Random Mongolia Fact #3: Weather in Mongolia

In honor of the snowpocalypse currently terrorizing the southeastern US…

Georgia: where we wear rain boots when it snows because no one owns snow boots

Georgia: where we wear rain boots when it snows because no one owns snow boots

…I thought I would do a post about weather in Mongolia. All I really knew about the climate in Mongolia prior to learning I would be living there for over 2 years was that it’s COLD!!! Like, regularly-dropping-to-minus-40-degrees-in-the-winter cold! And considering I’ve only ever lived in Atlanta and New Orleans (cities not exactly known for subzero temperatures), that’s really, really cold to me!

"Nope, I'm good. A little frostbite never hurt anyone..."

“Nope, I’m good. A little frostbite never hurt anyone…”

The extreme cold is due in part to the fact that Mongolia is so far inland and also at a high altitude (much of the country consists of plateaus and mountains). But it’s not always cold! In fact, temperatures in the summer can get up to 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) in parts of the Gobi desert and up to 91 degrees F (33 degrees C) in the capital of Ulaanbaatar.¬† But, since the summers are short compared to the long, cold winters, the average annual temperature in Ulaanbaatar is still 26.8 degrees F (-2.9 degrees C), making it the world’s coldest capital city!

And although there isn’t too much annual precipitation in Mongolia, I’m pretty sure their lives don’t come to a complete standstill when it does snow. Unlike some other places I know…

Traffic in Atlanta at the sight of even a flurry of snow

Traffic in Atlanta at the sight of even a flurry of snow

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No-Fee Passport and Visa

One of the first things the Peace Corps encourages you to do after accepting an invitation to serve is to apply for your no-fee passport and your visa (if your country of service requires one).

No-Fee Passport

Even if you already have a passport, you still need to apply for a special no-fee passport, which indicates that you are traveling abroad for official (not leisure) travel. These passports are also maroon instead of blue like the regular passports!

Example of the no-fee passport issued to civilian government employees.

Example of the no-fee passport issued to civilian government employees.

Now, depending on whether you already have a regular passport, you will have to complete one of two different passport applications, the Form DS-82 (if you already have a passport) or the Form DS-11 (if you don’t already have a passport OR if you will need your current passport before your Peace Corps staging*).

*When you apply for your no-fee passport using the Form DS-82, you must submit your current passport with the application. The Peace Corps holds both your new no-fee passport AND your current, regular passport until your staging event right before you leave for your country of service. Which is why if you will need to use your current passport for anything between the time when you apply for the no-fee passport and before you leave for staging, you need to use the Form DS-11 (and just submit a photocopy of the information page of your current passport with the application).

It can seem pretty overwhelming and confusing, but the Peace Corps does send you very specific instructions for applying for the no-fee passport through either of the two forms. It is important, though, to read and follow those instructions carefully!

Regardless of which application form you use, you will need to submit passport photos with the application. If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay to get those professionally done at Walmart or a drug store, a fellow MI student at Tulane had these tips to make your own!

  1. Have someone take a photograph of you, being sure to follow all the guidelines here and here.
  2. Upload the photo to your computer and use this online tool to format the photo correctly.
  3. Save the formatted photo to your computer, then follow the instructions on this site to get four 2×2 photos on a single 4×6 photo.
  4. If you have photo paper and a high-quality printer, you can print this photo at home. Otherwise, just print the single photo at Walgreens or any other place where you can print photos.
  5. Cut the 4 individual photos out of the single photo (preferably using a paper trimmer if you’re not too good with scissors), and voil√†! Low-cost passport photos!

Visa

Most countries will also require you to apply for a visa. If your country of service has this requirement, the Peace Corps will send you specific instructions on how to go about this process. You will probably also need to send in 1 or 2 photos (in addition to the ones you submitted with your passport application) with your visa application (good thing you already have 4 photos from the steps above!). Like with the no-fee passport, be sure to read and follow all the instructions carefully in order to avoid any delays!

Random Mongolia Fact #2: Mongolian Geography

For the geography-challenged among you, Mongolia is here:

Mongolia Map

Sandwiched between giant Russia and China it looks pretty small, but Mongolia is actually the 19th largest country in the world, and it’s the 2nd largest landlocked country (after Kazakhstan there to the west).

In addition, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country* in the world (with a population density of just 1.77 people/sq.km).

*There are a few places that have a lower population density than Mongolia, but they are dependent territories like Greenland (which is part of Denmark), and not independent nations.

