Thursday, November 23, 2006

Why I Almost Quit Peace Corps

Yep.  I almost quit Peace Corps 12 days before finishing it:

My day started off well enough, with me taking my language proficiency test and getting a score of "Advanced-Mid".  The language exam is one of many tests, exams, surveys and interviews that comprise the two page checklist that must be completed before a volunteer can close his or her service.

 It’s as hard to get out of Peace Corps as into it.

Although "Advanced-Mid" is only one below the best rating you can get of "Advanced-High" (provided you don't count the "Native Speaker" rating), I don't feel I deserved it.  You see, the exam is really just a conversation with the examiner, during which they suss out how good our skills are.  The thing is, we stuck mostly to talking about my projects in Peace Corps, which are topics I've had to discuss hundreds of times in the course of making them happen.  I've got canned responses and the grammar nailed down for those, so I came off sounding much more proficient then I actually am.  Still, considering I didn't speak Russian at all 18 months ago and received an "Intermediate-Mid" rating on my test 11 months ago, I was pretty damn proud.

My day took a turn for the worse in the afternoon.  The Ukrainian administrator handling my file was confused: why was I telling her that my flight was on December 4th when my records showed that my Close of Service date was December 14th?

"Well," I said, "I knew that we could leave up to 30 days before that, so I bought a ticket for the 4th because that was the cheapest date."

I was then told that it was true that we could leave early, but we had to fill a form out to get permission to do so.

“Can I fill out this form now?”

“No, it was due in October," he said.  "You can’t leave until the 14th.”

“But my plane ticket is non-refundable.”


“I’ll talk to Diana about it.”

NOTE: Diana Schmidt was the Director of Peace Corps Ukraine.

“You can't talk to Diana about it.  The person to talk to is Bob.  But he won’t approve it.”

NOTE: Bob is what I'm calling him to protect his identity.

I go up to Bob’s office and ask his secretary if he is in.

“No, he’s out to lunch. What do you need?”

I show her the form and say I need it approved.

“He won’t approve that.  It was due in October.”

“But I need to leave on the 4th.”

“You can’t.”

On the way out of the office, another admin worker that I'm friends with expressed shock and dismay that I hadn't filled out the form. According to her, there was no way to get it approved.


I went to the Diana's office and talked to her secretary.  The secretary said that Diana was busy, but that she could squeeze me in for five minutes in an hour's time.  Also, the secretary said not to even ask Bob about the form, because he'd be angry for even mentioning it.

Have I mentioned that Ukrainians tend to take paperwork very seriously?

I went down to the volunteer lounge and fumed for a bit.  It was my fault, of course.  I vaguely remembered being told about the form when I had been being handed the inch-thick stack of paperwork required to leave Peace Corps, but as is my M.O. I had put off filling out the forms until the last minute.

Three Peace Corps employees had told me there was no hope of getting it approved, and Bob will have an aneurism if I even bring it up.  But they were Ukrainian and Ukrainians ultimately think differently. Bribery may be part of their culture, but getting approved past a due date is not.  Americans, on the other hand, will let such things slide provided it isn't unfair to anyone.

But if Bob said no, what was my option?  Quitting Peace Corps and going home on the 4th.  The consequences?  None, really. After you complete a year of service, you're eligible for all the completion benefits save one: non-competitive eligibility for government jobs.  But that benefit only lasts a year from your close of service, and I didn't see myself trying to get a government job any time soon, if ever.  So if I quit, on my paperwork it would say “Early Termination” rather than “Close of Service”, and that was it.  Quitting was definitely an option, but I hated the idea of having an asterisk on any statement I made about serving in Peace Corps.

At the time of my appointment, I explained the problem to Diana--who is American--, admitted it was my fault, and said I needed this favor.  She winked at me and said, “let’s do it.” As she signed the form, she said “Bob’s going to kill me.”

I took it down to my manager. He looked surprised that the director had signed it, but signed his line of the document anyway. “Bob’s going to be pissed,” he said.

I took it up to Bob.  I handed him the paper.  I held my breath.

He nodded without any sign of emotion and signed it.

“You’re not upset?” I asked him.

“Why would I be?” he asked in return. “The director signed it, so I don’t care.”

I decided that Top Down Administration is great when the top is on your side.

I left the office and went back to the admin person who was originally handling my paperwork and told her that my COS date has been officially moved up.  She didn't believe me despite the paper, and actually called Bob for confirmation.  She hung up the phone, looking surprised.

“Bob didn’t yell at you?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said. “He didn’t care.”

She got a a far-away look in her eyes. “Well I guess you never know,” she said.

My official COS date is now November 29.

In six days, I will no longer be in Peace Corps.