8 April 2014, Tuesday
“I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” – Garth Brooks
For the past four months I have been meaning to write one final blog post to officially wrap up these adventures in Africa. I have all sorts of excuses (none of them very good) about why it’s taken me so long, and I realize that I’ve probably lost a lot of viewers’ interests. However, the time has come to say the last few (ok, let’s be honest, it’s probably going to be more than a few) words on the subject and move on with my life. I know most of the people who read this will probably be family and friends who cared enough to subscribe to this blog and get email updates, but the subject matter of this post is probably going to be more beneficial to other Peace Corps Volunteers who are finished or about to finish their service.
We were warned. As volunteers about to finish our service, we were told that readjusting to life in the States was going to be difficult. Jokes were made about people breaking down in the grocery store when they saw how many different kinds of chips there were to choose from. We were advised that most people wouldn’t really care about what we’d been doing the past two years and those who did care would never fully understand what our lives were like in the Peace Corps. We were told to prepare an elevator speech to summarize our service so we would know what to say when we inevitably got the question, “So how was Africa?” And on our way out the door we were handed a voucher for 3 free trips to see a professional counselor, “should you return home and find that everyone now looks green or something.” To Peace Corps’ credit, they took good care of us and I don’t know how they could have prepared us any better for coming home.
Actually getting home took a while. As I departed Namibia, it was raining. Clearly the country was sad to see me go. Truth be told, my last month in Namibia was more of a challenge than I had bargained for and I was ready to get on that plane. Unfortunately, there are no jet ways to planes in Namibia so I was handed an umbrella and ran to the plane through the pouring rain. A couple hours later I landed in South Africa where I boarded a plane bound for good old US of A, and 16 hours later we landed in Atlanta. As we were pulling into the gate, the pilot announced that Nelson Mandela had passed away while we were flying. One more 3 hour plane ride and I was home in Minnesota. My parents, my brothers, my grandparents, and my good friend Nancy were there to greet me with posters, flowers, food, and open arms. And I was so glad to be home.
The next few days were pretty overwhelming. The first stop after the airport was out to lunch at one of my favorite chicken places, Rasin’ Canes. It was delicious, but mostly I remember being cold and overwhelmed. The temperature difference between Namibian summer and Minnesotan winter was about 100 degrees (literally, not an exaggeration). Even though my parents thankfully brought my winter coat to the airport, I still sat at the table with it zipped up to my nose as I watched everyone around me pull out their smart phones and explain to me what apps were and comment how wouldn’t it be great that soon I too would be able to use Snapchat (still haven’t figured that one out)? And while I didn’t break down and cry in the chips isle of the grocery store, my first trip to Walmart was a little more than I was ready for. I would like to blame the cold and exhaustion for my eyes welling up as I realized I didn’t know where anything was any more and I couldn’t find my parents. It was at least a week before I set foot in Walmart again.
From there I expected… well I don’t remember what I expected, but whatever it was, that’s not what I got. The plan, so far as there was a plan, for my return to the States was
- Visit the family and friends I hadn’t seen in two and a half years or longer
- Apply to grad school
- Find a job to keep me busy until grad school
On paper it looks pretty simple, but even before I got back, I knew it wouldn’t be. More than a year before I came home, I had looked into the possibility of starting grad school in the spring semester so that I would have very little “down time” between Peace Corps and my next adventure. Unfortunately, what I found out was that some of the Civil Engineering classes need to be taken in a specific order so I would have to wait and start in the fall. This left me with about 10 months I needed to fill with something, preferably something engineering related.
Instead of gliding right into the “plan” it felt like I stumbled and tripped my way through the next few months. The first weekend I was back, I traveled to Chicago to meet up with some of my very incredible friends. It was fantastic to see them again. A lot had happened while I was away. One got married, two got engaged, and the fourth spent a year living on practically nothing while volunteering as a physical therapist in Chicago. Now all four have very successful careers and from my vantage point seem to be doing incredibly well for themselves. I couldn’t be happier for any of them while at the same time feeling jealous of how they appear to have it all figured out.