(And yes, I know that was more than one fact. Deal with it.)

After the Invitation

I’ve already talked about my long, frustrating Peace Corps application process here, but even after the excitement of finally receiving an invitation to serve, things don’t necessarily get any easier, and in some ways, it becomes downright overwhelming! In the invitation email alone, I received several not-exactly-short attachments including:

  • Volunteer Assignment Description (11 pages)
  • Mongolia Welcome Book (74 pages)
  • Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers (only 1 page! Yay!)
  • Volunteer Handbook (110 pages)
  • “On the Home Front” handbook for volunteer’s family (34 pages)

…and a link to the Decision Form, where I had to decide whether to accept the invitation. Potential volunteers are given 7 days to make a decision, and they’re encouraged to read through all the above-mentioned documents before making that decision. I read my Volunteer Assignment Description (basically just an overview of the health issues in Mongolia and [broadly] what Health Extension Volunteers like myself can expect to do) and briefly skimmed through the other documents before accepting the invitation the same night I received it. After how long I had waited to finally receive my invitation, I probably would have accepted a placement in Antarctica! And in general, declining an invitation is frowned upon by the Peace Corps, and those who do so are extremely unlikely to get a second invitation.

Shortly after accepting your invitation, you’ll be sent another email telling you to submit an updated resume and an Aspiration Statement within 10 days of accepting your invitation! Now, I was obviously excited to be moving along in the whole volunteer process, but considering I received this email 2 days before Christmas and was plenty busy with family and holiday plans, I will admit that I freaked out a little. The Aspiration Statement and updated resume are not too difficult to complete, but these are the only 2 documents your country staff will receive about you before you arrive for Pre-Service Training, so there is some pressure to make a good first impression. And there is a very specific format that these 2 documents have to follow (so you can’t just send in a copy of your resume as it is).

The updated resume has to include:

  • Experience: “All professional and volunteer experience relevant to your proposed assignment, especially experience gained since you applied to the Peace Corps. Include any experience, interests, or hobbies that may be useful in your project.”
  • Degree: “Degree earned and the institutions where they were earned. Include certificates and awards earned, as well as recent, relevant publications.”
  • Training: “Education and training relevant to your assignment (with semester hours and units), including formal and informal coursework and vocational training.”
  • Foreign Languages: “Foreign language study. Include duration of study, location and context of study, and, if applicable, specify the length of time you have spent living and speaking the language(s) in a foreign country.”
  • Personal Interest/Hobbies

And the Aspiration Statement, which is supposed to “describe your expectations about your Peace Corps service and assigned project, your strategies for adapting to a new culture, and how you expect your service to further your personal and professional goals.” Specifically, you have to address the following:

  • “Identify three professional attributes that you plan to use during your Peace Corps service and how these will help meet your aspirations and commitment to service.”
  • “Briefly identify two strategies for working effectively with host country partners to meet expressed needs.”
  • “Your strategy for adapting to a new culture with respect to your own cultural background.”
  • “The skills and knowledge you hope to gain during pre-service training to best serve your future community and project.”
  • “How you think Peace Corps service will influence your personal and professional aspirations after your service ends.”

So, as you can see, I had plenty on my plate following my acceptance, and in later posts I will discuss the 2 other major steps that come after the invitation: applying for your no-fee passport and visa, and Final Medical Clearance.

 

 

Random Mongolia Fact #1: The People of Mongolia

Considering that your average person really doesn’t know that much about Mongolia (other than all that stuff about some guy called Genghis Khan), and that I am apparently now the de facto expert on Mongolia among my family and friends, I thought I would occasionally post a random fact about Mongolia as I begin learning about the country in preparation for my Peace Corps journey.

So while visiting my grandfather earlier today, he asked me what you call a person from Mongolia. My first thought was “Mongolian,” but there’s also the term “Mongol,” so I wasn’t 100% sure.

I later did some research and found that the demonym for the people of Mongolia is Mongolian. On the other hand, the term Mongol refers to the ethno-linguistic group that 95% of Mongolians belong to, which would explain why the terms are often used interchangeably.

So most of the people who live in Mongolia are ethnic Mongols, but Mongols can (and do) live in other countries (such as China and Russia). Likewise, Mongolians (people living in Mongolia) include the Mongol majority but also some smaller ethnic minority groups (such as Kazakhs and Tuvans).

My Peace Corps Application Timeline

I know when I was in the middle of the long, sometimes frustrating Peace Corps application process, I wondered if I was the only one who was running into issues, waiting around forever for medical pre-clearance, etc.

