Some 2,000 Peace Corps Volunteers Served in Korea. They Have Also Helped Shape the Study of That Nation in the United States.Stories of Peace Corps' influence on Korean studies in the United States see more
Peace Corps Volunteers and the Making of Korean Studies in the United States
Edited by Seung-kyung Kim and Michael Robinson
Center for Korea Studies, University of Washington
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
The Peace Corps sent more than 2,000 Volunteers to South Korea 1966–81, to teach English and advise on healthcare. “Their experiences affected their worldview, individual politics, aesthetic sensibilities, and views on gender discrimination,” notes the introduction to this anthology. Those experiences also fueled scholarship on Korea in the States. A small yet significant number of the Volunteers returned to the U.S. and entered academia, forming the core of a second wave of Korean studies scholars.
This volume includes essays by 11 individuals, nine of them returned Volunteers. Years in an impoverished nation still recovering from war — and in which authoritarian regimes sometimes brutally oppressed democratic uprisings — influenced their work: from studies in history, culture, and politics to literary translations and work with Amnesty International and as part of congressional staff.
Carter Eckert (1968–71) describes life in Korea under the dictatorship of Chung-hee Park, a time of censorship, curfews, and surveillance. Laurel Kendall (1970–71) recounts gender discrimination and asks, “Did Women Have a Peace Corps–Korea Experience?” Don Baker (1971–74) writes about traveling to the city of Gwangju just after an uprising there was brutally put down. Other contributors who served in the Peace Corps include Edward J. Baker (1971–73), Donald Clark (1967–69), Bruce Fulton (1978–79), Linda S. Lewis (1970–72), Michael Robinson (1968–71), and Edward Schultz (1966–67). Co-editor Seung-kyung Kim and scholars Okpyo Moon and Clark W. Sorensen make it clear this project is far more than collective cheerleading.
Kathleen Stephens, who served as a Volunteer in South Korea 1975–77, provides the afterword; a career diplomat, she returned to Korea as U.S. ambassador 2008–11, the first woman — and the first Korean speaker — to serve in that role.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
How the May 1980 Democratic Uprising in South Korea Was Met with Brute Force: A First-Person AccountPaul Courtright is the first non-Korean to offer a firsthand account of this watershed moment. see more
By Paul Courtright
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Paul Courtright arrived in South Korea in 1979 to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, based in a community near the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. He worked with patients afflicted with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. On May 19, 1980, on his way through the bus terminal in the provincial capital of Gwangju, he saw a young man being beaten by military special forces.
A phone call to another Volunteer confirmed: “Something big” was going down in the city — part of a mass protest against the dictatorial regime. A couple of days later, Courtright rode his bicycle back to Gwangju; beside a rice paddy was a toppled bus, its side smeared with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes. It was collateral damage in an uprising that would involve a quarter million people and last for 10 days before being fully and finally put down with military force.
In Witnessing Gwangju, Courtright tells the story of the democratization movement and its suppression. As Kim Yong-hee noted in a review for the newspaper Hankyoreh, Courtright is the first non-Korean to offer a firsthand account of this watershed moment. For the project Courtright teamed up with award-winning Time magazine photographer Robin Moyer; the book includes previously unreleased photographs.
During the uprising, Courtright and other Volunteers were ordered to leave Gwangju. They did not, hoping that by bearing witness they might help discourage the worst excesses of riot police and paratroopers. Courtright did head for Seoul on May 26, hoping to tell U.S. diplomats what he saw happening on the ground. No one at the embassy would meet with him.
Gwangju, May 1980: As the democratic uprising is crushed, a man transports a coffin by bicycle. Photo by Robin Moyer
Official accounts say some 600 people were killed. Students who participated claimed the number was closer to 2,000. While the uprising was suppressed, democratic aspirations continued to simmer below the surface. Korea made the transition to direct presidential elections in 1993. Five years later, Kim Dae-jung, who was arrested and sentenced to death for his participation in the uprising, was elected president.
After Paul Courtright’s Peace Corps service, he earned degrees in public health, focusing on eye diseases and neglected tropical diseases. That took him to work in Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tanzania, where he and his wife established the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology. Four decades after Gwangju, Courtright has told that story, with editions of the book simultaneously released in Korean and English.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Here Are Three Outstanding Leaders in the Peace Corps Community Honored with 2021 Awards by the Women of Peace Corps LegacyNancy Kelly, Amy Maglio, and Estee Katcoff honored for global service and leadership see more
Nancy Kelly of Health Volunteers Overseas and Amy Maglio of the Women’s Global Education Project are recognized with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. Estee Katcoff, founder of the Superkids Foundation, is recognized with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leaders Award.
