June 2017, I had just gotten back from an amazing experience of living in Europe for 7 months. First studying abroad in Paris, France and then going on a three-week tour through the Scottish Highlands, small towns of England, and AMAZING Snowdonia National Park in Wales (seriously, you have to go in their lifetime, if they have the opportunity- just look it up). With 25 countries checked off in my Been app when I returned home, I couldn’t wait to get back out into the world to explore. But the logistics of: how to pay for it and when I would have the time to go, settled in. Sadly, I accepted the fact that I would not be traveling anymore until after graduation.

I worked all summer at a camp where I was able to meet girls from around the world in exchange programs working at other camps in the area. They served as my ticket to the world through their stories and adventures. As the end of the summer approached I was getting more questions by friends and family (though mostly family because they want to know what I am doing at all time) about what I was going to do after I graduate. THIS IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION! And since then I get asked it more times than I can count. I started to sit down to really think about this question because I had NO IDEA and if anyone reading this is going through something similar I just want to say that THIS IS COMPLETELY NORMAL! I’d say that if you knew what you wanted to do or know where you wanted to apply for jobs, you’re in the minority and I envy you.

I sat in my room pondering this question with the help of YouTube videos (wayyyy too many YouTube videos, which often ended in me watching travel videos), books, and just talking to my recent graduated friends. I had this dream of serving in Peace Corps and for those of you who don’t know, it’s a program ran by the US government to send US citizens in developing countries to work on projects in various fields (environment, health care, economic development, etc.).  I realized that after I graduate would be the perfect time to do something like this because it is a long commitment of just over 2 years abroad and being only 21 I wouldn’t have any ties- except my cat, damn do I love my cat. I decided to reach out to recruiter and after many hours at Starbucks and revisions with his help, I applied to Peace Corps. I had applied openly, which basically means that they would take my degrees (in my case global affairs and psychology) and place me in any country with any job they saw me as a good fit in. Now, if there is a specific country or region or job you wanted to do within Peace Corps, I wouldn’t recommend this but I was up for anything and applying this way would allow me to be considered for more placements which meant more of reality that I would be offered an invitation to serve. So by August 2017 I had applied to Peace Corps and I started the agonizing waiting game the US government LOVES to play (no, but seriously if you taking this route be prepared to not hear back for months at a time). This of course gave me more than enough time to constantly worry and debate of whether I will get an interview which would lead to an invitation, but at least the hard part was over. OR SO I THOUGHT….

Because I need to have a plan in every aspect of my life, thank you Mom and Dad for this AMAZING quality (she says sarcastically), I researched other ways I could live abroad after graduation as a back up plan. I looked into nannying, woofing, working in hostels, but one job that stuck out to me was teaching English. For those who are new, I taught English abroad in Ghana for two weeks in 2014 and I LOVED IT!! So like everything I do, I turned to google and legit typed in “teaching English abroad jobs”. And all these sites popped up with schools/ programs all around the world that wanted native English speakers. Some wanted me to have a TEFL certificate (which I do not have), others wanted teaching experience (which I did not have), and others wanted an education degree (which I did not have), and some wanted you to pay to teach (which I was not doing cause I am a broke bitch). SOOO I had to narrow down my search to a continent- I chose Africa naturally. For those again who don’t know, Africa has a special place in my heart because it was the first place I traveled outside the states without my family or friends and I just find all the cultures with in fascinating. I started my google search again but this time only for African teaching positions and ended up finding a request to teach English in Ethiopia, which is in East Africa. I didn’t need a TEFL certificate and I didn’t need to have a teaching degree- PERFECT. I quickly sent my resume and heard a response back in October of 2017 asking for an interview.

At this point you might be thinking, “wait what about Peace Corps”, well by the end of the summer I found out I was being considered for a health extension volunteer position in Benin (it’s in West Africa- I had never heard about it before). I was interviewed by August and then the waiting game started again. I wouldn’t hear back from them again until December, but I will get to that in a sec.

I was offered a position to teach English to third graders at School of Tomorrow in Ethiopia and for something that was supposed to be cause for celebration, it caused a panic for me as the questions came pouring into my brain. Do I turn the position down to wait for Peace Corps? Do I accept the position and continue with Peace Corps if I get in? Do I email Peace Corps and rescind my application?! I HAD NO IDEA. So naturally, I cried a little bit and then made a pros and cons list. Now for all my family and friends reading this, this is why I need you all in my life because for the months afterward, this inner turmoil will be ALL I talked about. I can imagine you wanted to pull my head out or lock me in a closet- or both. In the end I decided to accept the teaching position and not say anything to Peace Corps just in case I didn’t end up getting into Peace Corps.

I decided to relax now about what I was doing after graduation and when people asked me about what I was doing after graduation, I would just say that I had options and that I was definitely moving to Africa. I was content and happy with that answer because my next adventure was starting to come together, and I would soon be leaving the US for at least a year, YAY! However, in December my world would be turned upside down when I finally I saw an email subject like that read, “Invitation to Serve”. Man did I ugly cry! My years of dreaming to serve in Peace Corps was going to be in a reality! I was going to be leaving September 15, 2018 for Benin as a health extension volunteer BUT (AND THIS IS AN ENORMOUS BUT), I had to pass medical and legal clearances. Long story short, with $1,000 spent, countless appointments at government services and EVERY SINGLE doctor imaginable (like I needed teeth xrays- what?!) and almost 4 months later, I did not get cleared to leave for Benin due to my past struggle with mental health. So again, more ugly crying occurred. If anyone wants more information on what happened or want me to share my experience with the whole Peace Corps process leave a comment below.