So I thought I would post about how my Peace Corps application process went, so that those currently applying (or thinking about applying) to the Peace Corps can have a sense of what to expect (although I can’t say my process was typical). And although the Peace Corps seems to change the application process around occasionally (they changed it right before I applied, and they’re apparently changing it a bit now), I think the general process is the same. (Note: this is a long post, appropriate for my long application process.)

  • Late September, 2012: Started working on the online application. You may notice that this is pretty early considering I’m not actually leaving until late May 2014, but there’s a reason for that. I’m a Master’s International student, and the MI program at my school strongly encouraged us to apply ASAP (i.e., our first semester), so I did. The plan was to be finished with the classes for my degree program by December 2013, so on the application I put my earliest departure date as January 1, 2014. But for reasons I will mention later, that obviously got pushed way back.
  • October 5, 2012: Submitted my application and completed the Health History Form online.
  • October 16, 2012: Received an email stating that the Peace Corps was prioritizing applicants who would be departing for programs in April, May, and June of 2013, so to expect delays in the next steps of my application process. Apparently this is fairly common in the Peace Corps, and because at that time I was still well over a year from my earliest departure date, I wasn’t really worried.
  • Late October/early November, 2012: All 3 of my references submitted their recommendation forms.
  • January 11, 2013: Received a call from a recruiter to set up my phone interview. Because the closest Peace Corps Regional Office was in Dallas, and I was in New Orleans, my interview was over the phone, but applicants who live near one of the Regional Offices would have their interview in person.
  • January 23, 2013: Had my phone interview. And killed it! Of course, I had prepared ahead of time with the handy-dandy list of possible interview questions on the Peace Corps Wiki.
  • January 25, 2013: Received my official nomination for Peace Corps service “for assignments departing in the January 2014 to March 2014 timeframe”! Now on to the legal and medical pre-clearance!
  • Later in the day on January 25, 2013: So, the same day I receive my nomination, the Medical Office sends me an email telling me I have a request for documentation on my Medical Applicant Portal and 30 days to send in the requested documentation or else my medical review would be put in an inactive status. It was a request for my doctor to fill out a form about a chronic medical condition that I was taking a prescription medication for. I had been expecting the Medical Office to ask for more documentation on that medical condition, so I wasn’t surprised and got the form filled out and uploaded to my portal in a couple weeks.
  • Early February, 2013: Received my legal kit in the mail, containing the forms to complete a background check and get fingerprints done within 30 days. Most police departments will do fingerprints for free, but (of course) the New Orleans police department did not, so I had to get mine done at a place that charged me like $20 each (you have to get 2 sets of prints done). And then I found out later that one of the hospitals nearby does fingerprinting for free. Just my luck.
  • March through May, 2013: A whole lot of nothing happened during this time period. No contact from the Peace Corps at all except to say that they had received the requested documentation and were reviewing it.
  • June 18, 2013: Still no word, and while browsing my Medical Applicant Portal to make sure I hadn’t missed anything on it, I read something about how an applicant’s status changes from “Nominated” to “Medically Pre-Cleared” once the Medical Office had reviewed all their info and given them pre-clearance. Well, my status was still listed as “Nominated,” when I had assumed that I’d been medically pre-cleared given that the Medical Office hadn’t asked for any more information from me. I wouldn’t have been so worried, except for the fact that most of the other people in the MI program at my school who had been nominated around the same time as me had already received their medical pre-clearance months ago. So I send the Medical Office a message through the portal asking what was taking so long.
  • June 19, 2013: A pre-service nurse messages me back saying that “due to an extremely large number of applicants who had to be cleared for overseas departure in May, June and July a decision was made to hold off on pre-clearing applicants” such as myself. She then proceeds to tell me that, in fact, my file had not been reviewed at all, and to keep waiting. Ok then…
  • July 26, 2013: Well, I kept waiting, and finally received…another request for documentation. The Medical Office now wanted an updated form regarding my medical condition, because the one I had submitted back in February was apparently not current enough (of course it’s not gonna be current if you wait 5 months to look at it!). So I get that filled out by my doctor and uploaded to my portal within a week, expecting things to finally start moving along.
  • August 18, 2013: I had not heard from the Medical Office for a few weeks, so I send them another message asking if there was any more documentation they needed to move me along (and hinted that I was kind of frustrated that I still hadn’t received my medical pre-clearance after almost 7 months and my concern that I wouldn’t be able to leave during the January-March 2014 timeframe that I had been nominated for). A pre-service nurse again responds that there’s a back-log of applicants waiting to be reviewed and that there are many people in the same situation as myself. But the nurse tells me that she is “quite sure that this department will have an answer for [me] this week.” Meanwhile, several people in my MI program who were scheduled to leave around the same time as me have already gotten their placements!