By NPCA Staff
As part of the global virtual conference Peace Corps Connect 2021, Women of Peace Corps Legacy presented awards to three outstanding leaders in the Peace Corps community. Nancy Kelly and Amy Maglio were each honored with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. And Estee Katcoff was presented with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award.
The awards were presented by Kathleen Corey, president of Women of Peace Corps Legacy, on September 23 at the Peace Corps Connect conference. WPCL is an affiliate group of National Peace Corps Association and is part of a vibrant community that includes more than 180 affiliate groups focused on regions in the U.S., on countries where Volunteers have served, and around causes that matter to the Peace Corps community.
Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award
The Deborah Harding Award honors Peace Corps women whose contributions have made a significant difference in the lives of women and girls in the world.
Nancy Kelly has worked tirelessly for over four decades to help women and girls all over the world. She began her journey in 1979 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, working in maternal and child health, and went on to develop a career in global health. As the executive director of Health Volunteers Overseas since its creation in 1986, she has been the driver behind a program which has enabled thousands of women, children and humans to receive improved, dignified, and compassionate health care — and has allowed thousands of health professionals to receive training and mentorship which otherwise would have been near impossible.
Under her leadership, Health Volunteers Overseas has facilitated over 11,900 volunteer assignments globally. The last five have resulted in, on average, 3,200 health professionals receiving training and mentorship each year — benefiting innumerate women and children both directly and indirectly. In so doing, she is helping to build a global cadre of talented, confident, and inspired women who are committed to advancing global health.
Amy Maglio is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP) which works with grassroots community partners to educate, empower, and promote equality for women and girls in rural Senegal and Kenya. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Amy saw firsthand the multiplier effect of girls' education in rural Senegal and how access to education — which was extremely limited for girls, not only increased their own opportunities — but also enabled them to provide for their families and catalyzed wider community change.
Inspired by Khady, her host sister who she assisted in getting an education as well as other girls in her village, Amy started WGEP in 2004, at her dining room table, determined to help girls and women succeed in school and reach their full potential. As director of this Chicago-area NGO, she helped ensure the increase of education opportunities for marginalized girls in rural Kenya and Senegal through innovative programs with grassroots community partners.
This NGO has proved to be tremendously successful and has held a 99% retention rate, reaching over 20,000 girls and young women to date. In 2010, she was invited to present WGEP’s model as a best practice approach to girls’ education at the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative Conference in Dakar, Senegal, and was a drafter of the UN Declaration on Gender Equality.
Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award
The Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award is presented annually to a woman with an affiliation to Peace Corps under the age of 35 who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and ongoing commitment to serve women and girls.
Estee Katcoff became aware of gender-based violence as a Peace Corps Volunteer and used this knowledge to lead initiatives preventing it in Paraguay during and after her service. She founded a girls' empowerment club and extended for a third year to continue her work, which included working with the Children's Rights Council of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.
Since then, Estee has piloted a successful youth program, originally called Zero Violencia, which continues now as the Superkids Foundation, working in Paraguay to mobilize children as agents of change in their communities. Seventy percent of the Kid Teachers who have risen to action through Superkids identify as girls and learn the knowledge and skills needed to not only end GBV but work towards equity in their communities, particularly in education.
Estee’s focus has always been on building the capacity of her Peace Corps community to use best practices to effect change, while championing women and girls and always including men and boys in the effort.
Story updated December 28, 2021 to correct spelling
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Communications Intern posted an articleLessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic see more
On the nature of a virus. On community. And on systems — how they function and how they break.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Illustration by Maria Carluccio
The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic hit a sobering milestone in the United States last spring when we marked the death of 100,000 Americans. By September, that number had doubled. The year 2020 concluded with some 350,000 dead in the United States alone, and 1.82 million lives lost worldwide.
The pandemic has driven home some crucial lessons — if we pay attention. Not lessons we wanted to learn. But many of them are hard truths we need in order to face a changed world. Lessons about the nature of a virus, yes, but also about community: how we give of ourselves in times of need, how we listen or how we fail to hear. Lessons about systems: how they function and how they break.
