Why Leaving the Peace Corps Was the Best Decision I've Made Since Joining the Peace Corps

Well, I meant to write a wrap-up/conclusion earlier, but here it is 5 months later and I'm still looking for the words to say. It's hard to believe I left Cameroon over 5 months ago, and my stage-mates are still there for another 3 or 4 months still! Wow.

So, I ET-ed (Early Terminated) from the Peace Corps after serving for 18 months. Why? I was really struggling on a personal level, which led to me struggling on a professional level, too. Well. And back and forth. Instead of doing productive work or ANY work or much cultural exchange at all, I was fighting anxiety and hiding in my house for days at a time.

What were the biggest factors contributing to my problems?

1. Probably culture shock and lack of integration - I struggled with feeling comfortable in a different culture the entire time I was in Cameroon. From my time with my (wonderful, patient) host family to living in my village, I was never really at ease. I made some good connections but no real friendships. I was absolutely at a loss with how to deal with men there (outside of a few really stellar guys I worked with), besides saying, "No," to everything and avoiding eye contact. (It has taken me months back in America to feel comfortable making eye contact with guys again, jeez!)

2. Lack of structure/job skills/contacts. Well, every Peace Corps Volunteer has the worst road to their village and the worst insect story and the most difficult domain. But I really felt like I had the most difficult domain! For me, anyways. Agroforestry is a pretty interesting project because there is a wide scope of possible projects and work. I have learned, however, that I really like having some structure in my work. Education volunteers are paired with a school, health volunteers are paired with a health center, business volunteers are paired with a microfinance institution, and agroforestry volunteers get… luck of the draw? (And absolutely some schools/clinics/MFIs are difficult to work with or more challenging, and some agroforestry volunteers love the freedom of their assignment). My counterpart was rarely available and my supervisor (who ran an NGO local to my village), well, we didn't get along real well. So. No host institution. No counterpart or supervisor to speak of. This left me with the option of going out to find my own work. I felt adequately trained in agroforestry, but going out in another culture and looking for people to work with was beyond me. Personal shortcomings, yo.

3. I didn't ask for help. Not loud enough.
3a. I was struggling with anxiety back in April 2010 around in-service. I talked to the PCMO. I got off mefloquine and that made things a lot better. But the anxiety crept back. I talked to the PCMO again at mid-service, and it wasn't very productive. The PCMO was leaving the job in a matter of days, I didn't want pills or phone counseling to DC and I didn't express how serious the anxiety was. After that PCMO left, we no longer had an American medical officer, and I didn't feel comfortable talking about mental health with our other PCMOs.
3b. I was struggling with my counterpart back in April 2010 around in-service, too. I talked to my APCD about it and he talked to my counterpart and nothing happened. I brought it up a few other times to no result. What I didn't realize or think about is that I could have gone another step up and talked to my PTO. I was really struggling with finding work, and I didn't know how to talk to my APCD about that (I wasn't very optimistic about talking to him because he was very busy and had done nothing to help with my counterpart problem).


I had several people (PC staff and friends) ask me if I would do it all over again (join the Peace Corps) and what I would do differently. Yes, yes, yes, I would absolutely do it all over again! Joining the Peace Corps was my dream for years and years. While I might be jaded on international development work in general, the dedication of Peace Corps Volunteers (and Staff) and the interpersonal exchanges between PCVs and locals are absolutely selfless, generous, noble, humble actions that work to promote peace, respect and a global community. Y'all PCVs are amazing. :)

Would I do anything differently? Could I have? I don't know. The answer I gave back in March is that, yes, I would join again, but I would probably run into the same problems and leave again. What could I have done to prepare myself better?

1. Volunteer. I really had 2 days of volunteer experience before joining the Peace Corps. I think that I could have benefited from doing more volunteer work and learning those skills like: be outgoing, be confident, ask for help when you need it.

2. Be Picky. I had my heart set on being a Health volunteer, but I was so excited to get into the Peace Corps, I jumped at the opportunity to get in ASAP as an Agroforestry volunteer. I remember my recruiter asking me if I was sure that was okay. I remember shooting off something about, "Sure, I mean, agriculture is like nutrition which is at the base of health, so I am absolutely passionate about it." The health work I did get to do (Girls Camps) was the high point of my Peace Corps service, though, and it was amazing and it let me know that is what I want to do with my life.

