Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Extension Decision: pros and cons (pt. III)

This is part III in this series.  The intro can be found here, and Part II can be found here.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of extending my Peace Corps service.  In fact, this post comes a bit late – my proposal is already submitted, and if post (Moldova) and headquarters (D.C.) accept me, it’s almost definite I’ll be sticking around in Moldova for a bit longer.

One thing that has been surprising while mulling my possibilities is the dearth of materials out there for current volunteers who are trying to decide whether or not to extend their service.  While a quick search turns up thousands of pages worth of advice on the initial decision regarding Peace Corps service, there is little other than the scarce blog post to be found on sticking around once in country.  In any case, here are the various factors I have considered:

·         Career
·         Family
·         Friends
·         Ongoing projects
·         Opportunity costs
·         Potential for impact in Moldova
·         Potential for impact on Health Education program
·         Potential for impact on Peace Corps/Moldova
·         Realistic need to eventually begin earning a more serious income if I ever want to support a family

Fleshing those factors out a bit yielded a healthy set of pros and cons, with some serious heavyweights on both sides.

(in favor of extension)
(against extension)
·         Guaranteed positive use of next year of time
·         Due to lack of time to conduct a job search at present, there would probably be a gap in employment post-Peace Corps if I leave this summer; thus, I probably wouldn’t be sacrificing a full year of employment to extend.
·         Life in the States/Western Europe is expensive (see opportunity cost above re: probability of joblessness)
·         All living expenses, plus medical expenses are taken care of here. Combined with the two pros above, this seriously mitigates the financial disincentive of extending.
·         Since Jess can’t do the Iron Curtain bike trip, extending doesn’t mean sacrificing that opportunity (the two were mutually exclusive for a variety of scheduling issues)
·         For 1 year extension: 1 month paid home leave
·         Ongoing projects, particularly the national simulation project, which I’d like to see through to evaluation stage
·         Great job flexibility, plus, I love my job
·         Health program undergoing a strategic re-orientation at the same time the Moldovan education system going through a significant set of reforms, meaning this could be a particularly exciting moment to be involved at a higher level in the health program
·         Potential to positively impact Peace Corps Moldova
·         The pay’s not so hot here
·         The gap in employment probably wouldn’t last a year, so at some point during the extension I am sacrificing a fuller salary.  Ultimately, if finances are a key consideration, there’s little doubt I would do better outside of Peace Corps.
·         For less than 1 year extension: no home leave (long time without seeing family/friends)
·         Relatively little support for ongoing professional development, i.e. it will be primarily experiential and self-driven

Then there are a number of factors which are a wash:
·         Family/friends: I’ve chosen a life abroad, so even if I’m not here, it’s unlikely that I’d be based near them.  In a new job I wouldn’t get vacation right away, but there would probably be an employment gap during which to visit family.  On the other hand, even with extension there is the month of home leave if extending for a year.
·         Career #1: I’ve been unable to find any advice from RPCVs (former volunteers) who have extended, so I’m not really sure about the career impact of staying for another year.  On the positive side, 3 years shows a strong commitment while 2 years is a shorter time, and my increased responsibilities during the third year would be similar to a promotion, thus showing growth in the position.  On the unknown side, some employers may look at all PC service as the same, regardless of function.
·         Career #2: without having a tangible job offer, it’s very hard to know if an unknown potential job would be a better or worse experience.

In the end, the most important factors ended up being that last one: in the face of the unknown, it is very difficult to walk away from something that is so obviously going well.  So, too, was my final judgment regarding my potential to impact Peace Corps Moldova and the Health Program (last 2 bullets in the pro/con list).  It was up in the air for about a month as to which column those two factors would fall into; going onto the con side of the ledger would have tipped the balance.

The bigger strategic questions aside, there is also the fact that it is the volunteer’s responsibility to craft the proposal.  Even as a PCVL, there would be significant leeway in which leadership tasks I choose to assist with, as there are far too many to take them all on.   And it’s not necessarily 1 year or nothing, I could also do just 6 or 9 months.  So on top of the decision of whether to extend are a number of smaller decisions regarding how long to extend, whether or not to move, which tasks I want to do as a PCVL, and who my Moldovan partners will be for the portion of my job outside of Peace Corps.  The effect of all this is to make the extension decision less one of black and white and more a shades of gray issue.