In the stories we have put together here are a few lessons for the time of coronavirus from across the Peace Corps community. From an epidemiologist in Los Angeles, whose research has kept her connected with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for years: recognition that the oft-praised but far less supported Third Goal of the Peace Corps — which speaks of bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States — is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.
Bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.
From a registered nurse in Washington, D.C., who found her calling in public health while serving as a Volunteer in Guatemala — and in spring 2020 moved away from her family, including a pre-school-aged daughter, to shield loved ones from possible infection while she tried to save the lives of patients infected with the virus: Know what this means.
From a returned Volunteer who can see the hills of Tijuana from her house and manages a free medical clinic: a lesson in taking part in the trials of the Pfizer vaccine.
And across the country, lessons in gratitude and what endures: How the work we do, in solidarity and seeking understanding, echoes across continents and decades. In this case, how service by some 2,000 Volunteers in South Korea in support of education and healthcare years ago translates into the long work of building peace and friendship — and in 2020 brought of hundreds of COVID-19 Survivor Boxes to those Volunteers, to honor and thank them for empowering people in a time of hardship.
To a cohort of returned Volunteers — some of whom were evacuated from service around the world in March because of the pandemic — now working as contact tracers in Seattle and King County, Washington: messages of admiration and encouragement from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Kilmarx of the National Institutes of Health.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView magazine.
Steven Saum posted an articleHow service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more see more
How service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more — for Americans and Koreans alike
By NPCA Staff
Photo: Survival box, delivered to Gary Krzic, President of Friends of Korea. Photo courtesy Gary Krzic
The gifts of more than 500 COVID-19 survival boxes to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in South Korea inspired news stories across the country. Here are a few. As some note, the Korea Foundation, which sent the boxes, coordinated with Friends of Korea, the group of returned Volunteers, to find and thank them.
The Korea Foundation also created a video. A story about returned Volunteer Sandra Nathan in The New York Times, which also apperas in WorldView, drew hundreds of comments as well. Read those comments here.
“Korea taught me … and it gave me my career.”
Paul Courtright’s lifelong work in public health began when he traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1979 to work with leprosy patients. Courtright “didn’t know anything about leprosy, once thought to be so contagious and incurable its victims were sent into isolation in leper colonies on islands and in remote places,” as John Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Actually, leprosy is treatable, and it does not spread easily. But, Wilkens writes, “Stigma still surrounded the patients in Korea, Courtright found when he arrived there after three months of Peace Corps language training. And he noticed something else — about 10 to 15 percent of the people were blind.” Accompanying patients to a hospital where an ophthalmologist treated them, Courtright “took what he learned back to his village of about 600 people, and then to other resettlement communities.”
After Peace Corps, Courtright earned a master’s at Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in public health from University of California, Berkeley. For decades his work has been focused on health work to tackle preventable blindness, particularly in Africa. As Courtright told Wilkens, “Korea taught me many things, and it gave me my career.” Courtright and his wife, Dr. Susan Lewallen, also established the Kilimanjaro Center for Community Ophthalmology, with this mission to foster “high-quality eye care services provided by Africans for Africans.”
When Courtright received a box from the Korea Foundation, he emailed thanks to foundation president Geun Lee. Lee’s quick reply: “Though decades have passed, the country where you spent years of your cherished youth has not and will not forget that affection … We return it and will continue to pass it down from generation to generation.”
“Some hand sanitizer and a few masks.”
That’s what Kathleen and Bud Wright expected when they got word that the Korea Foundation would be sending a box to them in New Jersey. Instead, as the Times Herald-Record notes, “There were 50 KF-94 masks and antimicrobial copper glove sets. There was a good-quality blue nylon backpack, and a tin of red ginseng candy. There was a silk fan.” Also: “In a black velveteen case with a gold-colored clasp, tucked into silk pouches, were two sets of silver-plated chopsticks and spoons with a turtle design.” There were messages sent from Koreans via Instagram put into a booklet of thanks and well-wishes.
The Wrights served as Volunteers 1973–75, teaching English at Konkuk University in Seoul. Kathleen’s scholarship and teaching as a professor at State University of New York, Orange, took her around the world — including back to South Korea for research. She and other Volunteers also returned to South Korea in 2008 for a visit sponsored by the Korea Foundation.