3. Be Realistic. I guess I always had this image in my head, that if I were a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would be this archetype of the outgoing, altruistic, perfect person I had in my head. Nope. I am still introverted and I get anxiety and I love structure and when I'm struggling I tend to block people out instead of asking for help. When my Mom was visiting me in Cameroon, she told me, "I think you're brave for joining the Peace Corps, I've always known that is something I would be really bad at." (I think she knew it about me, too, but thanks, Mom, for not telling me until after). I had some unrealistic expectations of myself.


Anyway. I left. Very suddenly. I made the decision and I was out of the country within 4 days. I packed up my house and told my nearest volunteers that I was leaving. I didn't tell anyone in my village I was leaving. I didn't tell Peace Corps I was leaving until I was in Yaounde. It was not a graceful departure and various friends and PC staff had to clean out my house/pay my rent, etc, and I still feel awful about not taking responsibility for that. I was a pretty big wreck. A few friends came to see me off in Bafoussam, and it was bittersweet. I have some amazing friends.

I remember sitting in the bus from Bafoussam to Yaounde and thinking, "Well, at least if I die today (as you worry about on Cameroonian public transport), I can be happy knowing that I made the right decision." And I really haven't regretted leaving. And I'm really glad that I didn't die that day. :)

Yaounde was a whirlwind of paperwork and administration. (My bank account still isn't closed, even though I submitted all the correct paperwork). I got to see a few more friends at the CASE before I left. I had meetings with my PTO and Country Director and they were both just absolutely wonderful and kind. The ride to the airport was surreal, just before sunset through all the neighborhoods of Yaounde. At the airport, they took the snacks I packed, I still think that was bogus, but I didn't really care, I was just a big sigh of relief.

So I've been back in America for 5 months and I'm still figuring out how to answer people when they ask me how Cameroon/the Peace Corps was. It was something! It was eye-opening. It was the experience of a lifetime. "Well, yeah, but…" the person asking inevitably replies. Seriously, I don't know how you expect me to sum it up concisely. Give me a few paragraphs at least. I feel absolutely lucky to have had the opportunity to live in Cameroon for 18 months. Cameroon is a beautiful, vibrant country full of culture(s) and history and wonderful people. I was so lucky to experience the culture as a resident rather than just a tourist. To meet so many amazing people. To learn such a completely different way of life, and to live within it. To have the opportunity to recognize our shared humanity. To have seen such a geographically different part of the world. To have had a chance to see so blatantly my needs, my weaknesses, my dreams for the future. To have worked at an amazing Girls' Camp with amazing volunteers and been able to share some knowledge about health. I really can't say enough what an amazing opportunity/experience it was and how lucky I was to have it. On the other hand, it was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done and it knocked me flat and I lost a lot. I am still getting back to the good mental place I was at before I joined the Peace Corps. But I am getting there and while I have no desire to be crying in my room in Cameroon for days at a time, I wouldn't change my experience for the world.
To everyone who supported me in my decision and on my return, thank you so much. It has meant a lot to me. There were a few people who said that they respected my choice to leave rather than to stay and do nothing. And I really needed to hear that, so thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now I'm in America. I'm still living with my sister. I'm volunteering at two places (a domestic violence survivor support nonprofit and a hospice), I'm taking a CNA class and I'm applying to nursing school this fall. I feel like I am heading in the direction I want to be heading and it is deeply satisfying. I'm finally raising chickens, I'm learning to play ukulele, I do some hula-hooping and I bike all over the place. I feel safe being outside at night. I am happy.

Love.

16 comments:

Sean6 | September 5, 2011 at 2:17 PM

Zara, you have written a most thoughtful and honest reflection of your time there. Sometimes explaining a personal decision to others can be more difficult than the decision itself, especially if it goes against the expectations of others. I'm truly sorry that I did not make the time to visit you while you were there. An opportunity lost. I am glad to hear you are doing well back in the states and your experience had personal value regarding your chosen path in life. I hope we can meet up again someday. My wife and I are having a wedding party in Palmer next summer, July 28th. Where do I send the invitation?

Richard Castello | November 4, 2013 at 5:27 PM

Thank you for this post. I am a current PCV that recently arrived to my site. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about ET and heading back to the U.S. I'm glad that you learned from your experiences, and you gave me lots to think about. I wish you all the best.

Z | November 5, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Hey Richard, thanks for the comment. You're doing a tough thing! Don't be afraid to talk to your friends about your worries. Only you will know what is the right decision for you. Best of luck!

