At home in the world and when failure is success

Was it just yesterday that I sat in Istanbul’s new airport contemplating on how many different airports and how many different capital cities I have visited in the world over the course of my lifetime?    The fact is that, using the U.S. Department of States divisions of the world into six regions — Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Near East (North Africa and the Middle East),  Europe and Eurasia, South and Central Asia, and the Western Hemisphere (North and South America) — I have not only visited every region of the world, but I have trained foreign language teachers in each and every one of them.  It sounds impressive, even to me.

The truth is that when I get off the plane in Kathmandu I feel as comfortable as when I get off the plane in San Francisco or Boston, or Kigali, or Mombasa, or Paris, or Suva, or Rabat, or Tokyo, or Moroni, or London, or Nairobi, or Dar-es-Salaam.     Once I have lived somewhere, for no matter how brief a period, I develop a connection with the place, a sense of familiarity, that persists and is re-awakened each time I revisit the place.  I really am “at home” in the world and, therefore, it really doesn’t matter where I go to live or to work.  Wherever I go, it will become “home”.

In January, my application for a Fulbright in India for 2019-2020 was soundly rejected by the U.S. Embassy in India, despite having passed review on the U.S. side with flying colors and despite the fact that, unlike most countries which usually only had a handful (1-5) of Fulbright Scholar awards a year, India had a whopping 40!   Still, they did not want me. They must have really not liked me!  Strike 1.

Then I found out that the embassy in Nepal did not want  to invite me to extend in a city outside of Kathamandu for the following year.  I don’t know why, but the nonverbal communication was loud and clear.   The Regional English Language Officer said, when I asked to extend outside of Kathmandu:   Oh, we aren’t planning to have anything outside of Kathmandu, I’ll let you know if things change.   Weeks later I find out that not only were they setting up something outside of Kathmandu, but it was in a region where I had really wanted to go — the far west of Nepal.   The RELO did not tell me about it and, when I heard about it and inquired, he said, Oh, we’ve already told Georgetown to recruit someone.  A low blow indeed.  What I don’t know is whether he had purposely lied or was simply so irresponsible and/or incompetent that he did not remember that he had promised to “let me know”.   However, the language of his original inquiry about whether I wanted to extend suggested that he really didn’t want me to extend.  One could ask why he cared, he won’t even be in Nepal next year.   An embarassing Strike 2.

Then I had a phone interview for a job with Peace Corps in D.C. that did not gone well, as far as I could tell.   Plus, given the turmoil in our government, I wasn’t even sure that I was interested in working there at this point in time.  Strike 3.  January was really not going well.  I was already “out” in the first inning of the year.

The second inning in February didn’t go any better.    When I submitted an application for a second English Language Fellowship to go another country,  I was informed that they  had changed the policy and now people were only allowed to apply for one such posting in a lifetime unless….. they had any “hard-to-fill” positions left at the end of each selection period, in which case I might be contacted.  I wasn’t sure what a “hard-to-fill” position would look like or whether I would want one if it was offered to me.  I mean, it must be difficult to fill for a reason.   Not too promising.   I wondered why they waited until after I had applied to inform me of the policy change.  I mean we have a website for such communications, and I get an email from it every day which I do read.  Why not announce the policy before someone goes through all the trouble of applying, including getting references?      Strike 1 for February.

In the meantime, I had started teaching a workshop for Tibetan refugee youth.  “How to do an interview” was our first topic.  I should have prepared for this before I did the interview with Peace Corps.  I could see where I had gone wrong although I have no idea if it would have made a difference in the outcome.

As part of the English Language Fellow program, we have a website where people post their achievements and outside organizations could post job advertisements.  I decided to pursue any of those that looking interesting, for the practice if nothing else, and so that I might have more insight to offer people about how to apply for a job.   After all, in my entire working life, I had never actually applied for a job.  Study grants, yes, but not jobs.  They had always come to me.  If I got something good, well, then I could decide whether to do it or not.  In the meantime, I could practice writing cover letters and job-specific resumés.   I submitted an application to teach in the Bahrain, at a private college.

We will add your application into our file…  We will see who else applies.  The man who wrote me that email was obviously not impressed…   Strike 2 for February and I never heard another word from them.

I then applied for a job managing a foreign language school in Seattle.  I had no intention of moving to Seattle, but a very dear friend from graduate school lived there.  I could certainly go for a year and spend some time with her before moving on.   A month later…

The applications for this job are now closed.  We will be reviewing applications next week and then scheduling interviews.

Nothing.   Strike 3.

I was suffering overwhelming defeat in every direction I turned.

