Peace Corps Volunteers - Ukraine

I Quit the Peace Corps for Money

Way back in late 2001, yours truly got laid-off. After being in the work force for a little over five years after college, this came as a bit of a shock. I thought I had it all figured out, and was “well on my way.”

I had been working for a large multi-national company in the IT support department. This was the job where I got to witness my old friend ditch his cube in such an inspirational way.

Days of Anger and Worry

After the horrific events of 9/11, we were all understandably on edge, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which was being attacked on our own soil. Within a few months of the attacks, a recession was in full swing. Job losses mounted.

I remember staring at the $1,000 Tag Heuer watch I’d bought myself back in August 2001 as a reward for another fine year on the job. That 5% raise had me feeling pretty good about my future at Global Domination, Inc.

I looked up from that watch to witness my boss tearfully inform me of my termination. My attempt to comfort him went something like, “It happens. I’ll be fine.”

About 500 others got the news that day. It sucked. I went home and stewed for a few hours before letting off steam on my bike. On that ride through the woods and around one of our 10,000 lakes, I brainstormed what to do next. Maybe I should join the armed forces? Peace Corps?

Later that evening my girlfriend did her best to cheer me up. We went to Nye’s Polonaise Room in downtown Minneapolis. Long since closed, this classic was once Esquire’s Best Bar in America. But the karaoke piano bar wasn’t helping my mood this night.

Enter, the Peace Corps

Within a few weeks I had grown tired of filling out job applications and making fruitless calls to recruiters. Even the jobs I didn’t think I’d ever have to go back to had dried up (call center.)

Now I was thinking, “better get ready to pawn off this sweet new watch…” At least I was still getting a steady monthly rent check from my roommate. But even that wouldn’t be enough once my unemployment checks stopped coming*.

Having a number of good friends from overseas got me thinking of an international escape. I decided to look into the Peace Corps.

Hell, if I’m not going to find work I enjoy here in the U.S., I could at least find something interesting overseas that pays next to nothing but is incredibly more rewarding. An epiphany emerged: Ditch your Office Space life before it’s too late.

I filled out the massive application. There might have been an essay component too. I got a couple of close friends to write epic recommendation letters.

 

We Do Need Some Education (P. Floyd, revised)

After several weeks I’d completely forgotten about applying for the Peace Corps. I think they were either over-burdened with applicants or simply wanted candidates to marinate to ensure they were serious.

Either way, I went about my life and even went on a Caribbean cruise with three other buddies. We booked it before I got canned.

As soon as I got back from the cruise, my girlfriend dumped me. Not the vacation afterglow I was hoping for. At least maybe this would help me focus more on those studies, right! Silver linings…

Things couldn’t get any better at this point, so I said to heck with it. I’m going to finish my part time MBA, the full time way.

I got to work and cracked those books like a mother f**ker and cranked through that year in academic style. I managed to keep afloat that year with the help of a home equity loan. Chalk up one newly minted MBA exactly one year later.

During the home stretch of my studies I once again began looking for work. The job market still stunk big time even 9 months after my lay off. I eventually landed a decent gig managing help desk agents at another Fortune 500 company. I figured, let’s give this office gig another shot.

 

It gets complicated

Life seemed to be on this amazing new course for me. New job, MBA in hand, all while having a blast with my friends. Then I got the letter in the mail:

You have been accepted to the Peace Corps, with a mission in Ukraine. Start packing.

Ohhhh SHIT! NOW they get back to me??? Hell, I would’ve been first on the boat a year ago, after my life was turned upside down. NOW they come to take me?

Needless to say, so much about my life situation changed that an inevitable decision was bound to come up. Knowing how much effort went into this process, and knowing the once in a lifetime opportunity presented, I started getting ready…

It gets better. Within a week of being accepted, I get a call from the ex. All the sudden we’re reunited. And I’m such an idiot. Is that how the song goes? More appropriately, Listen all y’all it’s SABOTAGE! *record scratch*

 

Gearing up to go

I had to get my act together fast. My Ukrainian was rather rusty (nonexistent), and my Russian only somewhat better (I knew a few spicy phrases, courtesy of friends.)

Oh right, I had a roommate living in my townhouse. What the hell was I going to do about that? A smarter version of me might have opted to rent out my room for the two-plus year duration of the mission.

But I was like, nah, just sell the thing. At least by 2002, the housing market was churning along up the slope and I got a nice profit from the sale.

All the sudden, I became a minimalist. Because, what the hell am I going to do with all my hand-me-down furniture? This was the first time (and last time) I’ll ever sign up for rental storage space.

What a pain in the ass to haul all my crap to that locker and pile it up just so. And to pay to have it just sit there? WTF.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to date my ex and getting more and more attached to that situation. More attached than I had been to Svetlana and Natasha, both of whom I’m sure were already attached to me, even though we hadn’t met.

 

Back in the Ukraine

By the time I’d sold my town house the clock had been rapidly ticking away towards a departure overseas. I knew what I was getting into, for the most part.

