Am I fit?
November 9, 2006 4:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in spending a couple of years in another part of the world, either volunteering or teaching. Am I fit to do so? If so, what programs should I look into?

I'm considering looking into something along the lines of the Peace Corps or an english-teaching program.

About me: I'm male, 34, live in the U.S., but have never traveled abroad. I have a degree in philosophy, am about to get an MFA in writing, and have decent computer/programming/web skills. I want to make a positive contribution to the world, however small, and also learn about what life is like outside of the isolated world I live in.

Possible complications: I'm gay, but would be (reluctantly) willing to go back into the closet for a year or two. I do have a history of depression & anxiety disorders, for which I might need monthly prescription medications. Pretty bad allergies are generally kept under control via over-the-counter meds.

Am I even possibly fit for such endeavors? If so, what programs should I look into?
posted by treepour to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I did Peace Corps. As far as being gay, the country will change things a bit but overall Peace Corps will likely outright advise you not to be open about your sexuality. It sucks, but in a lot of parts of the world it's reality. Ditto for a lot of religious beliefs. We were told outright not to say we didn't believe in god.

As far as anxiety/depression, it might affect your ability to be medically cleared for service. What you need is a doctor who can write a strong case for your being fit to serve and possibly undergo a LOT of stress and be in a very challenging environment. You should be very careful about not disclosing anything on your initial application, as if they discover it later it's ground for being administratively separated, plus the might balk at paying for any costs associated with your issues. That's not to say a lot of people don't fail to disclose things, but I know personally of folks who have been sent home over issues.

Oh, and allergies might affect what country/part of the world Peace Corps would send you to. It all depends on the medical clearance process.

That said, go for it! My best advice is go with no expectations and be willing to do any sort of work (not necessarily what you're best at or trained to do at home).
posted by handful of rain at 4:48 PM on November 9, 2006

Adding: about the not saying your gay/atheist/etc, this isn't always about personal safety. Sometimes it also will influence your ability to work within your community, to be accepted and trusted as a teacher or whatever by colleagues, students, community members, etc.
posted by handful of rain at 4:50 PM on November 9, 2006

If you're totally honest about all those things with potential 'employers' (I'm using that loosely to include people that would place you in volunteering positions, etc) then the unfortunate answer is: no, you're probably not fit for such endeavors.

Your professional skills would be very much needed. Allergies aren't really an issue - that would be your own problem to handle. Gayness can be issue in some countries, but again - that would be your own issue, no reputable NGO, charity, or volunteer organisation would screen you out based on your sexual orientation.

But the thing that would hold you back are the depression and anxiety disorders. Taking yourself out of your normal context and going somewhere new and culturally different, alone, is extremely stressful, and interviews for positions abroad will (overtly or not) include questions designed to scope out your coping capabilities. And to be honest, that's for your own good. (And for the good of the organisation.)

During the two years I lived in Uganda, I never met anyone who went home (unplanned) because of financial, medical, or personal problems, but I did meet a few who had to go home because their mental health just could not handle the strain of the situation. It sucked for them to have that happen, and it also sucked for the organisation to lose one of their staff/volunteers prematurely. Hence the screening process during hiring.

If you think your own mental health is resilient enough, then give it a shot - but be warned that orgs will be reluctant to place you abroad, should you disclose/reveal the situation.

Also, just so you know: don't tell people doing hiring anything along the lines of changing the world (I know that wasn't your exact wording) or something equally idealistic. It's not a realistic expectation and is considered a big red flag.
posted by Kololo at 4:59 PM on November 9, 2006

To follow up on handful of rain: no one I knew of was told to not discuss their gayness/atheism, but most people figured out pretty fast that it made their lives a whole lot easier if they did.

Although... gayness probably would get you beaten up in Uganda. (It definitely gets the ugandan gay men beaten up... foreigners often exist on a different standard of behaviour.)
posted by Kololo at 5:05 PM on November 9, 2006

Yes, Peace Corps admin varies wildly from country to country. I was in Namibia, and we were told outright, in so many words, during training never to tell someone you didn't believe in god. I actually can't recall if the same applied to homosexuality or if it was just strongly implied but, as you said, folks figure it out for themselves very quickly.

And by the way, Kololo made a very graceful and important point about mental health. What he said is very true.
posted by handful of rain at 5:20 PM on November 9, 2006

Go teach in downtown Detroit. South Central. The Bronx. Some crappy one-horse border town in Arizona where 90 percent of the kids are children of illegal immigrants. Or some downtrodden area of Canada. Or the UK. They have poor people in Australia, too. And all with less worries about a lack of access to prescription drugs.
posted by frogan at 5:27 PM on November 9, 2006

Geez, thanks for making all those presumptions about me, frogan. I'll take the very valid points you make in your first post into careful consideration. Otherwise, I don't give a flying fuck what you're sick of or who you think I am.
posted by treepour at 5:43 PM on November 9, 2006


I was also a former Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Africa. I had also never travelled overseas before that time.

I was never told anything regarding atheism/sexual orientation, then again, my training was very shaky (civil wars), so perhaps someone forgot to tell us that.