  • August 30, 2013: Obviously the week had passed without any word from the Medical Office, so I send them another message (by this point, I’m sure they’ve black-listed me or something for sending them so many messages), asking if any progress had been made. A couple days later, a nurse responds that she does “not believe [I was] told [I] would have an answer in a week. ” You know, despite that the record of all my previous conversations with the Medical Office was right there in my portal saying otherwise.
  • September 9, 2013: I receive an email saying there’s another task in my Medical Applicant Portal. I won’t go into too much detail here, as things got pretty complicated at this point, but apparently the Medical Officer who finally read the document I had uploaded back at the end of July misinterpreted something my doctor had wrote regarding my prescription medication, and the Medical Officer thought that I was stopping that medication. So the new task was for me to wait 3 months and have my doctor evaluate me again in December to make sure that I was doing fine without the medication. Except, of course, that I was NOT stopping my medication and had no plans to do so, which I told the nurse after I finally figured out what the confusion was about. The nurse said she would tell the advisor about that.
  • September 30, 2013: No word from the Medical Office, so I send another message asking what the deal is. The nurse says she will send the advisor another note about my case…
  • October 1, 2013: …And the very next day the federal government shuts down. Awesome. As if I hadn’t already had enough set-backs.
  • October 23, 2013: The federal government started back up and I waited a week before contacting the Medical Office again, knowing that they would be trying to make up for the lost time during the shut-down. The nurse again tells me she will contact the advisor regarding my case.
  • October 29, 2013: Two more tasks show up in my Medical Applicant Portal. Apparently the advisor didn’t believe me when I said I was still taking my medication, as the new tasks are to upload a copy of my pharmacy records for the past 6 months showing that I’ve still been taking it, and a signed note from my doctor explaining that I’m still taking the medication and that his plan for me is to continue taking it throughout my Peace Corps service. I obtain these and upload them within a week. By this point, I’ve long-since given up hope that I would be departing during my original timeframe, while almost everyone else in my MI class has gotten their placements and started getting excited about their departures.
  • November, 2013: I send a couple more messages to the nurse asking for any updates, and even give the Medical Office a call. No one answers, so I leave a message.
  • November 19, 2013: I finally receive my medical pre-clearance! Only took 10 months!
  • December 3, 2013: I call the Placement Office to make sure that they had received my file from the Medical Office and that there wasn’t anything else I needed to do. Again, no one answered, so I left a message. This time, someone called me back within the hour and said he was planning to send me another form to fill out in a few days, but that since I had called he would go ahead and send it to me then. I received the email detailing what else I needed to do before I could get a placement (namely, upload an updated resume, a new transcript, and complete a question sheet regarding the requirements of my MI program and my expectations for Peace Corps service). Of course, this is right before I have tons of final papers and projects due in my classes, so I’m swamped enough as it is.
  • December 9, 2013: I submit the requested documentation and email the Health Desk of the Placement Office to see if they can give me an estimate of how long it should take to receive a placement. They tell me that I’m now being considered for departures between April and June of 2014 (they try to give you your placement at least 4 months before your departure, so obviously my initial departure timeframe was out of the question at this point), and tell me that I should hear from them with a placement “in the near future.”
  • December 15, 2013: I had finished all my classes for my master’s degree program, and so had no more reason to stay in New Orleans. I move back home to Atlanta to await my placement and eventual departure. As the holidays were approaching, I was not expecting to hear from the Peace Corps about a placement until after the start of the new year.
  • December 20, 2013: I almost have a heart attack when I check my email and see a note titled “Peace Corps – Invitation!” Could it be?! Yes, it is! “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in Mongolia for Peace Corps service as a Health Extension Volunteer.” Halle-freakin’-lujah!!!

So, this would be how I ended up applying 15 months prior to my earliest possible departure date but not being scheduled to depart until 5 months after that date. In summary:

  • Application submitted to nomination received: < 4 months
  • Nomination received to medically pre-cleared: almost 10 months
  • Medically pre-cleared to invitation received: 1 month

And this is why the Peace Corps application process can suck for people who have even one minor medical issue (or maybe I seriously was black-listed for contacting them so much).