I thought of Winston Churchill:

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Well… I wasn’t by anyone’s definition but his in the midst of success, and I was also not ready to give up yet.     I was now entered the third inning of the game; I was 0/6.

I had been, from time to time, reviewing  the new listings for openings in the Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV) Program, the program which had taken me to Rwanda in 2017.    Doing another PCRV posting had been on my  “to do” list but, given the limitations on the countries to which I could apply, imposed upon me in 2018 by Peace Corps based on something in my health history that they apparently didn’t like, my options were limited.  A position perfect for me in the Comoros Islands in my beloved East Africa had been posted, but the country was not on my list. Another dead end.   Strike 1.  Another inning had passed.

Then a few other positions appeared in the list, several in the Caribbean.  Two started before I was to leave Nepal.  I can’t apply for those without bailing on my current contract.  Although, given that I have no work to do now, a possibility, I suppose.  But I like to honor my commitments.

A third position, in St. Lucia,  helping primary school teachers learn how to use donated children’s literature into their classes, looked great.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be on an island on the Caribbean?  And to help teachers use children’s literature to teach?  My enthusiasm knew no bounds.   They said they were looking for a librarian, but the position description was all about teacher education.  Are librarians trained to educate teachers?  I did not think that they were.  I wrote what I considered to be a persuasive (and enthusiastic, eat your heart out Winston) argument for having an experienced teacher trainer who loves children’s books and who, because of her age,  had decades of experience actually using libraries, both in the U.S. and overseas, help teachers learn how to teach, rather than a librarian.  Ah yes, I felt very enthusiastic about this possibility.

According to the website, the Peace Corps Response Volunteer positions were filled on a rolling basis.   That should, in theory, means that people who are qualified will be invited when they apply.   The earlier the application, the earlier the invitation, and the longer time available for getting through medical and legal clearance.   The last time I applied, I was invited to interview within two weeks of submitting my application, and offered the position a week later.  Of course, that time it took me five months to get final clearance and I didn’t get it until the day before I was supposed to leave.  I wasn’t looking for repeat of that but, in theory, my legal clearance was good for 12 months after I completed my previous assignment in July 2019 so, as long a I got invited early, I would clear long before my departure date since they had already told me the countries in which I would clear medically, and St. Lucia was one.  Is still February.   A piece of cake…    I crossed my fingers.

When I finished filling out my application, a final screen popped up:

Do you want to submit another application?

Hmmmm, so you can submit more than one?   Apparently so…

There were three other listings of various types for teacher trainers in Georgia.  English Education Specialist.  English Education Teacher and Trainer.  English Teacher.   The skills required for all three did not different substantially and, of course, I was overqualified for all of them.    One involved working in public schools, another in vocational schools, a third in resource centers.

Georgia?   Where is that?    By the time I had finishing reviewing the Georgia positions, and doing a little research about the country itself,  I had decided that it really didn’t matter where I went.    Why not go somewhere I have barely heard of?    

I submitted two applications for Georgia.   The one that was helping public schools beef up their program management skills as well as training teachers, seemed, to me, to be the best match.  But I threw in the vocational schools as well.   Without a doubt, I’ll get something. While there was only one position in St. Lucia, there were total of 12 positions for Georgia; 2/3 types of positions had multiple openings.

I waited.   A week later, an email from the Georgia recruiter, but I didn’t learn this until later arrived.

Which is your first choice?   We process your applications in the order of  first, second, and third choice. Please fill out this form to indicate your three choices.

I did as instructed.   A month passed.  Nothing.   I inquired.

We process your applications in your order of preference, so your applications for Georgia would not be considered unless your application for St. Lucia was rejected.   

Oh, and we only need three months to process Response volunteers so you might could get an invitation as late as June.

June?   The departure date was September 8 and it had taken me five months to clear in 2017, and I only received clearance the day before I was due to leave home for a year.

We like to wait for as long as possible to see who else applies…. The comment was telling.  Obviously none of the recruiters involved thought my experience and training was desirable enough to interview me on the spot, as the recruiters for both Peace Corp Rwanda in 2017 and Georgetown University in 2018 had done.

Not a good sign.  And….  Whatever happened to “rolling basis” anyway?   Since when does that phrase mean wait for everyone to apply and then choose a few?

You want to wait to see if anyone any better shows up?   Do you realize what message you are sending to a prospective candidate when you say that?  

