Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I arrived in Rabat for COS Conference, back in the Chellah Hotel, and thought, hm, whom shall I text to see where they are? And then I thought, why is nobody texting me? Just then I got a text from Linda and Bob, inviting me to join them for coffee. Along the way I ran into several other stagemates at a café and I was stunned by their negativity. Many of them are just waiting to go home. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me – I’ve been around Jong’s Peace Corps negativity for a month already, and (to name just two people) Rob and Connie have always been somewhat negative, but to feel it en masse was a bit of a stunner. People really have checked out. Bob and Linda are enthusiastic (see www.figuigartisanat.com, the great site they and Frank developed), so it was nice to move on to see them. But the negative energy continued back at the hotel for dinner – most of the people I sat with say they have already checked out. It was also weird to be with the YDs again, as we were those first few days in Rabat, the last few days before swearing-in, and at IST – I just haven’t kept up with most of them and they have a totally different vibe, perhaps aided by the fact that most of them had been at summer camp at El Jadida or on vacation, but perhaps also because in general the YD program is more solid and well-defined than the SBD program.
The conference started on Monday morning with remarks from the Country Director. He seems to have checked out as well – his replacement arrives September 1 for a two-week transition period and then he leaves. He appears to be having separation anxiety – anyway, his remarks were short and far from inspiring, and perhaps they set the tone for the day. We’re the largest group to get to COS Conference since the program re-started after the 2003 evacuation – 43 people (out of I think 56 who swore in and 60 who left Philadelphia) – and maybe it was too big a group for meaningful reflection (again, that plus the chemistry of mixing SBD and YD). That said, Megan, the Administrative Officer, did a great job of facilitating the conference – she is positive and energetic and that almost balanced out the apathy of the majority of the SBDs. She congratulated us and told us to be proud.
That said, Monday was reflection day. We started with a little self-assessment of positive changes we see in ourselves and a funny story; before the beginning of each session, someone would read a funny story and we’d have to guess whose story it was (I used the one about the man going down the bus aisle kissing people on the head and asking for money). Then we had an ice-breaker called “Have You Ever?” We had to sit in a circle, and if we had ever, we had to move over and sit in the lap of the person to the left. Have you ever climbed Mt. Toubkal? About ten people moved. Have you been to Merzouga? Most of the group moved. Have you ever stayed in Sharon Keld’s house? I was surprised to hear that one, but I talk to Megan a lot and she knows. About half the group moved – actually, I calculated one day during a long bus ride that all but four members of my stage who are still here have been to my house, and at least that many people in other sectors – over 50 in all. Not that many YDs though! I don’t remember too many of the other statements from the game – breaking policy was one, I know (almost everyone moved – yes, including me).
We then broke into small groups to for a session on Assessing Your Peace Corps Experience. We wrote down memories of the application process, Philadelphia, Rabat, PST, first few months, IST, those who left early, and other important events, and then shared them with the big group. It was interesting to see some common things and to be reminded of others. Next we did a self-assessment of our experience, completing sentences and filling in blanks several thoughts such as When I Think About My last Two Years I…, Something I Might See, Hear, Taste or Smell in the Future That Will Always Remind Me of My Two Years in Morocco, Something From My Experience That Will Always Bring a Smile to My Face, Something That I Will Really Miss and Will Make Me Sad to Think About. We then put these on flip charts and went around the room as a group reading what each other wrote. I remember vividly being in Rabat at the beginning of PST, in the same room, reading the flip chart pages of the volunteers in Lee’s stage who had just been to COS Conference – on September 9 the new trainees will arrive and they will see what we wrote. The cycle continues.
We then did a group picture – I had dug up the PST picture that was taken of all of us by a professional photographer, and (after seeing this from Amanda’s stage and the two after that) suggested that we set ourselves up in the same spots, leaving empty spaces for the people who have left. This was not taken by a professional photographer (after all, they’re pushing us out), so the lighting left something to be desired, but it is still a nice memory (I wore the same clothes for the occasion!).
More reflection followed – another small group discussion of what are you taking, what are you leaving. This was supposed to be conceptual and metaphoric, a way to discuss skills to present to future employers, and here was where we were supposed to discuss how we have changed and how we have remained the same. For me this was the low point of the day – our group was dominated by one person who effectively cut off discussion (and in doing so brought up memories of PST), and people either took things literally in terms of what they were taking or leaving or talked about harassment and other negative things they were leaving behind, as opposed to good things they were leaving with their communities.