The next weekend we (and when I say “we” in this post I will most likely be referring to my parents and myself because most of my hometown friends have long since moved away and my parents are now the center of my social life) traveled to Washington to spend Christmas with my dad’s side of the family. Again it was great to see everyone. It felt like a real vacation and for a while there I felt like I could actually relax, yet in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t sticking to the “plan.” However, at the end of my 2 week stay, my cousin invited me for a tour of his work at B/E Aerospace and even arranged for me to meet with a person from human resources. B/E gave him his start when he was a student at the University of Washington and I have to say I was quite impressed by their workshop and the pieces or airplanes being constructed. Now the “plan” was coming together nicely. I could see myself moving out to Washington at the beginning of the summer for the B/E summer internship which would transition nicely into grad school in the fall. Shortly after returning home from Washington I filled out the first of many online applications.
It’s easy to type it now. I filled out the application. See, easy. At the time, it was more difficult than I ever could have imagined. You see, something happened shortly before I left Namibia that had a bigger impact on me than I realized at the time. Last year a good friend of mine wrote that I inspire her because of my “courage and undying self-confidence.” However, words were spoken to me at the end of my service that for the first time I can ever remember crushed that self-confidence. It wasn’t immediate. It took a while for exactly what was said to sink in to my mind, but when it did, it took root there and spread. Every day I woke up to those words. I began to question if I had made some serious mistakes in how I went about my service in Namibia. And from there, everything became a question. Worst of all, I began to question my faith. I probably haven’t really written much about my faith in this blog as it tends to be a topic that makes people feel uncomfortable and I would never want to push my views about the topic on anyone else. But for the sake of understanding where I’m going with this story, let me just say that I rely pretty heavily on God to guide me through life. “In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everthing.” Philippians 4:13. Remember that “undying self-confidence” I was talking about? I’m pretty sure it came from God. For quite sometime, I believed I could do anything. (I know what all you older people are thinking, young kid in her 20s, of course she thinks she’s invincible) Parents always tell their children they can be anything they want to be and my parents are no different. And I believed them. I always dreamed big. When I got my acceptance to the Peace Corps, I believed God was pointing and saying “that’s the way you should go. Follow that path.” Joining the Peace Corps felt more right than anything I had ever done before. Whenever things got difficult over there, I would always ask God to guide my hands to do the work he had sent me there to do. No matter how difficult it got or how many times I wanted to go home, I stayed because I just knew that was where I was supposed to be. I can’t fully explain it. I just knew that was where I was supposed to be. And yet, when I got home, I questioned that feeling. I questioned if it was really God who sent me to Namibia, if it was really God who pulled me through those difficult days or if it was just my own pride and stubbornness. For the first time in my life I questioned if there is a God. That doubt scared me most of all. The thought of being wrong for the past 26 years terrified me. The thought that maybe I’ve been doing this all alone my whole life frightened me. So confidence non-existent and faith shaken, I stared at the application to B/E for several days before I found enough shadow of confidence to fill out the application and from there to finish my application to the University of Washington. About six weeks later, B/E rejected me.
Fear of failure is a powerful thing. I know my parents expected me to spend the better part of January filling out job and internship applications, but I was stuck in my own head. And I found my own head was a very lonely place to be, but my own stubbornness kept me there. I didn’t want to admit that maybe I needed some help. I didn’t want to believe that one person’s words could have such a huge affect on me. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning watching TV each night so that by the time I crawled into bed, my brain just went to sleep and I didn’t have to listen to those words over and over again. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to just sleep through the whole next day until my parents got home from work, I was awake by 8 or 9 with a whole day to fill. Days that should have been filled with applications and interviews. I tried to keep myself busy by unpacking and sorting through all my old stuff, reading, watching TV, painting, or whatever I could find to keep my mind occupied. A week went by and we were out to dinner with my brother and his long time girlfriend. Over dinner, my mom asked me if I would like to help her coach math league in the morning. I asked how early she started and then the comment was made that if I went to bed at a “reasonable time” it wouldn’t seem very early. That hurt. It was just a passing comment but it hurt more than it should have and pushed me over the edge. When I got home, I headed straight for the shower and started sobbing uncontrollably. It’s been a long time since I’ve had people around who notice or care about my sleeping habits. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for welcoming me home and never complaining about having me in the house. They even include me when they want to go out to dinner or to a play or even for a week in Florida. But that night I just wished I had the house to myself. I had been judged so much the past two years by everyone who saw me inside and outside of my home that I really didn’t want to be judged by my family too. And it all just spiraled down from there. I started thinking about how much I miss my kids and how far away they feel from me here. I thought about what was said to me before I left and how much truth could be in those words. I missed my independence and most of all, I missed my confidence. Fortunately, that was probably the lowest point.