As far as I could tell, the St. Lucia recruiter could select someone else, invite them, and then just sit on  my application as a “back up” possibility, in case her first choice didn’t make it through the necessary medical and legal clearances.   In the meantime, the Georgia recruiter could go ahead and fill her slots with other people, even if they were less qualified.   Perhaps my bid for a position tagged for a librarian was not the wisest decision I had ever made.  But St. Lucia was my first choice so as long as my application was “under review” on their website, I wasn’t going to budge.    As time passed, I embraced the possibility that this was another defeat in the making, that the whole Peace Corps undertaking might backfire on me and I would be left with nothing.  I certainly wasn’t doing very well so far this year.   Another strike?

While I waited, I decided to resume my efforts to get an invitation from Pwani University, on the Kenyan coast to go and do research on KiSwahili as a Fulbright Scholar in 2020.   I had failed to even make contact with the appropriate parties in 2018 but Fulbright had had a much earlier deadline then, and I had started the application process late.  It was, in fact, my failure to find support to go to Kenya that led me to apply to go to India.   This year I had better luck.  I  made contact with the Chair of the Linguistics, Languages and Literature department and she confirmed their interest in having me come.   But still….things move slowly…very very slowly in Africa.  Emails crossed paths.  Some never arrived, others went unanswered.  And always, administrative protocols had to be followed.   I finally received a congratulatory email from the Chair of the department of the university saying that I would be receiving an official invitation from the administration.   I passed on the good news to the person at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi who had chased me down last year, after the application deadline for 2019, to say that they were very interested in supporting my proposed project on the Kenyan coast.

I am glad you were able to connect with Pwani University; we have a very good relationship with them.  However, I must tell you  that, the way things stand now, due to security considerations, it is unlikely that you would be allowed to work on the coast if you get an award.  You could change universities if you get the award but you probably won’t be able to go to the coast…

Well, that’s great, since the only place I want to go is the coast.   Definitely Strike 2.   Everywhere I turned, I was running into brick walls…  

I was certainly progressing from failure to failure… How was my enthusiasm doing?

So while my Peace Corps applications languished somewhere in bowels of Washington DC, I let my Fulbright application languish in my computer, uncertain about whether or not it was worth pursuing.   Give up for awhile?   Go to another Kenyan university?  I checked, my options were very limited if I wanted to do research in Mombasa.   And he hadn’t even told me if Mombasa itself was off limits, in which case there was no hope whatsoever.  I don’t even want to ask...

Two months passed.  I did get an invitation from my chosen university in Kenya, but it did me little good if the embassy would not let me go there.

Somewhere during all this languishing, I quit worrying about where I would go, or even whether I would go anywhere.    My work at the university in Nepal had  wilted on the vine.  In point of fact, I had none.  A conference, followed by a student strike, followed by exam preparation, and finally the resignation of the Chair of the department, had left me high and dry with nothing to do and no one to whom I could turn to ask what I could do.  Strike 3.

I stopped worrying about teaching.   If no one wanted me here, or in St. Lucia, or Georgia, and I couldn’t go to Kenya, or the Comoros, or DC, or Seattle, or Bahrain, then perhaps I had got it all wrong.   Got all what wrong?   Well, I didn’t really know what I was getting wrong, but certainly all the directions towards which I had thus far turned were dead ends.  I was now entering the fourth inning with a score of 0/9.   I hope Winston is proud of me…

I got into the swing of simply getting up each day, walking the dogs, and spending the day with them playing, peeing (and cleaning up any mishaps), pooing (and cleaning up any mishaps), walking, cooking, washing the dishes, weekly baths, and napping.   It was an enjoyable life.  This is what retirement actually feels like… doing what I want when I want to do it without worrying about what anyone else thinks or is doing.  And not worrying about the future.  It was deliciously relaxing…

The day I returned from the U.S. after taking the dogs to find their forever homes , I received an email:

Dear Dr. Hawkinson,

I hope this email finds you well!  My name is Meg, and I manage the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program for Tajikistan.

The U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan has expressed an interest in your application, and I would like to set up a time to chat with you this week about your interest in a grant to Tajikistan as part of the 2019-20 cohort, and if so what the next steps would look like.

Please let me know your availability if this is something you’re interested in considering, I’m in based in DC and have the most availability tomorrow (Wednesday) or Thursday between 12:30 and 2:30 EST.

Best, Meg

Tajikistan?   Fulbright?   I thought that they rejected me.   Perhaps this is a mistake?  I reread the email.  No, she seemed to think that she wanted to be writing to me.

Tell me more.  How did you find me?

It turns out that, when someone who applies for a Fulbright passes review on the U.S. side but is for some reason rejected by their country of choice, their application is added to a pool of possible candidates for other countries to invite, in the event that they have extra funds or did not get an applicant that met their needs.   Someone at the International Institute of Education, that manages the Fulbright program for the Department of State, had dug up my application and matched it, along with three other candidates, to a request from the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan.   Miraculous, to say the least.   But the miracle did not end there.