I am now writing this post in March 2018 and I still get emotional about my rejection because I was heartbroken. I went through all the stages of grief and being PISSED was a loooonnnnggg phase. Again, I just want to shout out to my AMAZING friends and family who tried to keep me positive and tried to keep my mind off of it. I am also thankful that I found out this information right before spring break where I went to Orlando, Florida for the week to escape snow storms back in Philly. But I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and Ethiopia was now my next destination!

Although I verbally accepted the position with School of Tomorrow in Ethiopia, their communication has not been that great and I have yet to see a contract 4 months after being hired. This has been hard for me to deal with because I am not at all patient and in US culture, everything is done right away. But I have recently received communication and I am definitely hired and they know I am coming in August 2018. I have allowed myself to get excited by buying the Lonely Planet Ethiopia book and language book, along with the typical FB annoucment, and of course dragging all my friends to Ethiopian restaurants to prepare for this next chapter of my life in Ethiopia.

So for anyone thinking about what to do after college but know they want to get out to experience the world, look into these options but also the other ones I mentioned. From my experience, you have to be prepared for rejection and countless hours sending out resumes and waiting around for responses if living abroad is something you want to pursue. But the rush when you find out that you’ll be living in another country for a year and traveling as you go, is all worth the stress and uncertainty. I try to remind myself that just because I was brought up to get a conventional 9-5 office job and I have the degrees to potentially do so, does not mean that is what I have to do that anytime soon. I don’t know what will happen in Ethiopia or the experiences I will get to have, but I do know that it’ll be an adventure. Life is meant to be experienced and that’s exactly what I plan on doing.

Happy travels, Cynthia

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My Adventurous Beginning: Hohoe, Ghana

My first traveling abroad by myself- terrifying and thrilling Africa.

Growing up, my family always took cruise vacations to places like the Bahamas and Bermuda, but would never be more than a stone throws away from the boat or the ocean. We would do the generic hiking, lounging on the beach or at the pool, or snorkeling; simulating the life we had back home. Everyone was in their comfort zone, never straying too far from the norm. But soon enough, unknown to me, my life would take an adventurous turn. During my senior year English class, my teacher told everyone her story in the Peace Corps on National Peace Corps Day in the United States. She told tales of being held at gunpoint near the Kenyan border and the bright eyed kids she would never see again. I remember not being able to take my eyes off the artwork and the wood carvings she set up on the desks.

Eagerly after class I waited for her to have a free moment so I could talk with her further. Little did I know at the time, I would be paving a path for my future. She told me about tours students can go on in different parts of the world depending on how out of my comfort zone I wanted to go. I decided on a trip to Hohoe, Ghana with the organization Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS got kids from all over the United States to be placed in a different country and have them fully immersed in the culture, but also do some volunteer work in the process. My placement was with a orphanage/ school named Happy Kids helping to teach preschoolers English. Although the official language of Ghana is English, up in the mountains of Hohoe they speak mostly in their tribal tongues. Quickly, my days went from hanging out with my friends at Starbucks, to being woken up before the sunrise to the smell of porridge cooking on an open fire. Rice and beans were served with every meal (I have no idea how the villagers never get sick of them). I am from an Italian family so it was refreshing to have a meal without cheese or pasta involved.

My days were filled with lessons; teaching the children English, but them teaching me about life. I became close with three little ones in particular: Mayvis, Unhum, and Ema. They would follow my placement partner Danielle and I around during the breaks from lessons and when lunch was served. Seeing these children who have so little, be so happy with life. Each child had a smile across their face and they never expected anything from you. This was quite a contrast from back home where kids compete over who has the newest iPhone. It was like a breath of fresh air seeing children being so happy getting a turn to draw on a piece of paper with a crayon. I was happy to spend time in the jungle of Ghana feeding monkeys and hiking up the highest point in the country, Mount Afadja. I was in bliss. Then my happiness was tented a little.

My body started to work against me as I became very sick with malaria. Because of this, I had to miss several days at placement and had to go to the hospital to get treated. This alone was another eye opening experience. To me, hospitals were a place of sterilization but in rural Ghana it was anything but. The building was a courtyard open to all the elements and the patients were laying out on bed in the Ghanan heat- no one was protected from one another or sterile. I instantly stood out being the only white person the hospital. After several hours, I spotted another white figure walking around. He turned out to be a European trained doctor who was in Ghana doing malaria research. I immediately felt relieved as he told me to drink lots of water to make sure I didn’t dehydrate and I would be good as new within a day or so. Before I knew it, it was time for me to go back to my world. But I will never forget the new family I created thousands of miles away.

Now almost three years later, pictures of Unhum and the kids hang on my apartment walls and my journal has a place on my shelf for me to relive Ghana whenever I feel like life is slipping through my fingers. The experience helped to shape the person I am today and the goals I want to achieve.

 

This was my first taste of adventure, now onto the next one!

Happy travels, Cynthia