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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Utopia56: Volunteering at a Parisian Refugee Camp

I never know who I am are going to meet to meet in life, and on my way back to my apartment from Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of those times. My roommate and I shared an Uber with a woman who was on her way to volunteer with refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Never would I have thought that the experience would help change my outlook for the better.

In the metro system and the streets of Paris, I constantly see women and children huddled together on a blanket with a few items asking for money. Many of them hold make shift signs saying “Famille Syrienne” and have heavy eyes looking into the walkways. Whenever I pass them, my heart always go out to them and hope that their situation is better than the life they left behind in Syria. I think about where they are coming from and if they lived in similar conditions that I have seen in my travels to Ghana and Cambodia, or if they have family back home. I am the type of person who acts on my feelings and when the woman from the Uber told me about an organization that help refugees, I automatically signed myself up to volunteer.

The organization is called Uptia65 and it’s located in the heart of the poor region of Paris. It is surrounded by old, vandalized buildings with make shift housing for multiple families. It is crazy to think that a 20 minute metro ride from the Eiffel Tower, people are just starting their new life in Paris. The refugee camp is not much to those who walked by and although it’s on a busy street it is hard not to notice the sad state of it. There were security guards surrounding the camp and fences huddled together with blankets being used as shelters for the people who could not get into the camp that day. It broke my heart to see the people laying on the ground trying so hard to stay warm in the cold, March weather.

I was welcomed into the camp by smiling volunteers who were surprised to see a new face coming to help and I was shown around the camp with explanations on the work being accomplished there. The organization helps mainly male refugees from South Sudan and some Middle Eastern countries, although there are some families staying at the camp. Due to territorial conflicts, the security guards were there to help stop any fights that may break out. The men can stay at the camp for two or more weeks while they start to get on their feet. They are given new clothes, food, shelter, and access to social workers to get the right immigration or mental health information the men might need. The camp serves close to 400 men at a time and with the help of only about 10 volunteers a day, there is so much work to be done.

I was immediately put to the task of helping to hand out clothes to the new men who arrived at Utopia56. It was set up like a store where the men can pick out their own clothes that we take out of the bins. It is a quick process to look at their ID cards to see what clothes they have already received and what clothes they might need in the future. Because it was still pretty chilly, many needed better pants or long shirts.

At first the job was overwhelming due to the language barrier, the volunteers do not know much English and the refugees do not know much French, but through hand gestures we were able to communicate. It was fun to try to help the men figure out what clothes they wanted although at times it did get frustrating. Some of the men didn’t know their size or were not happy with any of the clothes that we available for them to choose from. Some of the men were picky about style, but some seemed so grateful to even have a jacket. Those were the men, to me, that made the volunteering experience so worthwhile. To see the look on their faces when they got the new clothing and to laugh with them about some of the ugly clothes they had to choose from, made the word “refugee” that much more relatable.

Being from the US, immigration and the “refugees crisis” are always on the political agenda and people seem very divided on the subject. Many times, the people who have the loudest voice against the idea of an open door policy are those who are the most ignorant and uneducated about the subject. We get so caught up with the word “refugee” that we forget that these people are just looking to survive and to live a life they are proud of. These people just want to have a life that we have been fortunate enough to have. They are not looking to steal from our government or take up our resources; they just want to live a life they deserve. To live a life human beings deserve.

When I mentioned to my family back in the US that I spent the afternoon volunteering, they responded with: ‘wow those people are so lucky to have you helping them’. But in reality, I am the lucky one. I had the privilege to help those men get back on their feet and to feel good about themselves even when they have been put in such a shitty situation. I had the opportunity to be more educated on what life is like in a Parisian refugee camp and to gain another perspective on life. I spend so much on travel and new experiences, but volunteering with these men reminded me that some experiences are priceless and sometimes three hours is all it takes to change multiple lives: theirs and mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia