FAQs: You're extending for a third year?

I'm proud to announce that I am extending for a third year of service in the Peace Corps here in Vanuatu. I know a lot of you back home are probably wondering what that means exactly, so I've compiled a list of common questions that keep popping up. Let me know in the comments if there's anything I've missed!

What is an extension?

Service for a Peace Corps volunteer is normally 27 months (3 months of training, 24 months at site). Towards the end of service, we were given the option to extend for an additional 13 months at site. Basically, you're just extending your contract with the Peace Corps, continuing your work on your same island, same site. You just do it for one year longer.

When do you come home?

Originally, since I arrived in April 2017, I was scheduled to depart in July 2019. Now, I will be departing in August 2020.

Why does PC want extendees, and why would a PCV want to extend? 

It can seem like two years is a long time to be in a foreign country to do the work of a Peace Corps volunteer. However, sometimes, the ball is just rolling when a PCV's service comes to a close. Since our key work is in sustainability, it's good to have one volunteer follow through until the end of a project before another volunteer takes over.

My first two years are almost complete, and I was just invited for the first time ever to drink kava with a fellow teacher on the island. The school at which I work is just getting into the swing of reading assessments and phonics. Some of the 7th/8th grade girls are just starting to feel comfortable to talk to me about their personal lives. In many ways, I feel like I'm just starting.

How do you apply for an extension?

The country director sent out a request for extendees first in November 2018, and again in April 2019. To apply, the PCV had to write a one or two page justification letter to explain why they wanted to extend at site. They had to refer to projects that have already been mentioned in previous work reports and they had to include how the site will benefit from their continued presence. The PCV must also include a detailed monthly work plan for the upcoming 13 months, and a letter that is signed by the chief/elders, counterpart and host family that they approve of the PCV staying for an additional year.

Why are you extending? What has happened in these final months to make you decide to stay?

When the call went out for extendees in November 2018, there was nothing in my mind that made me think I'd stay. I felt my continued presence wasn't necessary.

However, when PC asked again in April, I found myself very busy. At the end of last year, the headmaster asked me to work on a mural for the massive wall that was constructed near the entrance. Usually PC volunteers will do a world map mural or a cyclone-tracking map, but both of those were done spectacularly by the previous PCV at my site. The school began school clubs, and I was working with a small group of year 7 & 8 students doing a "mural club." I had hopes and plans to do an international club for term 3. The teachers also were doing a series of phonics workshops and getting started in reading assessments for all classes from 1-8. My nutrition workshops in the village were going really well and the mamas of the village wanted more, and they wanted to learn new recipes. The new staff at the school, and those who were here last year, have renewed energy, planning things left and right, like our career dress-up day. I hadn't hosted a movie night fundraiser in a while, which always earned at least 10,000vatu per night, and the school wanted more. We also are in the early stages of establishing some learning centers in the community. The Shefa province, where my island is located, is hosting its first-ever spelling bee, organized by some G30 volunteers. I wanted to see it through.

Basically, this year has been busier than any other year. When you arrive in Vanuatu for the Peace Corps, you start doing work in the final two months of the school year, you see through one full school year, and depart just in the middle of term two of your final year. It was easy to decide to finish off another full school year, because it takes time to do work in the Peace Corps, and one more year wouldn't be that difficult. 

Mrs. Nasse, Marky and I sit before our Easter feast. It's the first time they've painted eggs or eaten quiche!

What are you going to do with your extra year?

I will stay where I've been on my island of the past two years. 
I listed a bunch of things on my letter to the Peace Corps requesting an extension. Some of those things included:
  • Continue the mural-painting club to finish off some small murals near the bathrooms and a massive mural on the entrance wall of the school.
  • Plan out and execute the school's first-ever international club. 
  • Help the school with the all-school spelling bee in June and the province-wide spelling bee in August, hosted in Port Vila.
  • Host more nutrition workshops and cooking workshops with the mamas and nutrition committee in the nearby village. 
  • Host another puberty workshop with the year 7 & 8 students, like I did at the end of last year with the class 7 & 8 teachers.
  • Introduce puberty lessons or weekly puberty talks in the 7 & 8 classes.
  • Help the teachers level the books in the library according to a new 30-step reading program that they just introduced in term 2 of this year.
  • Do pull-out groups with the classes 4, 5, and 6 to do small, focused learning with struggling students.
  • Help create resources for the community resource centers in the three nearby villages, and train the village committees in how to use them. 
  • Host more teacher workshops on classroom management and how to use the resource guides in the library.
  • Celebrate the 4th of July like I did last year, which was a huge success.
  • Watch my beloved year 8 students graduate. :'(
  • Continue hosting and celebrating American holidays and completing that oh-so-fun Goal 2 of the Peace Corps
  • Host more movie night fundraisers at the school by choosing a fun family movie, sometimes related to an American holiday I've been teaching the students about at school. The movies are free, but students can buy popcorn for 20vt and cake for 50vt. 
  • Helping the school canteen cook with introducing more healthy snacks, like coconut milk ice pops. 
  • Phew. There's a lot, but these are the more substantial ones. There's also little stuff, like hanging with my neighbors, seeing babies become toddlers, and watching my baby kitten grow up :)

Daniel paints a handwashing mural on the bathroom that fellow student Nelson drew.

