How Did We Get Here?

Gina writes:

More than 3 years ago, Corey and I started talking about working outside of the U.S. after graduating from business school (we got our MBAs in April 2009). We brought the idea up a few times when talking to friends, we went to a session at the business school about a development opportunity for MBA grads, we started learning Chinese just for the exposure to a totally different language. Eventually these daydreams became more concrete as we realized, "What's stopping us? Let's take this seriously and actually do it!"

A little lot of research later, we found that the best way for both of us to do real, practical work in another country was to enter the world of development. I studied "third world development" (as it was called way back then!) in college and spent a semester in Honduras, so that side of overseas experience was already familiar and intriguing to me.

There were only a handful of programs that met our three simple requirements:

  1. that we could both get jobs;
  2. that the jobs would be relevant to our qualifications (and not just teaching English); and
  3. that the compensation offered would allow us to at least break even financially at the end.

A friend of mine told me about Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), which I'd never heard of because the North American recruiting base is in Canada. It looked like a good option, so we were down to two choices: a 15-month MBA-specific program with a heavy focus on business development (MBA Enterprise Corps) or a 2-year "Peace Corps for professionals" program that would use our business skills (VSO). The Peace Corps wasn't an option for us, because it only accepts couples who've been married for 1 year or more.

In November 2008, we had a joint phone interview with CUSO-VSO, which is the North American recruiting base for VSO International, in Ottawa, Canada. There were no red flags resulting from the interview--the approach seemed sensible, the use of professionals' skills like health and business was attractive, and the compensation/stipend package was acceptable. It was during that phone interview when we were both invited to Ottawa for a full-day interview.

So it was during January 2009 that we flew up to Ottawa...right in the middle of a cold snap! That's another story, but let me advise you not to plan a 4-day weekend "vacation" in a place where the normal temperature is less than 0 Fahrenheit!

The "assessment day" was the strangest interview I've ever experienced--there were 3 or 4 evaluators sitting around the room taking notes on the 8 or 9 candidates. As a group, we completed a series of exercises that were meant to show our leadership skills, our sensitivity to others, our flexibility, and other soft skills. At one point, we were all running around the room silently placing ping pong balls in colored baskets! It was overwhelming, to try to figure out what the evaluators were looking for, since it was obvious that completion of the task was not the primary goal, but rather how the task was completed.

Five days later, we each received a call from CUSO-VSO saying that we'd been accepted as "volunteer advisors." That meant that a CUSO-VSO staff member was assigned to start working with us to find placements. It was really happening!

Our journey from being accepted to the program and knowing where we were going and when was a frustrating and long one (as written in a post from July 2009 here). Between April and July, we were offered 3 different placements, all in India (though we were willing to go anywhere warm). The first two fell through and then the second one became a possibility again, so against all odds (it's very difficult to find placements for couples), we were faced with the choice of two placements. We had also been officially rejected from the MBA Enterprise Corps program (good thing, because I don't think we would have been happy in that program), so VSO was our only option. And we had graduated with our MBAs (April 2009) and gotten married (May 2009), so we were ready for our next adventure!

Having very little information about the organizations themselves and not understanding the volunteering experience well enough to ask good questions, we based our decision in part on someone's advice to "go to Koraput instead of Bhubaneswar, it's much cooler and that'll make a huge difference" and in part on CUSO-VSO's urging that the Koraput placement was more in line with their strategy, whatever that meant. It didn't matter to us, we were just excited to have this all becoming a reality for us. We said, "yeah, sure, Koraput" and waited...and waited...and waited.

Fortunately, we were both working at decent, stable jobs, so the wait wasn't difficult financially, but we did move out of our apartment and in with a friend, gave our dog to Corey's sister, and made plans mentally for leaving the U.S. in November. If everything had fallen through at that point, as it has with some other potential volunteers, we would have been devastated.

Finally, on September 9, we were sent the official acceptance letters (from SOVA) for the Koraput placement. We were to leave for India 8 weeks later! We got our final shots, our HIV test, and malaria pills. We made the logistic arrangements for storing our stuff for 2 years. We set plans with our friends to see them one last time before heading out (while enjoying our favorite Pittsburgh restaurants). We assured our families that we would be good communicators. We turned in our resignations to our employers. We got our visas with no problem.

Before we knew it, November arrived. On November 1, we ran a half-marathon relay race that snaked through Pittsburgh, a fitting way to say goodbye to a city that we'd both come to love. We headed out of the city and spent a week with our family before flying out of Detroit on November 8. It wasn't until we sat down at the gate in the airport, waiting for our first flight, that I breathes a sigh of relief. All the preparation, all the "what-ifs" and "we-shoulds" had actually become reality. We were leaving the U.S. for a few years, to have an adventure (and maybe do some good in the process).

17 months later, we have 6 months left in our pleacements and regular readers of the blog will know that our time here in India has been filled with frustration as well as wonder (sometimes at the same moment!). But not once have I ever thought, "What were we thinking?" I have no regrets. This has been an amazing journey.