  1. Language would be the biggest hurdle – get ready to motion fingers to mouth when hungry
  2. Vodka is the Ukrainian version of water – you brush your teeth with it, if there’s any left after happy hour, which is a daily ritual
  3. Heat is a precious luxury in winter – be prepared to wear up to six layers while inside your unheated apartment in January
  4. Washing machines are like flying saucers in Ukraine. Get ready to whip out the old wash board. Or wear the same thing like five or six times between cleanings.
  5. Be prepared to hurt yourself, because there are no civic snow removal services on walkways. There could be ice in your path, but you wouldn’t know it for lack of street lamps.

On the positive side, the handful of blogs I followed highlighted the many wonderful things I could expect after picking myself up off the ice:

  1. The people are very warm and friendly. You’ll have many friends to help you commiserate through winter.
  2. The food is incredible and plenty. Ukrainians know how to cook, and they know how to celebrate as well. You’d find plenty of tables overflowing. Everything goes well with vodka!

    Ukrainian Feast Courtesy of Scott Merrill
    Got room for my famous chips n’ guac? Photo Courtesy of Scott Merrill
  3. Summers are very nice. The flip side of winter hell is that Ukraine has some very inviting natural settings that make for great hikes and camping.
  4. The women. Ah, the women. If you’re girlfriend breaks up with you because you’re unemployed and leaving for the Peace Corps, well, why not?
  5. It’s somewhere ELSE. I was ready to give up the cozy life here in the states and experience life. Where else better than Ukraine, where political upheaval on the doorstep of Russia awaited?

When the money monster creeps in

It all added up. I had my papers ready, and I had just a couple of months to go before I closed on my townhouse sale, and set sail for Eastern Europe. I even had my multi-plug-in converter thingy, and travel journal packed.

All the while I was pretending at my new gig that nothing big was occurring outside. But I did imagine pulling a Jesse on my last day in the office. “Where did Cubert go? His lunch is still sitting on his desk.”

It was a flurry of immunization shots, blood tests, and paper work preparing for my mission. I was going over some financial readiness tasks when I began to reflect on what two and a half years overseas would mean for my retirement savings.

I think Mad Fientist probably has an graph showing two divergent lines over a long range time series. Honestly, I didn’t even do the math at that time.

Looking at it now, Peace Corps would have cost me $300,000 in retirement savings at age 65. This is the cost of not setting aside $15,000 each year, over three years, in a 401K, in your late 20s. As you’ll soon read though, it ain’t always about the money…

 

The Decision

I remember the fateful day. I called my Peace Corps rep and told them my decision not to accept the invitation to Ukraine. My new priority would be to find a place to live, since I sold my house and closing was coming up soon.

My friends and family were delighted I was staying. I think they understood how much my situation had changed during the year. More than anything, I felt loved and appreciated, which is a damn good feeling to have.

 

Regrets

One could try to make light of this whole episode but in truth, it’s one of my biggest regrets to-date. I made a commitment, and then broke it.

I had even met a Ukraine volunteer on break in Minnesota just a month earlier. Following her blog had really given me a good view into what Ukraine life might be like for me. It felt like I had wasted her time.

No excuses. Part of my new mission with early retirement is to make community service a priority. Not the big adventure like Peace Corps, by any means. But who cares. A little bit older and wiser, it’s a good thing to help people in your own backyard too.

I’ve since been a helluva lot more cognizant of keeping commitments. A lot of work went into vetting me and preparing my mission. I’m not sure of the Corps was able to quickly fill my spot. I sure hope so.

A key lesson is not to let money fears stop you from great adventure early in your life. Who knows? I might’ve landed a sweeter job after the experience, having gained a second language?

As for being reunited? Well, that song ended within a few short months of my decision to stay. No regrets there.

 

*Yep, my very first venture into being a landlord was the smartest move I’d made at that time. When you’re single and owning a house, you better be renting out that spare second, third, (or fourth???) bedroom.

 

Comments 8

  1. Oh man – I seriously loved this. I always wanted to join the Peace Corps after my cousin Gina joined and was sent to Africa when we were kids. Of course, my lack of education made me ineligible to join (fucking Pink Floyd!). What an incredible opportunity but truly terrible timing. Weighing all things, most people would have made the same decision so don’t beat yourself up. In the end you learned a very important lesson to honor your commitments – so many people never learn that!! Who knows where that road would have led you (freezing your ass off in winter? Oh, wait… ????) but I am happy the one you took led you here. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I appreciate the encouraging words. I figure there’s no shortage of opportunities to help communities in need outside of Peace Corps.
      I’m glad for the road I’m on, for my lovely wife and kids especially, but less so for the MN winters. ????

  2. I mean, any big life change is scary. I had no idea it took that long for the Peace Corps to accept people though, dang. It’s hard for them to expect people to wait a year before being told to go abroad; so much can change. It does suck to break a commitment, but hey, you knew what was best for you at the time. It just wasn’t part of your journey. 🙂

    1. I know. The span of time between application and acceptance yielded quite a few changes for me. Some lessons are hard and this falls in that category, but I still feel I can have an impact, especially after early retirement.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Fritz! I really appreciate those words. Glad it played out the way it did for sure, but I still wonder what all that vodka and good food would’ve done for my future self. ????

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