Students and teachers: Seong Su Middle and High School, Chunhceon, 1971. To the right of Volunteer Dan Holt is his co-teacher Youngok Park; they co-authored the Methodology for Teachers guide used throughout middle schools. Holt went on to serve as TEFL advisor for the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Park succeeded him. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
Russ Dynes traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1972, assisting at a health clinic in a small farming community in the southwestern region of Gochang. The crisis at that time: an outbreak of tuberculosis, he told the Newark Post. As part of his work, Dynes would accompany nurses on visits to the countryside. Post–Peace Corps, he went to work with the Delaware Division of Public Health on a lead poisoning control program. New Jersey is home for Dynes now. As the Post notes, the arrival of the gift box was bringing the journey of service full circle.
Speak your peace
When we at WorldView reached out to Sandra Nathan, she wrote: “The Peace Corps’ mission is ‘to promote world peace and friendship’ … I would love to hear from other returned Volunteers who are continuing their work to promote peace and friendship and interested in the campaign to achieve peace in the Korean peninsula.” About that, she adds: “I am working with a local U.S. organization, Women Against War, to support Koreans’ wishes for a peaceful peninsula and will also be lobbying my Congressman and Senators to co-sponsor a bill to formally end the Korean war.” No peace treaty was signed; an armistice has been in place since 1953. House Resolution 152 was introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in 2019, calling for a formal end to the war. “An end to the war would help facilitate the negotiation of arms reduction and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Nathan writes, and it would facilitate “reunification of divided Korean and Korean-American families, people-to-people exchanges, humanitarian cooperation, and repatriation of service members’ remains.”
Communications Intern posted an articleFrom South Korea, a token of gratitude to the Volunteers who served see more
Decades ago, a young American woman served an impoverished South Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now the country is an economic powerhouse, and it decided to send her a token of its gratitude.
By Choe Sang-Hun
Photo: Sandra Nathan teaching in South Korea. Courtesy Sandra Nathan
Sandra Nathan spent 1966 to 1968 in a South Korean town as a young Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English to high school girls. Fifty-two years later, Nathan, now back in the United States, received a care package from South Korea that nearly brought her to tears.
Nathan, 75, had been feeling increasingly isolated at home in Stephentown, New York. Reports about the exploding number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had made her anxious about going outside, where experts warned of second and third waves of infection. Then, early in November 2020, she received a package labeled “COVID-19 Survival Box.” It was a gift from the South Korean government that contained 100 masks and other items “as a token of our gratitude for your dedication to Korea.”
“It was as if this box had been traveling to me since 1968,” said Nathan, a retired civil rights and labor lawyer. “There was something magical about the box. Some people, Korean people, very far away wanted to make sure that I was OK; that I had what I needed to fight a bad disease. They behaved as though they cared and were responsible for me.”
Departure: A Korean student presents a gift to Volunteer Phil Venditti (1977–78). Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
Decades ago, South Koreans felt similarly toward Nathan and 2,000 other Peace Corps Volunteers. When the young Americans served as teachers and health care workers between 1966 and 1981, South Korea was a third-world country stricken by disease, a dictatorship, poverty, and destruction left by the Korean War.
South Korea is now one of the richest countries in the world, and its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been held up as an example for other nations, even as it deals with a small uptick in cases. In October, to pay back some of its debt, the government-run Korea Foundation said it was sending its COVID-19 Survival Boxes to 514 former Peace Corps Volunteers.
“Thanks in no small part to the help received from the Peace Corps,” the Korea Foundation’s president, Lee Geun, said in a letter in the box, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”
Nathan joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Chicago. She was among the first Volunteers to arrive in South Korea and was assigned to Chuncheon, in the north, where she taught English at a local high school. She was 21.
Health fair on tour: Volunteer Nancy Kelly (1979–81) dons a white coat to play midwife in a skit in which she talks with a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law, played by two fellow Volunteers, about maternal health and proper nutrition. Photo courtesy Nancy Kelly
The country around Chuncheon was beautiful. Its pine trees were graceful, and azaleas covered its hills in spring. But most of the streets were dirt roads. Children went outside without shoes. After dark, Nathan could hear rats running across ceilings. Plumbing was generally nonexistent.
“An ongoing debate among Volunteers was whether Time or Newsweek was more absorbent,” Nathan said in an email interview. “Toilet paper was unavailable.”