A few days later my mom got me a job working in the cafeteria at her school. Lunch lady was never a profession I saw myself in, but at least it was something. The other three ladies I was working with were so interested in the Peace Corps and after a day or two, I really enjoyed telling them my stories. Up until that point, I sort of dreaded questions about Namibia. I didn’t want everyone to see me as the girl who lived in Africa. I wanted to put it behind me and just slip back into life in these United States with no one else the wiser. I figured when people asked me questions about Namibia, I wouldn’t be able to come up with adequate answers. Anytime I was with my mom and I said something critical about Namibians, my mom (who to her credit has been to Namibia twice) would correct me and soften or amend my statement, so I learned to keep my mouth shut. But in that school kitchen, I was on my own. I felt free to answer their questions, most of which were harmless like “what did I eat?” or “how big were the classes I taught?” However, the story they were the most interested in and asked the most questions about was the time the teachers went on “strike.” I know my mom wouldn’t have approved of the story (and she almost always turns out to be right) so I probably shouldn’t have shared it, but it felt good to tell a story that really portrayed a big challenge in my service. As great as it was, my service definitely had its ups and downs. Peace Corps is not something to be entered into lightly. It’s true that it’s the hardest job you’re ever going to love. My fellow lunch ladies will probably never fully understand what they did for me by welcoming me into that job. They gave me a reason to get up in the morning and a place to slowly but surely build back a tiny bit of self-confidence.
At the end of January, I took a trip to Michigan to see my mom’s side of the family. I had seen my grandparents already when they welcomed me home at the airport, but this gave me a chance to spend some real time with them and visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins. While the real intent of the trip was to visit family, I relished the idea of being able to run away from my fear of failure and the thought in the back of my mind that kept saying I should be filling out more applications and figuring out what comes next. Unfortunately I forgot to take into account that my mind would also be traveling with me. It was great to get to spend some real quality time with my grandparents, but I kept being nagged by that voice in my head saying it had been a whole month and I’d done next to nothing to get on with my life.
When I got home, the first thing I did was attend a career fair at the University of Minnesota. I came away from that day feeling more confident than I had felt in a month. No, no one had offered me a job on the spot or even an interview, but one of the men at a company I’m very interested in working for some day said he wished he had all day to listen to me talk about my time in Africa. Another woman said she didn’t have any positions for civil engineers but that I had made such a wonderful impression on her that she wanted me to email her so she could do some checking in other branches of the company for a position for me. I left my resume with about 10 different companies and collected a handful of business cards. Unfortunately, everyone I spoke with who had positions available said I needed to apply online. All the business cards I was given were for the business not the specific person I spoke with at the career fair. I returned home and over the next several days proceeded to fill out online applications for the companies represented at the career fair. And then I waited, and waited, and waited. Most of the companies were nice enough to send me an email confirming they had received my application, but up till now I have only heard back from a handful of applications, all of which were rejections.
And so I moved through February. Somewhere in the middle of the month I was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Washington. Now, I should mention that my attending grad school is really contingent on some sort of financial aid, seeing as I didn’t make a whole lot of money volunteering. So as exciting as being accepted to the program was, I was still waiting to hear if I would get a place on the research track which not only would allow me to do research but would also provide me with a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend. A few days later I found out I was invited to visit the University of Washington and was being considered for a research position. At the beginning of March, the university flew me out to Seattle for the weekend along with about 20 other candidates interested in the University of Washington. I figured it would be like a day of interviews where the professors would be looking for who they wanted to work with. This was not the case. It was more of the professors promoting the school and their program. I was very impressed with the professors and excited by the work being done by current graduate students. I spent quite a while talking to the head of the civil engineering department as well as another professor who had also traveled around southern Africa in his younger years. I thought I made a great impression and I ended the day feeling pretty positive about the whole experience. It really felt like that was where I wanted to be. As we left that day, one of the professors told us they would try to have the first round of financial offers made by the end of two weeks. She did warn us that they were also in the process of hiring a new faculty member so it could take a little longer than two weeks. That was four weeks ago and I’ve long since passed the point of being optimistic. I’d like to believe no news is good news, but I think my optimism joined forces with my confidence and both have gone away.