At least the day ended for me on a good note, with a group discussion about moving on – thoughts of going home, how friends and family will react, and career ideas. I was a bit of a downer in the group, with my not looking forward to job-hunting or being in an office, but at least the group dynamics were positive. We then reviewed a list of questions that people in the U.S. might ask when we got back – and Megan repeatedly reminded us that nobody will be interested in what we have to say for more than 30 seconds, so we should keep in touch with each other – and talked about the culture shock of returning.
The day was emotional – for me, disappointment because of the lack of emotion and energy on the part of my stagemates or maybe because I felt that the questions asked weren’t allowing me to express what needed to get out, and for them, I’m not sure what they were going through, because nobody wanted to process - and a walk was in order. A random group of us in front of the hotel just started on a walk, and I mentioned that we were near the American Club, so we ended up eating dinner there, joined by several others in our stage. If someone had suggested we all go there it probably wouldn’t have happened, but it came together spontaneously, which was nice.
Days Two and Three were more administrative than reflective, and had more energy – which says more about the lack of enthusiasm of the first day than about any pep of the following days. We had a session on medical – part of my shellshock just before leaving for the conference was seeing in black and white the days of COS Medicals and 72-hour Checkout – seeing actual end dates in sight – but seeing them again in the medical session was fine. And we learned about Corps Care, the Peace Corps version of COBRA – a reminder that we have been really taken care of for two years and that soon we’re on our own.
We then had panel of RPCVs talking about their careers after Peace Corps. This was interesting, but I’m not sure how typical their experiences are. They didn’t all serve in Morocco, but they all chose an international or development career and are in Morocco now – one was at the consulate, one worked for Homeland Security, one for USAID, one for a consulting firm that does a lot of USAID work, and two who are more or less trailing spouses (both men, including Megan’s). It was relevant – many PCVs do continue in international careers – but skewed by availability and proximity. Perhaps the most important thing that I got out of the panel was that everyone said that it all works out in the end. What a good lesson – maybe Peace Corps experience helps you to realize that and maintain that attitude. Later in the day we had a more nuts-and-bolts presentation on USAID and how to apply – USAID is ramping up for the first time in years, including, for the first time, hiring mid-career people instead of just entry-level people, and I think over half of USAID officers have Peace Corps experience (Lee is there now). I think I will apply – can’t hurt (which reminds me, when I got home I opened an email saying I had passed the Foreign Service written test and am being moved along in the process – yay me).
And we started to talk about paperwork. There’s an on-line COS Survey we must take – we must get confirmation that we took it in order to be checked out at the end of November – and we have to write a DOS (Description of Service) – the only official document that Peace Corps will keep on record for us. There’s a strict format to follow, and the first draft is due at the end of September. There’s a Site Survey form too – something for us to fill out to help the next PCV. Lee’s was very helpful to me; the format has been expanded by an intervening group of volunteers, but it’s in one of my favorite fonts, Comic Sans MS, so it has the appearance of being fun to fill out.
The next day – after a dinner at Le Grand Comptoir, the French restaurant where I had promised myself I would go before I left Morocco – we reviewed our COS Handbooks, full of procedures and even more forms. Our counterpart has to sign off that we are finished, our landlord that we are debt-free, we have to return all of our books and manuals and get a signature confirming that we did so, our Program Manager signs off on a number of items, we have to agree to use an American carrier if possible when making our plane reservations – and more.
Saoussane, the new SBD Program Manager, then had us for two time slots. I was not looking forward to this one, knowing how negative people in my stage are, but I think it ended up being a good discussion – she was able to elicit some meaningful feedback on site selection, program specifics and more, and she got most of the people to weigh in. What happens with the feedback is anyone’s guess, but I thought she did a good job and I was impressed that my stagemates spoke their minds objectively – maybe it helped that people have checked out, because they had no emotion left and it didn’t sound like a bunch of complaining. Interestingly, when asked if they would do Peace Corps again, almost everyone in the room raised a hand.
There was an open slot, for which I had offered to facilitate a discussion of the job search process (since I spent so much of my time before Peace Corps on a job search). I didn’t do much talking, which was great – some of the people in the group who had looked for jobs and some who had hired lots of people talked more than I did, which is what I was hoping would happen. Most of the participants stayed for the optional session, which was also rewarding.
In the early afternoon, we were each given a slip of paper with someone’s picture on it – an individual shot, taken by that professional photographer in September 2006. We had to write a wish for the person whose picture we were given, and at the end we all stood in a big circle, reading our wishes to each other. There – at last – was the emotion, happiness, sadness, camaraderie, sense of shared experience, sense of a mixture of feelings – the realization that we made it and are finishing and all that that means that I had expected to feel throughout the conference. There was some karma in who got whom, and some genuine caring and heartfelt emotion went into many of the wishes. It was a wonderful way to close.