ConGen (PC 530): Weeks 1 and 2 in Review

On Monday, March 23, one business day after passing my Russian final assessment, I began basic consular training, otherwise known as ConGen.

The first two weeks have been dedicated to non-immigrant visas. This means visas for non-U.S. citizens to come here for the purposes of business, tourism or study. After six and a half months of Russian language class, I’ve really been looking forward to learning all of the ins and outs and regulations of how immigration law really works – in English!

I have been a little surprised by how confusing all of the different visa classes and ineligibilities were initially for me. Moreover, I have been finding the various computer software applications that officers must navigate clunky and non-intuitive. During Russian, if I didn’t understand something, I could blame it on the language barrier. If I don’t understand what’s going on in ConGen, it feels more like ineptitude on my part! We have our first two exams tomorrow, and a score of 80% is required to pass. I will have my fingers crossed.

ConGen is mandatory for officers prior to starting their first consular tour at an overseas embassy or consulate. In fact, it is my understanding that because we as officers will be adjudicating visas, we legally have to be present for every session and module of the course before we’re eligible to begin our tours. I completely understand and respect this requirement and so does everyone else; one-third of the people in the room at any given time are coughing, sneezing, or blowing their noses and hanging tough.

Normally, I am a big proponent of people staying home from work or school when they are ill. Keeping your germs out of the workplace is good for everyone’s health, especially for those of us suffering with autoimmune diseases who get knocked down easily, and for a longer period of time, by every little bug that goes around. But if anyone misses a section of the class they will have to repeat, and there really aren’t any free days remaining. At least for me, I have four more weeks of ConGen, the following week is a separate security training, and the week after that is for consultations and my packout. So it really behooves me to hang as tough as possible, too.

I’ve already come absurdly close to violating ConGen’s 100% attendance policy. I’ve managed not to miss any class, but only by the skin of my teeth. Let me just tell you how absurdly, and you be the judge.

On the evening of the first day of class, my husband and I went out for dinner at a local restaurant that we’ve been visiting since 2009, located less than 5 minutes’ drive from our apartment. I started feeling weird during dinner, and only ate half of my food – a highly unusual occurrence. I hadn’t even pulled onto our street afterwards when I knew I was going to be sick. I barely made it into the bathroom, and that’s where I spent most of the next four hours on my knees throwing up. For the first hour I had a sense of humor about it, and even watched a documentary about President Nixon via the Netflix app on my iPhone as long as I could keep my head up.

But the next morning, running on four hours’ sleep and barely keeping down water, I drove to class feeling grim. I sat through the day’s sessions, my stomach churning, my bones feeling like glass. I was sweating, and shivering, but I was also almost laughing because it seemed ridiculous and temporary. Every Peace Corps Volunteer has dealt with these situations dozens of times, and although it’s been a while and I wasn’t expecting this particular rodeo in the U.S., whatever. I was totally determined to stay in class, and I knew no one could “catch” what I had, so I stayed. By the next morning, I was eating again and functioning normally.

Then a few days later, by last weekend, my throat was tickling and my ears were popping. Great, I thought. Just what I need. And within a day or two, a cold settled in on me. Stuffy nose, congestion, a constant nagging cough, the works. So I soldiered through the entire week, drinking Robitussin and shaking it off by day, awake and hacking through the nights. Thursday morning after a coughing spell, I got light-headed for about 5 minutes and felt fainty and weird, but I chalked it up to sinus pressure and dehydration.

And then on Friday, a few minutes before the lunch break, I was participating in a small group discussion when out of the blue, I had a relatively severe and random attack of motion sickness. I would not wish the sensation of vertigo on my worst enemy. I have always been more prone to motion sickness than other people I know, and I frequently get seasick, carsick, airsick, etc. It is a little bit more problematic when I experience it while driving myself, or while scrolling on my computer, or simply sitting in a chair minding my own business.

One minute I was sitting there in the group, and the next minute I turned my head and it was like my space-time continuum was suddenly turned upside down. I closed my eyes and I felt like I was in zero gravity. My feet were gently floating above my head as I spun and rotated through an empty chasm.

No, I thought. I felt the heat and dizziness wash over me in a sickening wave. I pressed my feet into the floor. The room isn’t moving. You’re not moving. You’re sitting in this chair. 

I casually looked at my notes while nausea rolled over me. That’s not going to work, I thought. I closed my eyes, fighting the feeling that I was inside a Gravitron at the county fair. The session ended not a moment too soon, and I stood up quickly, a little off balance, sweating despite the cool room and being under-dressed. As we headed for the door, one of my colleagues inquired about my cold, asking, “Hey, are you starting to feel better?” Trying not to stumble, I replied, “Actually, I…” and awkwardly trailed off as I fled for a bathroom.

I spent the next hour and fifteen minutes either throwing up in the ladies’ bathroom (which mercifully was always empty), or calmly strolling the campus hallways telling myself it would stop any second.

Somehow I white-knuckled my way through the afternoon sessions, only having to bolt from the class twice. A couple of people told me I was as white as a ghost, which I also noticed. At a few points I couldn’t even hold my head up, and was taking notes resting my head on my arm and looking through one eye. I was sweating like crazy, and holding onto the table for a reference point.

If you can imagine the most seasick, drunk or dizzy you’ve ever been, you will start to understand the total disorientation and incapacitation I felt in those few hours. It was simply awful! I always wonder what other people think of me when that happens to me. It is really hard to explain to someone that you feel carsick when you’re not in a car. It makes me feel like a wuss when in reality, those sensations can turn the toughest person into a whimpering puddle. I was proud just to be standing upright and pretending everything was normal. When I was in high school, the mom of one of my friends who suffered severely from life-long vertigo described it as feeling like “your head is at the end of a yoyo string that some demented clown is playing with”. YES! I thought. Precisely that.

Despite feeling like I was in the seventh circle of hell, I did manage to stay until the end, learn something, and even drive myself home. I don’t know what message I am supposed to take away from all the physical craziness in my body since passing my Russian test, but it would be nice to have the next few weeks as smooth sailing! I have a pretty high tolerance level for pain and discomfort, and I also have a pretty good sense of humor. I probably caught a bigger bug than I’d initially realized and all of my white blood cells have banded together to join the fight.

And of course, let the record show that I have not missed any class.

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