Both magazines came with pages blacked out by government censors. Crude anti-communist propaganda was everywhere. During her stay in South Korea, North Korea captured a U.S. Navy ship, the Pueblo, off its coast and sent armed commandos across the border to attack the South Korean presidential palace. On winter mornings, Nathan broke the ice in a plastic container in order to wash. Her school was a sad and drafty place where classrooms were heated by a single charcoal stove.
“I began to feel uncomfortably cold so that when I was not teaching, I regularly followed the circling sun as it flooded through the windows around the school building,” she said. “Even when it was very cold, students did not wear coats to school or to morning assemblies, and probably no one had a coat.”
But Nathan developed strong emotional ties with her students, who were eager to learn English. She once took a poor and sickly girl to an American military doctor for treatment for intestinal parasites, a common problem in Korea back then. The girl’s mother later arrived at the school and presented Nathan with several warm eggs, soft gray feathers still attached.
“The eggs, which I am sure my student and her mother themselves needed, expressed such gratitude that I was close to tears,” she said.
The irony of the reversal of fortunes during the pandemic did not escape her. South Korea continues to keep the coronavirus largely under control, thanks in part to its aggressive contact tracing. Although it has recently faced a small rise in infections, it is nothing compared to what is happening in the United States, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has announced harsh new restrictions in Nathan’s home state. In August, she received the offer from the Korea Foundation to send her the gift box. She accepted, wondering if it was merely a public relations stunt for the Korean government.
Contents may inspire: what’s inside the box. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
“I did not think much about it until the box arrived on Saturday, November 7, ironically the day that the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden,” she wrote.
Nathan said she delayed opening the package for about a week because she wanted to preserve the wonderful feeling that it gave her. In addition to the masks, the box also included gloves, skin-care products, ginseng candies, a silk fan and two sets of silver chopsticks and spoons with the traditional Korean turtle design.
“I am a practical person, not usually given to ideas unfounded by fact,” wrote Ms. Nathan. “But there was definitely something magical about the box.”
This story originally appeared in The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.
MORE TO THIS STORY
Communities across the United States have shared the stories of how returned Volunteers in their communities served with the Peace Corps in South Korea — and found their lives profoundly touched by this gesture decades later. We’ve gathered some of them here.
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleRecognizing contributions to community service by two groups founded by Returned Volunteers see more
Recognizing contributions to community service by two groups founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
By NPCA Staff
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is pleased to announce the winners of the 2020 Loret Miller Ruppe Award for Outstanding Community Service: Friends of Korea and Friends of Tonga. The awards were presented on September 25 at the annual meeting of NPCA.
Named for the widely admired 10th Director of the Peace Corps, the annual Loret Miller Ruppe Award is presented by NPCA to outstanding affiliate groups for projects that promote the Third Goal of Peace Corps — “strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples” — or continue to serve host countries, build group spirit and cooperation, and promote service. Announcing the awards this year was Mary Ruppe Nash, daughter of namesake Loret Miller Ruppe.
Here’s how these this year’s honorees have taken Peace Corps ideals to heart.
Friends of Korea: A guide to understand the transformation of a country
“We left Korea, but Korea never left us,” Gerry Krzic wrote recently. Krzic serves as president of Friends of Korea, a group founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the Republic of Korea from 1966 to 1981, when the Peace Corps program was closed.
Friends of Korea was established in 2002 to foster connections between people in U.S. and Korea — and between Korean-American communities stateside and wider communities. The group has also sought to foster cultural awareness and cultivate philanthropy.
In 2016, Friends of Korea started the Project “Study Guide to Accompany The Korean Transformation,” an easy-to-use manual for educators and workshop facilitators to use when teaching about the dramatic economic, social, and political development of Korea. The guide can be used independently or in conjunction with the “Korean Transformation” DVD (previously made by Friends of Korea). The Study Guide was planned for an initial printing of 40 copies for distribution — however, close to 300 were printed due to great demand. The Study Guide was promoted via electronic media, conference presentations, and teacher/young adult workshops.
The main purpose of the Study Guide was to promote a better understanding to the American public of the dramatic story of modern-day Korea’s development. In addition to the activities devoted to the story of Korea, the guide purposely included “extension” activities so that students can understand about the diversity in their local community, the Peace Corps and community service, and transformative learning — all of which lend themselves to the development of group spirit, cooperation, and the inclination to serve. The guide also helps Friends of Korea to stay connected with the country where they served by spreading one unique story in particular: Korea is the first Peace Corps partner country in the world to launch its own government-funded overseas volunteer service corps, “World Friends Korea.”