I did observe that a few volunteers that were either elderly or had very serious medical issues were frequently placed in large cities that had phones, roads, an airport - those volunteers were not left out in an isolated village.

I've seen and known volunteers evacuated for everything ranging from personal issues to medical problems. I never met anyone evacuated due to mental health problems - but I did hear of many stories (and am sure that quite a few were valid). I would be up front about your condition, have your physician summarize and assess that for the PC. There may be a risk that you are not placed or have a medical hold limitting you to a few countries. However, I would err on the side of caution rather than risking a dangerous situation. Seriously, I never saw other americans for weeks to months at a time. I would think that if you take a regular prescription, you should be assessed by a health care worker from time to time.

Best of luck.
posted by Wolfster at 5:45 PM on November 9, 2006

I wouldn't take that posters comments seriously. Don't feed the troll that is what it wants
posted by Wolfster at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2006

You may be able to get a job with an NGO that deals with this sort of thing. I have some personal experience with Up With People - very gay-friendly and open to anyone, and depending on the job you would be able to travel a fair bit. (Road staff lets you travel more; field staff a little less as you're based in one area but still involves travel).

Try looking at jobs with other organizations too - Idealist could lead you somewhere.
posted by divabat at 7:11 PM on November 9, 2006

I would say you're absolutely fit--but choose carefully the committment length &/or specific country, i.e. Japan is an amazing place, but is distinctly isolating if you live in rural areas, and there is next to no healthy acknowledgement of depression or other mental health issues from the medical community. Don't get me started on Japan & queer issues (& how many middle aged lesbians I knew who wore wedding rings to work, etc), though as a westerner you may be given a near carte blanche: you're alien as it is.

That said, you might consider the JET Program(me), which places people in as assistant English teachers in Japanese public high schools for one-year contracts. Tons more info exist on this board &/or online re: JET. EPIK is the equivalent program for Korea. Dave's ESL Cafe is pretty much the starting point for finding/trading info about ESL jobs.

I've heard people talk about Geekcorps here--is that the same as the UN's peace corps equivalent?

You can find summer volunteer jobs teaching English in Eastern European & Russian summer camps to high schoolers. You can do shorter-term volunteer work camps. You can save a bunch of money & volunteer in Guatemala and live much, much more cheaply than you would in the states.

What about a Fulbright? What about something with the American-Scandinavian Foundation?
posted by soviet sleepover at 7:22 PM on November 9, 2006

There are lots of teaching opportunities around China.

Yes, China has "prohibitions" on homosexuality but that does not seem to have stopped the Beijing, foreign gay community too terribly much (Most people don't really understand foreigners' lifestyles anyway so they just steer clear). My wife and I went to a great party the other night that was at least 75% GLBT and it was out and loud and no one bothered a soul. I do hear older, gay Beijingers lament the "good old days" before the gay bars were packed to the gils.

The cities are pretty cosmopolitan, but suitably foreign, so you can get a plenty foreign experience yet still find a burger or taco when you get homesick. BJ has modern, western hospitals so your meds issues will not be too bad.

If you want more info about BJ jobs or scene, please feel free to email me, I'm at hotmail. Though I'm a breeder, I'm sure I can at least put you in touch with some folks that are in the know on both fronts.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:34 PM on November 9, 2006

Wherever you decide to go, make sure you get your immunizations! Sounds obvious, I know, but a lot of people don't.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:47 PM on November 9, 2006

Many thanks, all. This isn't something I'm ready to leap into immediately, but your advice & suggestions give me a much clearer picture of the landscape of possibilities (which is exactly what I was looking for). It sounds like I definitely have some soul-searching to do regarding the question of whether or not I'm emotionally stable enough to last a couple of years in a very challenging and unfamiliar environment.
posted by treepour at 10:07 PM on November 9, 2006

There is always a way. japan and korea have great variety of programs, look into jet or apply to nova to get an idea. i know personally japan is fantastic, but as a gay man just make sure to select the location carefully. in terms of your limitations, i would recommend keep the trip to 6 months max. challenge is good, just find a 3 or 6 month option.
posted by edtut at 2:47 AM on November 10, 2006

You could go someplace like Guatemala and hang out for awhile doing part-time volunteering with commitments that can be as little as 1 week (or months and months if you have the time/inclination/ability). There are lots of worthwhile charitable organizations that could take you on, especially in Antigua and Quezaltenango (Xela). They're also beautiful, interesting and extremely inexpensive places to live. After you've been there awhile, and know if you can handle it, you could sign up for something longer term.

Also, China is a good place to get away from the rat race, but it is hard to find a job that will make you feel like you are really helping the human race. I've been here for several years and enjoy life here, but avoid China/Korea/Japan as the place to make a difference (at least as far as ESL). 90% of it is about preparing students to integrate fully into the world economy. A worthwhile goal, I'd say, but not really gonna give you the warm fuzzies like working with starving kids or protecting the environment or whatever.
posted by bluejayk at 9:57 AM on November 10, 2006

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