Education: A Peace Corps Perspective

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Graphic by Samantha Bejarano|Layout Staff

by Erica Kim

When the sun starts to peek out of the clouds, it gives them an orange hue with blue undertones that cast tufts of pink. But most of us, tired from last night’s agenda — fervent Netflix binging, diligent studying, wild partying — sleep past these sacred, quiet hours of sunrise.

We’ve become all too familiar with the fixings of college life.

In contrast, Sunny Liu hasn’t slept past 6:30 a.m. in almost two years because, in Fiji, you wake up with the sun.

Liu stands witness to the long, pink strides that stretch over the pale yellow horizon and mingle with orange swirls that fade into the dark blue wisps of the clouds. Don’t be fooled; this is not the postcard-perfect Fiji, with five-star hotels and tour guide pitches. Liu lives in the real Fiji. She lives on one of the world’s most beautiful, culturally diverse island nations that derives its spirit from the hearts of the people. She lives the life of a volunteer in the Peace Corps.

Sunny Liu is a UCI graduate who joined the Peace Corps after her fourth year. She currently volunteers at the Reproductive and Family Health Association of Fiji. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in three fields: anthropology, international studies and public health. Her experiences, detailed below, highlight the positives and negatives of a life so far from California.

“I’ve always been more interested in the big picture than the little things,” said Liu.

Liu’s oversized glasses could be seen despite the pixelated and blocky webcam quality, bobbing up and down as she spoke

“Originally, I was a bio major and decided that it wasn’t for me. Science is interesting, but I’m more interested in how science interacts with people — humans with thoughts, people with feelings.”

Her smile switched to a grimace as she thought about studying.

“Towards the end, you’re just sick of studying, you know? It was my sophomore year at UCI and my friend told me about the Peace Corps, just from casual conversation. At first I thought two years [was] a really long commitment. And it did take a lot of research before I decided that it was actually perfect for me, because I thought it was good to have real world experience.”

When asked about her expectations prior to going, she settled into a heavy pause.

“People don’t realize how diverse your own Peace Corps experience will be from others, but a lot of the expectations are idealistic. Like, ‘changing the world’ somewhat shows narcissism. It’s like going into the Peace Corps believing ‘I, the American, college-educated person, has something to offer them.’ It’s a colonist view when you say my way is better. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Her eyes glanced up to the ceiling then back down to the screen. “In actuality, it takes a long time to integrate. [My time] seems sacrificial, but I learn from them and they, from me.”

The audio lagged by two seconds, but Liu talked on about the expectation of adventure.

“It’s how you make the experience. My daily routine is wake up, eat breakfast and go to the office. I still do cool stuff like exploring the interior of the islands. [In my field] we go to schools and give health talks about sexual reproduction and go to villages and do women empowerment talks.”

Liu spoke more clearly, and her voice hiked up a notch as she went on about her other responsibilities.

But, as suddenly as her excitement came, her eyes became downcast. She paused.

“Part of the experience are the challenges. And, you know, people expect the lack of luxuries like electricity or running water to be a challenge. It’s not bad but simply because it’s different.”

Liu slowly shook her head. “For me, it’s the loneliness or boredom, because it’s not always cool. I am isolated in another country with no entertainment.”

Her screen froze, but her haunting tone remained.

“The other [challenge] is dealing with the idea that I haven’t accomplished everything [that I wanted to] when I leave.”

The screen adjusted, and her chin lifted up.

“Something the Peace Corps staff always reminds us is that these people aren’t going to remember your accomplishments or the lectures you once gave — they’re going to remember you as a person. Focus on building relationships, not progression,” added Lin.

“It’s kind of funny. When I got here, I remember the first time I saw food left on the table, and the next morning, ants surrounded the whole thing. I remember thinking, ‘Oh I’ll just spray the whole thing with ant spray.’ To me, that was the answer. But then there were these tuna cans. After staying there for a week I noticed several little cans that the legs of tables and chairs were sitting in.”

Dimples speckled Sunny’s chin as she grinned.

“Any can that was used up would be filled halfway with water, and people [would] sit the legs of tables and chairs into them. Ants, cannot float on water and end up dying. They cannot climb the tables to get to the food.”

Her dimples deepened. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s bad.