Korea is the first Peace Corps partner country in the world to launch its own government-funded overseas volunteer service corps, “World Friends Korea.”
In accepting the award on behalf of Friends of Korea, Gerry Krzic also paid tribute to Loret Miller Ruppe, addressing her daughter Mary Ruppe Nash: “Mary, I know you have said your mother recognized that peacemaking is a lifelong mission and that she was committed to a spirit of cooperation and service,” he said. “We continue to share the same vision with her.”
As a book published this year by University of Washington Press details, Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Korea are also credited with playing an instrumental role in developing Korean studies as a discipline in the United States.
Learn more about Friends of Korea
Friends of Tonga: Helping kids tell their stories — and building connections across the world
“On February 11, 2018, Cyclone Gita, with winds that topped 233 km/h — category 4 hurricane strength — slammed into the Pacific island nation of Tonga,” Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette wrote for WorldView magazine. “It was the worst storm in over 60 years and wrought horrendous damage on the islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua, resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. More than 2,000 homes were damaged, crops were destroyed across both islands, and 80 percent of the Tongan population was left without power.”
Hassett and Collette had served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga. In the wake of that devastating storm, they and other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers mobilized. And the nonprofit Friends of Tonga was formed — to ameliorate the devastation, but also to help fill gaps in delivering education in Tonga.
As one of their projects, Friends of Tonga designed and implemented a pen pal exchange program between schools in the United States and Tonga. Teachers are provided with a pen pal guide that gives an overview of the program and its process. When possible, a Friends of Tonga representative has gone to participating schools to introduce both Tonga and the project to the teachers and students. When Friends of Tonga is unable to deliver a presentation in person, slideshows have been created for both Tongan and U.S. teachers to orient their students to the other culture.
To increase the impact of the program, teachers can also request specific presentations to match their units of instruction. For example, a kindergarten class in the U.S. requested a presentation that focused on transportation in Tonga.
To promote sustainability and engagement, a timeline was developed that takes into account the different countries’ school schedules and encourages each school to receive three letters per year. After the presentation is delivered, students are given a letter to respond to from their Tongan pen pal. These letter exchanges typically begin with basic introductory information (e.g. name, village name, favorite sports, and food, etc). As pen pal friends in Tonga become more proficient in English and become more comfortable with their pen pal in the States, the letters become more elaborate with detailed descriptions of life in Tonga.
Class act: Michael Hassett teaching a lesson on Tonga. Photo courtesy Friends of Tonga
This program enhances literacy rates in Tonga, raises awareness of Tonga and its people, and has increased event participation and donations. “This project is extremely replicable!” says Michael Hassett. Friends of Tonga partners are provided with guidance and an orientation PowerPoint deck to present to their classes, digitally. All of these resources can be found online.
Why the focus on education? For Hassett, it’s personal. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga 2012–14, he taught in a rural primary school. “It was probably within my first two months at site, when a PTA parent asked if I would be willing to tutor her son in the evenings,” he said in accepting the award on behalf of the group. “ I agreed, and we planned to meet that very night. While waiting on my front porch for my new student to arrive, I was quietly listening to the evening sounds of my village: the pigs and chickens running across my yard, my neighbors preparing the cooking fires, and so on. Just out of eyesight, I heard a commotion. People were yelling in Tongan, ‘Sione, alu ki fe?’ (John where are you going?) Apparently, he answered — because parents began running out of their houses to yell-ask if Maikolo would also teach their kids.”
“Just out of eyesight, I heard a commotion. People were yelling in Tongan, ‘Sione, alu ki fe?’ (John where are you going?)”
It’s a story he tells to underscore how important education is in the community where he served. “Before my eyes, my one student multiplied into a crowd of high school kids from around the village, all bearing plates of food, watermelons, or loaves of bread to give to the palangi who was going to teach their kids English,” he said. “Naturally, I was both amused and shocked at how quickly a one-on-one tutoring session evolved into Maikolo’s Po’ ako (night class).”
And, Hassett says, as returned Volunteers Friends of Tonga are inspired by that spirit of the village coming together. “To be successful in Tonga, we had to adopt this sharing paradigm,” he said. “It seeped into who we are and it changed us.”
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