Elyse Rudemiller | February 10, 2014 at 10:04 PM

I randomly google'd "ETing from the Peace Corps" and this came of. I just ET'd after 16 months in Ghana and I'm struggling the the decision and being home. This was great to read. My plan is also to get my CNA and then to apply to nursing school, I just thought the parallels were funny. I'd love to know how they worked out for you since you seem to be living my life ahead of me.

Z | February 11, 2014 at 7:18 AM

Hi Elyse, I didn't find much when I Google's about ETing, so I'm glad it was helpful. I've been home for about 3 years and sometimes now it feels like I was never gone at all. I went to nursing school and now I work on a mental health unit and love it. My biggest regret is that I lost touch with my Peace Corps friends because I felt ashamed of ETing. Good luck! Give yourself time and kindness.

Chelsea Welch | February 21, 2014 at 1:04 AM

I just got a tentative placement for Agroforestry leaving this September and the only country that matches that description is Cameroon, so this came up in my google search. I'm not crazy about agroforestry and seeing that you struggled with a lack of structure and finding work to do... I'm even more uneasy. Do you have any suggestions as to what I could do to get a placement I'd be more interested in?

Very insightful reflection. I've quit some things in my life that made me feel guilty, but I've had to come to terms with the fact that it's my life and I need to do what's best for me, so I'm glad you also forgave yourself.

Z | February 21, 2014 at 6:23 AM

If you're concerned about getting an agroforestry placement, talk to your recruiter. I know the application process is overwhelming, and getting a different placement may cause delays but I think the Peace Corps is invested in dedicated people. If you do opt to go do agroforestry in Cameroon, take heart, every other volunteer in my stage loved he experience despite its inherent struggles. The benefit to having a lack of structure is that you can essentially do anything. Focus on health or education or business or whatever your passion. It can all be related back to agro. As far as in country placements, some volunteers had much more dedicated counterparts and totally different experiences. When I asked for a placement, I wanted to be are I was near other volunteers, which I was. I'm sure you could equally ask for a post with an established counterpart if that is a concern. If you're interested in more info, I've got a few friends who still live over there! Bonne chance. Du courage.

juliearoundtheworld | April 16, 2014 at 6:45 AM

Just Googled "difficult decision in the Peace Corps" after writing about my difficult decision to join. I will definitely make sure to ask for help!

Dakota Carranza | May 16, 2014 at 10:48 PM

Your post is amazing and very insightful. I have been looking into the Peace Corps. I am worried that it will not be for me and that I might ET. I understand that it is okay to ET. I am mainly worried about any consequences that might occur from ET-ing. Are there any fees/consequences for ET-ing?

Z | May 17, 2014 at 6:41 AM

No fees, just emotional scarring. I think that the lengthy application process is in part to discourage ETing. You will only get paid out for the months you complete.

Megs | July 8, 2015 at 5:04 PM

Hi Zara,

I am a current PCV in Namibia dealing with anxiety. I've only been at site for 3 weeks, but I consider ET-ing every single day. Did you feel anxiety since the beginning of service or did it pop up gradually? And at what point, was enough enough for you? I don't feel 100% about leaving or staying and I don't know if I ever will. So hearing from somebody else who struggled the same way is immensely helpful!

Z | July 9, 2015 at 3:42 AM

Hi Megs, don't worry, it's normal to feel anxious and to think about ETing. Think about what is making you feel anxious and see if there are any ways you can deal with those issues. Talk to your PCV friends and anyone else you trust there. I think my anxiety got quite bad after about 4 months at site and I stuck it out about a year after that. You'll figure out what's right for you. Du courage. :)

EddieDugan | March 24, 2016 at 6:07 PM

Nice to read this. I ET'd in a very similar way and still feel bad.

robyn.cates | April 2, 2016 at 11:43 AM

This was good for me to read. A lot of your experiences and feelings are similar to those I'm having as a volunteer in Zambia. I think about leaving every day but I don't have the courage to quit for fear of regret. So I commend you for being brave enough to do what was best for you!

Z | April 4, 2016 at 2:14 AM

Eddie - cheers. I feel ya.

Robyn - good luck with whatever you decide to do. I still regret it, but it was the right decision for me. Sometimes things aren't very clear cut.

Unknown | January 12, 2017 at 3:25 AM

I left nursing years ago because I encountered so many horror stories. I couldn't stand by and let horrible things happen to people because they were poor. I blew the whistle and I am black listed. I am applying to the Peace Corps because I've had a calling all my life to serve. I hope you find your peace in nursing. I didn't and left knowing o would have to find another outlet. Be sweet and be brave. Stand up for what you believe in. That is the only way to make the world a better place.

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