On these points, our Country Director, Jeffrey, made it pretty clear that he would like me to stick around for a full year extension.  I initially remained hesitant, but it is much easier to leave early during an extension than it is to re-extend an extension, a subtle but effective push toward submitting a proposal toward the longer end.  The home leave also made a big difference.  I have requested the leave over the winter holidays, which while slightly later than Peace Corps would prefer, makes sense given my responsibilities next year and our training calendar.  Also, this naturally builds in a mid-point chance for reflection to evaluate whether the extension is working for all parties.  Meanwhile, with my Program Manager, Elvira, we seem to have found a workable relationship that gives me enough of a stake in the Health Program’s direction during its revision, but does not diminish her position as the program’s top staff person.

Combined, these reassurances convinced me that while the decision can involve many varying degrees of commitment, the right decision was to go all in.  Ultimately, the chance to help re-shape the health program at a strategic juncture won the day.  Having submitted the proposal, once again it’s up to the fates!  Though this time, instead of a shiny FedEx package I’ll just have my fingers crossed for an upbeat email. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Extension Decision: the Nitty Gritty on Extending (pt. II)

This is the second post in this series on extending service beyond the initial two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  The prelude to this post gives the story of my thoughts on extension for the first year and a half of service.  This post covers practical policy aspects of extension.

Before covering my decision-making process regarding extension (pt. III) and the specifics of what I would likely be doing during an extension (pt. IV), it occurred to me that for those readers who aren’t familiar with the bureaucratic details of my world, a brief overview is in order so as to make sense of the rest of these posts.  As such, this one is mostly for those back home who aren’t so steeped in handbooks, policy guidelines, and other such light reading on the details of Peace Corps.

Upon the successful completion of two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (not including training), a small group of volunteers may elect to extend their service.  The “extension” is calculated from the original Close of Service (COS) date, which is two years from the day that a Trainee takes the oath and becomes a full volunteer.  They then receive a new COS date reflecting the term of extension.  In the PC vernacular, a person who has extended beyond their original COS date is an “extendee”.

An extension may last a maximum of 2 additional years (making the total service 4 years + Pre-Service Training) and occurs in the same country as the initial tour.  A volunteer extending less than a year simply tacks on the additional time and gets a new, later COS date.  A volunteer extending for 1 year or more, however, is entitled to 30 days “special leave”, during which Peace Corps pays the expense and grants what is essentially extra vacation time in order to travel home.  The leave cannot be taken before the original COS date, but one is encouraged to not delay it significantly into the extension.  Additionally, the extendee is allowed to receive up to 1/3 of their readjustment allowance (the approximately $7,000 one gets at the end of service).  Readjustment allowance is calculated on a monthly basis ($250/month), but for extendees, regardless of the term of the extension the rate is increased to $350/month.  Basically, what this boils down to are some pretty hefty bonuses to those who have been living the Peace Corps lifestyle for just over 2 years.  Still with me?

In order to extend, a volunteer must be in good standing with the agency, which in Moldova essentially boils down to good conduct and positive evaluations from one’s program manager.  Additionally, it requires medical clearance, something that cannot be granted until 90 days prior to the originally-scheduled COS date.

A volunteer must also submit a proposal outlining what they intend to do during the extension and why they think it is important.  In the case of a short extension – sometimes even just a month or two – this  often involves closing out a key project or ensuring its sustainability in a situation where for whatever reason that cannot happen in the volunteer’s original timeframe.  The final decision is made by the Country Director in consultation with the post’s Senior Staff, though of course Washington always gets the final say.

In the case of a longer extension, a the extendee may also move sites (home and workplace).  Regardless of whether or not the extendee moves, their service should represent “expanded duties”, i.e. one cannot extend simply to continue doing exactly what they were doing for the previous two years.  There has to be a growth.  In this way, one is not only extending length service, but also the scope or depth of the service itself.  From the agencies perspective, after two years a successful volunteer shouldn’t really be doing what they were originally brought in to do – there are new volunteers being rotated in for that – one should be moving on to new challenges.

Finally, globally Peace Corps has one particular track known as “Peace Corps Volunteer Leader” (PCVL).    Broadly, the position is described as such:
The Peace Corps Act authorizes the Agency to enroll Volunteer Leaders whose services are requested for supervisory or other special duties or responsibilities in connection with Peace Corps programs overseas. It is Peace Corps policy to enroll Volunteer Leaders when their assistance provides added value to the Agency's overseas programs...Volunteer Leaders provide direction or guidance.
Different countries structure PCVL programs differently, but common tasks include:
·         Acting as liaison among Volunteers, host country supervisors, and Peace Corps staff;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in site selection and placement of new Volunteers;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and implementation of Volunteer training;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and evaluation of Volunteer projects; and
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the provision of logistical and administrative support to Volunteers and Trainees.