A week later…

Let me get right to the point, a voice said after I picked up the phone and heard introductions, you are our first choice, please please come play with us in Tajikistan!  We don’t want to interview anyone else!

None of the falderol of Peace Corps or the Regional Language Office in Kathmandu, no pretense, no posturing, no vague inuendo, just plain You are who we want, will you  please please come? 

How could I say no?

After a three months (four innings) of rejections, no responses, and lukewarm receptions, his enthusiasm was a breath of fresh air coming from another world,

Let me be clear about what you are saying – you would like me to withdraw my application to Peace Corps and come to Tajikistan?     I had in the interim finally received an invitation for a Peace Corps interview and  told the Fulbright recruiter.   They, in turn, had informed the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan.

Yes, we want you to do everything you said in your original Fulbright application that you wanted to do in India here in Tajikistan instead.  Please please come…

I didn’t know much about Tajikistan, apart from the fact that it is one of the “stans”  out “there” somewhere in the middle of the Asian continent, and I really didn’t know quite exactly where “there” was until I looked it up online.

In truth, it was not too long ago, February to be exact, that I had  become interested in the “stans”.   While listening to other English Language Fellows who were in the “stans” talk about their experiences during the English Fellow mid-year conference, so much so that I had internally scolded myself for actually thinking it was the one region in the world where, apart from South America, I had been previously convinced that I would decline an invitation to go even if I was offered one when I applied for the English Language Fellow in 2018.   Shame on me!  Why would I ever conclude that I didn’t want to go somewhere just because I didn’t know anything about it?  I continue to surprise myself, and not always in a good way.  That had been one of those “not-so-great-self-realizations”.   Another unfounded prejudice had reared its ugly head.

The pattern that was now apparently emerging from what previously appeared to be a series of random and unrelated failures did not escape my attention.  First, there was the Peace Corps position, the outcome of which I never heard.  Rude to say the least.  Then there was the rejection of my application to India.   Then came the denial of my request to extend in Nepal later in January .   Then there was the conference in February, where I met people working in the “stans” whose conversations  piqued my interest in the area in February.   Next came the English Language Fellow program’s new policy to limit their awards to once in a lifetime, and the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi’s decision to put the coast on their “off limits” list.  Then the realization that I didn’t have to know anything about a country before agreeing to work there.

I never heard back from Bahrain. I never heard back from Seattle.  I never heard back from Peace Corps D.C.  I wondered what it would be like to actually need a job.   Job hunting was apparently a grueling and disheartening experience these days.  I wondered if it always had been.

Last but not least was Peace Corp’s apparent disinterest in my applications in March, a low blow indeed.   At each turn, the path I had been pursuing ended in utter defeat.   Yet now, the series of apparent defeats took on new shape.   Now it appeared that the various circumstances had conspired to form a gauntlet through which I was  expected to navigate, much like a river rafter encounter going through a series of especially rocky rapids.    Apparently, I had made it to the bottom…

Suddenly, and  without warning, I fell  “plop”,  ripe and ready, onto the sandy shore of an hitherto completely impossible (given my understanding of how Fulbright are awarded) and unimaginable beach of possibility.   Ouch!  Is it possible that previous experiences had been selected to test my readiness and guide me into a future that had already been decided for me?  Or perhaps I just needed to be more patient and it was I who had created all the rocks to navigate by scrambling around to find something new to do, rather than waiting to see what came to me.  Whatever the case, by the time the invitation came, I was open to anything, something that had not been true four months earlier.

It’s difficult to say but, if I were someone who was seeking evidence that there was somehow some grand design for my life that existed beyond my control,  that, contrary to what I believed, that I was not living my life, rather it was living me, then this was it.     It was both disquieting and reassuring.   I took the hint…

Of course I’d love to come and play with you.  When do we start?

I still don’t know that much about Tajkistan, but I am interested to learn. I know that it is 98% Muslim which means that, in terms of religion, I will feel at home and that I will probably need all the head scarves I bought in Nepal.  I know that, like Rwanda, it is an itty-bitty country squished in between several others, specifically, China, Afganistan, Krygystan, and Uzbekistan; that it is 90% mountains. I know that the language people speak is Tajiki, written in a script I do not know.  I also know that my predecessor, in whose footsteps they hope I will follow, loved working there.   I also know that it is beautiful.  I realize now that what is important is not what I already know about Tajikistan, but what I will come to know about it.

I have accepted that if I allow my life to live me, rather than trying to live it,  my worldly home will grow much bigger,  become much fuller, than I ever could have imagined.