Are you the only one extending?

Nope! I'm from G29, or the 29th Peace Corps group to have arrived in Vanuatu. My group will be departing in June, but there are a handful who will stick around until I depart. Of course, G30 is also here, as they arrived in April 2018 and have always planned to depart in July of 2020. I've found a good group of friends in G30, so I'm glad I get to stick around with them.

Nearly a third of G29 is sticking around. Angela, Nhia, Veronica, Tristan and I are continuing at site, and Vanna, Charlie and Andre are working as PCVLs to help G31 with their arrival and training, as well as other office-related work.

Are there benefits to extending?

One of the biggest benefits of extending is that Peace Corps covers the expenses to send you home and back for a one month sabbatical. I'll be taking mine near September, when my brother is getting married!

With that month, it becomes a 13-month extension, as opposed to a one year or 12-month extension.

My monthly allowance will increase slightly once my extension begins as well.

I have to exit the country to renew my visa in July, so I'll be heading to New Caledonia and back for a weekend trip.

What about COS?

COS conference, or Continuation of Service or Closing of Service, is a conference or training for PCVs that happens toward the end of your service. I attended mine in Port Vila at the end of February, with my fellow G29 PCVs. During this conference, the staff prepares you to finish Peace Corps, giving us resources for our healthcare, our post-service travels, bank account information, and job hunting.

I already attended this conference, back when I assumed I would be ending my service in July 2019. However, since I am extending, I will go on to attend COS again next year, when G30 will be having theirs. Now, I will be departing Vanuatu at approximately the same time as their group does.

What are you going to do when you're done?

I ask you, dear reader, what are you going to be doing and what do you plan to do a year from now? The answer for me is, I don't know. Before extending, I was planning to travel, but the timing the office asked me to extend was perfect, as I'd yet to book any flights or anything.

Now, I'll be loosely planning that for post-service a year from now.

Aren't you going to miss your family being gone for another year?

That's what the home leave sabbatical is for, which I mentioned above. Homesickness has never been one of my major challenges here, however.

How did people react to you telling them that you were extending?

I talked at lengths to my friends here, fellow G29 PCVs, before making the decision to extend. I wasn't sure if I was having a weirdly good week, or if this was actually a smart decision. When I talked it through with Colleen, for example, she wasn't super surprised, because of all people in our group that she'd expect to extend, I was one of them. There were even rumors of me extending back in December circulating among other PCVs, when I most definitely wasn't planning to.

I first talked to my headmaster about it, and his reaction was pretty neutral. He only asked me if it was interrupting anything I had planned for after service (it wasn't) and if my parents were okay with the island "holding me" here (I told them the very next day, and they were fine with it).

When I applied and accepted, I happened to be in a workshop with the teachers. None of them even knew I applied. I told them I applied for a one year extension...and they all held their breaths, and once I said "They've accepted!" the teachers all jumped and cheered, and the female teachers all gave me a big hug. They were thrilled.

I told the students at a morning assembly the following Monday, which was met with cheering and applause.

My friend in the village, Meriam, tells me that same Monday, in the afternoon, her son Tamalo came home from school. She tells him how sorry she is to see me go, and how much she'll miss me. His face lit up and he said, "Yu no harem? Melissa stays! YES! (You didn't hear? Melissa stays! Yes!)" with an energetic fist pump added to the end.

I told Vivi, my oft-photographed toddler neighbor, the daughter of the headmaster. She said, "oh" and walked away. When I told her brothers Marky and Nemo (class 4 and 6, respectively), they jumped and cheered, and Vivi joined in. I noted that Vivi was much more excited now, and Nemo told me "Her head is small, she probably didn't get it before."

My former neighbor, Selena, would often tell me her son Ian in class 2 would talk to her about how sad he was to see me go soon. A few months ago, she even told me that they probably wouldn't come to say goodbye because it would be too difficult. I had no idea that Ian felt so strongly. When I told them, Selena's face lit up and she hugged me. Ian sheepishly smiled and went inside the house, which was just about the reaction I had been expecting, since he'd never shown such thrill to see me, until apparently I am not around!

My favorite reaction, however, was from elderly Leitau, a friend of mine in the village. She's so lovely and wonderful, and I can't even begin to describe how fun she is to be around. When I ran into her during a field trip to Port Vila, it was the first time I'd seen her in a couple months, because she was temporarily staying with family in town while getting some medical work done. She was asking when I was going home, because she knew the time was nearing. When I said I was extending for an extra year, she beamed and cried out, "PRAISE JESUS, HALLELUJAH!" and kissed me on both cheeks, followed by a tight hug.

In general, most reactions are "Now you'll have to find a Ni-Van man to marry!" followed by laughter, and general excitement or telling me how good it is. It's great to feel wanted and supported by those with whom I'll be spending time over these next 13 months.


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