Not all countries have PCVLs, though Washington has been very encouraging of the program in recent years.  Overall, a post should not exceed a ratio of more than 1 PCVL to 25 volunteers.  For Moldova, that caps us at around 4, which is fitting since our PCVLs are programmatically focused, essentially making them the senior volunteer in 1 of our 4 projects (English Education, Health Education, Agriculture, and Community Development).  Moldova piloted a limited version of PCVL during my first year of service (2010-11) and last summer brought in the first full PCVLs on 2 of the 4 programs.

While a PCVL’s primary focus is improving the project they are assigned to and supporting broader post-initiatives, they are still volunteers.  As such, at any given time they must be involved in at least one activity aimed to build capacity amongst-host country nationals, although that activity may represent a small amount of overall work time.

So, what does this all mean for me?  Well first, as probably guessed by this point, the specific extension I’m considering would be as the PCVL for the Health Program.  As such, it is highly encouraged that the extension be for a full year, but not mandatory.  A serious PCVL proposal, however, would need to be for at least the better part of a year.  Which brings us to second, which is the decision of whether to opt for a shorter 9 month extension or go for the grand tour of a full year, which effects many other things like whether I get 1 month home leave.   It also informs the broader question of how I propose to craft an extension, including PCVL to host-country national balance, where I live, and what partnerships compliment PCVL responsibilities.  Third, it means I have until 5/9/2012 to submit the final version of my extension proposal, after which point I will be at the mercies of higher powers. Finally, it means that formal approval cannot come before May 18, as that is the 90 day mark before my originally scheduled COS date of August 18 and that is the earliest day I can be medically cleared.

So, with that, we blaze on bravely ahead, coming up to our next post, part III of this series, where I will consider the pros and cons of whether or not to chum about with the Moldovans a bit longer.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The (Peace Corps Volunteer) Extension Decision: prelude

June, 2010; Chisinau, Moldova.

Every post probably has that crazy enthusiastic one; heck, most countries have a lot of them.  Within Moldova, I was put definitively into that category on day two when I turned to my mentor and asked “what’s the deal with extensions? I think I want to do that.”  She took a deep sighing breath.  It was a slow sigh, one commensurate with the blazing sun and groaning under the dissonance thrust upon her by ushering us through a jam packed arrival program in a country where the pace of life is otherwise decidedly slower.  Having spent a year tamping down her pace of life and expectations, all of a sudden she was surrounded by the height of American bustle and can-do optimism.  Without shaking her head, she gave a small smile that shook it for her, “Slow down dude.  You’re not even at your training site yet.”

Laughingly, I backed off, recognizing the apparent ridiculousness of the word coming out of the mouth of a person who had been on the ground for less than 24 hours.  That’s not to say I backed off of the idea; upon landing in Moldova in June 2010 I already had lived abroad longer, spoke more languages, and travelled the region more than many of the second year volunteers.  So I didn’t back off, I just shut my mouth.  (I said apparent ridiculousness, not actual ridiculousness).  Anyway, they had a point.  It was day two.  Of 800.  Plus or minus. 

In the 672 day since then – no plus or minus – there have been ups and downs on my feelings towards extension.  For most of the first nine months or so I was up on extension.  Way up.  So much so that my same mentor eventually decided I wasn’t just shot up on coffee and jet lag that second morning, but truly seem to suffer from an abundance of enthusiasm.

But then sometime last spring the idea lost its appeal as the hard realities of small and incremental contributions set in and the romantic sheen of service lost its luster.  It stayed that way for much of the summer.  Though occasionally punctuated by the enthusiasm of the new volunteers and the ideas gained from working with them, my down on extension was deepened by the palpable excitement of the older volunteers who were leaving, a dread of returning to the classroom, and a travel schedule that reminded me that my world outside Moldova moves very quickly and without regard to my absence. 

The fall fell somewhere in between: summer left me energized and a raft of new activities left me busier than ever at my site.  Meanwhile, one of my partners seemed to have taken on the appetite of Goliath when it came to any collaboration possible.  On the other hand, a sentiment lingered as I talked to friends who were finding increasingly influential posts that I was taking the long route, and reading job descriptions offered new adventures complete with a lustrous sheen still intact.

Ironically, it was just as I was preparing to go interview with Bosch in New York this last January that the pendulum swung back in the other direction.  It was exactly when other offers seemed most tangible that staying in Moldova began looking most attractive.  On the one hand, there were more potential collaborations than ever.  And on the other, it seems to be winter when I finally started coming to terms with the true meaning of incremental change on a deeper level.  This was a nice consolation when Bosch didn’t pan out.  Instead of extension representing settling for second best, it was a choice between a variety of attractive options, with pros and cons on all sides.  But that’s for Part II.

To be continued...