How Standing Out Abroad Becomes Vital for Change

Michael Kim learned much about his identity as a Korean-American while serving in Armenia from 2010 to 2012.

Michael Kim learned much about his identity as a Korean American while serving in Armenia from 2010 to 2012.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Month, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Kim recalls what he learned about his Korean American identity while volunteering in Armenia from 2010 to 2012. 

Before departing for his service in Armenia five years ago, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Kim packed up minimal expectations while preparing for that long-awaited adventure overseas. In two years, he welcomed moments that both fulfilled his aspirations and flourished unexpectedly – such as meeting his wife of three years.

“It would be disingenuous to say that I had zero expectations,” said Michael, who served as an Education Volunteer from 2010 to 2012. “I expected the language learning to be very difficult and that ended up being true. I thought I wouldn’t spend much time with other Volunteers during my service and that ended up being false. I also didn’t expect to marry a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, but I’m happy to say that we’ll be celebrating our 3-year anniversary this July!”

While settling into his Armenian village, the Rock Hill resident taught English to students at a local secondary school, facilitated after school programs and developed curriculum and trainings for the school’s faculty. He also spearheaded a cross-country awareness walk called “Border 2 Border,” which involved two teams of six Peace Corps Volunteers walking from opposite ends of Armenia and touring different villages to conduct daylong workshops on children’s health. Today, according to Michael, the awareness walk has since been adopted by new Volunteers and has grown into “something of a Peace Corps tradition in Armenia.”

As his large scale projects gained momentum – even years after his service – Michael learned during his time in Armenia that daily goals he achieved proved just as valuable in the long run.

“Coming into Peace Corps, I had heard time and time again about how one’s service will be defined by the small victories and the relationships one builds,” he explained. “I thought I had a pretty good handle on this advice, but I had little idea just how small some of those victories would prove to be. Ultimately, I think I learned how to be patient and understood the importance of building relationships, which became my proudest accomplishment.”

When it came to forging such connections in his community, the Cornell University alum would often educate his neighbors on his identity as a Korean American in different ways, from teaching his students in English class and cross-cultural workshops to just informing people in daily conversation.

“Before getting to know me, people would often assume I was Chinese,” Michael said. “However, the issue of my race never really came up once my villagers got to know me. I came to be known simply as the American Volunteer.”

Though he faced some difficulty standing out from the popular majority in Armenia, Michael soon realized that embracing the odds worked even better than beating them as a figure of American diversity.

“Being a minority Volunteer in the Peace Corps will come with a unique set of challenges,” Michael explained. “You may find that you’re getting more stares than your fellow Volunteers.  You may find that some locals will be incredulous when you tell them that you’re American. You may even find that some of your fellow Volunteers will have trouble relating to what you’re going through.

“However, I told myself that this was all part of why I had joined the Peace Corps,” he continued. “One of our goals as Peace Corps Volunteers was to help our neighbors develop a better understanding of America and its people. I felt that I had a unique opportunity to help my villagers understand how America is truly a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. In other words, I felt that I was there because I was different, not in spite of it.”

Click here to read more about Peace Corps Armenia.

Discovering Life Sciences Outside of a Textbook

Manhattan native Nkili Birmingham began serving as an Education Volunteer in August 2014.

Manhattan native Nkili Birmingham began serving as an Education Volunteer in August 2014.

Almost halfway into her two-year service in Cameroon, Peace Corps Volunteer Nkili Birmingham has come to cherish the vibrant culture of her host community – particularly, its signature cuisine.

“My village makes the best fufu and njamma njamma – think very solid grits and steamed spinach – in the whole world!” she said.

Serving as an Education Volunteer since August 2014, Nkili teaches biology to students enrolled in the eighth grade level at a bilingual high school.

“While trying to control 100 16-year olds in one room for an hour can seem daunting sometimes,” she said, “They constantly surprise me with their crazy questions and excitement about biology.”

Prior to Peace Corps, the Manhattan native volunteered overseas to care for elephants in Nepal, teach English to orphans in India and develop an environment education program for children in Madagascar.

With a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College – which landed in Peace Corps’ top rankings of small colleges & universities for producing Volunteers – the Manhattan native chose to pair her studies with a desire for international service when she departed for Cameroon right after graduation.

“In college, I was a history major and biology minor, which meant I was constantly working between two very different disciplines and trying to bridge gaps between them,” Nkili said. “In my opinion, this is what the Peace Corps is about – making connections and working between and within very different cultural worlds – and what Peace Corps expects of you and the community you are living in and their expectations.”

Aside from her primary assignment, Nkili is currently applying for an Aid2Empowerment grant for at-risk female students at her school as a way to further their education and support them both academically and socially along the way. She is also working to facilitate a seminar for faculty and staff at her school about the risks of corporal punishment, which she said has become a major issue in her country.

“Corporal punishment is a huge problem in Cameroon and especially at my school,” she noted. “Hopefully, my teachers are receptive and we can find a way to manage our giant classrooms without the use of a cane or degrading language together.”

Click here to learn more about Peace Corps Cameroon.