During March I was also accepted to the University of Minnesota but told that I would not receive any financial aid. So here I sit. Four months down and nothing to show for it. I’ve lost track of how many companies I’ve applied to and how many I haven’t heard back from. I’ve had exactly zero interviews. There are tiny voices in my head that like to mention things like maybe it was a mistake to spend two years in Africa. Maybe no one wants to hire someone who got an engineering degree and then didn’t use it for two years. Maybe my resume isn’t as strong as my reviewers told me it is. Maybe my cover letters aren’t impressive enough. Maybe I should be making follow up phone calls and pestering people more. Maybe I would have a husband and be starting a family if I hadn’t gone away for two years. I feel like I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this one place with no idea how to get out.
I don’t know what I’m doing wrong and at the same time, I don’t know what I would do if I did get an interview. If I’m brought in for an interview in Rochester should I tell them that I may be moving to Seattle in the fall? If I get an interview for one of the entry level positions I applied for should I tell them I may be going to grad school in 5 months? Should I also be looking for positions in Seattle? What if I got an internship in Seattle and then didn’t get a financial offer for grad school? I have a few more contacts I can reach out to, but should I ask them for help now when I’m not sure where I’ll be 6 months from now or should I wait and contact them when I know which direction I’m going? I’m so disappointed in myself right now that I’d hate to disappoint my contacts to by not being prepared. This feels a lot like the position I was in at the end of my senior year of college when I didn’t know if I was accepted in the Peace Corps or not so when I was going to interviews I didn’t really know what to say. In that case, it didn’t matter because at the last second I was accepted to the Peace Corps, but I feel this time my luck may be going another way.
Just to add to my confusion, my mom mentioned this weekend that someone she knows is looking for a nanny this summer. I would love to be a nanny this summer. That sounds like a lot of fun to me, but at the same time it sounds a lot like giving up. What if grad school doesn’t work out and I need to find an entry level position? That’s probably not something I want to postpone till the end of the summer considering postponing my career for two years in Africa doesn’t seem to be helping my cause. If I knew for sure I could attend grad school in the fall, I would be all over that nanny position just to not have to look for a job anymore. As much as I would like to do something, anything engineering related, at least it would be a step forward and I would know that I could do engineering in the fall. All this running through my head, I asked my mom when the family would need to know by? I could tell by the tone in her voice, as she told me the family wouldn’t wait long, that she wished I would just apply for the nanny position and be done with it.
I can’t imagine what my parents must really think of their 26 year old daughter living at home again for these four months. The very same daughter who had a perfect GPA in high school and was part of the high school soccer team, band, and math league. The same daughter who earned not one but two degrees in just 5 years. I’m sure they never thought that I would be the one to move back home and struggle so much to find a job. And while I may have mentioned a few instances where living under the same roof again has been a little tense, it’s entirely my fault. I’m too sensitive to comments and criticism right now and they have truly been nothing but supportive now and since the day I was born. They are amazing and I couldn’t be more blessed to have them as my parents.
Of course they may have some objections to me writing this particular post. There is a chance that one of those companies I applied to could read this and decide I don’t have the mental stability they are looking for. However, this post goes beyond finding a job. This post is really for anyone out there who might find themselves in a similar position. Or maybe I’m as alone as I feel. And not that I have any answers or advice to give, but I think just knowing you’re not the only one can make a difference.
I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but what I do know is even through all the struggles and disappointments these past four months, I am finally starting to feel more like myself again. For Lent I decided to give up thinking about what was said to me before I left Namibia. It is definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever given up for Lent, but I am a better person for it. Maybe pushing it aside is not the best way to deal with the problem, but it seems to be working for me. Now instead of being so afraid and passive, I’m just frustrated by the whole situation. Two years in Namibia taught me a lot about patience, but even those years didn’t prepare me for four months of waiting. The irony in all this is that I read the book Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss to my learners just before leaving Namibia. I wanted them to understand they could go anywhere and do anything, and now here I am living out that book. Shortly after returning home, I hit the slump, and “unslumping yourself is not easily done.” And now I’m in The Waiting Place. (my kids loved that part of the book because I began to read faster and faster and faster as I read about all the things you could wait for. They loved to hear me speak fast English) If I remember correctly, next I should come to the place where Boom Bands are playing… maybe that’s a university, who knows?
So now, you’re probably wondering, was it worth it?
YES! I wouldn’t trade my adventures in Africa for anything. I met some really incredible individuals and I learned a lot about myself and another part of the world. I’m sure it was truly the toughest job I’ll ever love. And knowing what I know now, if given the opportunity to go back in time 3 years and make the decision all over again, I would still choose to join the Peace Corps, and here’s why…