Remembering John Jacoby, Esteemed Peace Corps Veteran

Peace Corps South Africa Country Director John Jacoby -- who served in Nepal as a Volunteer from 1970 to 1972 -- with his wife, Carolyn, at Peace Corps Night with the Brooklyn Cyclones last summer.

Former Peace Corps South Africa Country Director John Jacoby — who served in Nepal in the early 1970’s — attended Peace Corps Night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game with his wife, Carolyn, last summer.

Peace Corps Northeast mourns the loss of John Jacoby, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and former Country Director for Peace Corps South Africa, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 66.

John — who served as an education Volunteer in Nepal early on in Peace Corps’ legacy — devoted almost half a century to supporting the agency both in the field and on the home front. During his service, the Manhattan native taught science at a local school in his Nepalese village.

In the years after completing his service, John worked as a management analyst for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the general manager of Newark Liberty International Airport. Once he retired in 2011, the Boston University alum found his way back to Peace Corps working as a Country Director in South Africa.

Despite fighting a long battle with pancreatic cancer, John strove to give back to his Peace Corps community and stay connected with other Returned Volunteers. Last summer, John attended Peace Corps Night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game to throw the first pitch of the night.

John is survived by his wife, Carolyn, and his daughters Sara & Maggie.

Funeral arrangements can be found here.

Learning More by the Shore

Patrick McGettigan, who served in Mozambique from 2012 to 2014, currently works as a Peace Corps Recruiter in the Northeast region.

Patrick McGettigan, who served in Mozambique from 2012 to 2014, currently works as a Peace Corps Recruiter in the Northeast region.

In celebration of Earth Day, Peace Corps Northeast recognizes the natural conservation efforts of Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the globe. Returned Volunteer Patrick McGettigan — who now works as a Peace Corps Recruiter in the Northeast region — educated young people in Mozambique about preserving the island’s coast.  

While serving in Mozambique from 2012 to 2014, Peace Corps Volunteer Patrick McGettigan organized a three-day Ocean Fair to promote coastal conservation in the African nation.

The “Feira do Ocano” featured both cultural & educational events, including beach clean-ups, a sand sculpture competition, an ecotourism workshop & educational presentations on fishery management & marine reserves. Residents & tourists attended, with many of the activities targeted toward children.

Patrick 2

“I love the ocean & have shared that passion with kids in my community,” said McGettigan, who graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in marine science. “The potential for tourism & economic development exists here, but a focus on coastal conservation is necessary if that potential is to be realized.”

McGettigan taught English to 11th & 12th grade students in his island community in Mozambique. The 2006 Haddonfield Memorial High School graduate also worked with students at the local school through an art club, making art from trash, and partnered with a local nongovernmental organization to start a library.

Click here to read more about Peace Corps’ eco-friendly tips for Earth Day.

Reading Between the Cultural Lines

Volunteer Christopher MacAlpine-Belton teaches literacy & critical thinking skills to grade school students in the Dominican Republic.

Volunteer Christopher MacAlpine-Belton, back right, teaches literacy & critical thinking skills to grade school students in the Dominican Republic.

While serving in the second largest city of the Dominican Republic, Staten Island resident Christopher MacAlpine-Belton enjoys taking time to appreciate the Caribbean island’s natural beauty.

“The availability of tropical fruit is a major perk and I don’t have to wander far to obtain it,” said Christopher, who currently serves as an Education Volunteer. “Strangely enough, I have been to the beach maybe four times in my service but my visits have always been memorable.”

With a degree in geography & international development from Clark University – which landed in the top ten ranking of Peace Corps’ Small Colleges & Universities for producing Volunteers in 2014 – Christopher managed to apply his studies in the union of culture, politics, environment & physical location to his firsthand experience overseas.

“At Clark, I had the opportunity to investigate the connections between these aspects of humanity,” he said, “ and subsequent service in the Peace Corps gave me the chance to put a lot of my academic exploration into practice in the field and make connections between theory and everyday realities facing millions of individuals around the world.”

Working at an 1,800-student public school, Christopher has striven to help kindergartners to eighth graders become completely literate with a proficiency in Spanish through a variety of projects.

“I have had the chance to develop reading materials for use in the classroom and promote the use of electronic resources in my barrio – a fundamental part of working with a population in an urban context,” he said. “There is also a fair amount of cultural exchange between me and my host country counterparts. This allows me to promote a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Dominican culture among Americans while at the same time sharing elements of my own experience.”

Aside from his primary assignment, Christopher has launched multiple other projects such as working as a supplemental instructor and literacy promoter for local students & training educators to hone a greater technical skill set in the classroom. He has also offered his services to the Escojo Enseñar Initiative, a group that provides teachers and school administrators with the opportunity to share their work strategies with other educational actors in the nation and institute changes in their respective communities.

“As a representative of ethnic minority native to the U.S., many Dominicans – the majority of whom have never left their country – are not familiar with the diversity present in other countries outside of the Latin American context,” he said. “This is a larger learning process that unfolds out of a classroom as one could imagine and it is almost as fundamental as the primary work I execute at my school.”

Click here to read more about Peace Corps Dominican Republic.