So, what’s it like to move from Pittsburgh to the middle of Oceania where you will spend the next two years of your life integrating into a culture about as far away from home as it gets? Michael’s here to tell us!
Name: Michael P. Hassett
Place of Origin/Residence: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Current Location as a Volunteer: Ha’utu, Tongatapu, Tonga
Volunteer Organization: Peace Corps
Your Name within Host Country, if applicable: Maikolo
Age during service: 23-25
Peace Corps Time-Frame: September 2012-October 2014
What was your background (college, work, etc.,) before you joined the Peace Corps?
I graduated from La Roche College with a dual degree in History and Political Science. While in college, I was a TA for Freshman Composition courses. I also worked at the La Roche College Writers’ Center as a “consultant.” Essentially, students would come in to the center and I would help them with their college papers. I also was a Social Science tutor (sociology, political science, and history) and would help students understand course material. I was also a masonry laborer and loaded trucks at Estes Express on my summers off. After graduation, I was an AmeriCorps volunteer and worked with inner-city youth.
My service consisted of two components: I began my day by training and managing youth in retail, restaurant services, and operating a t-shirt press enterprise. Our aim was to give these under-served youth job experience while they were still at school. The second part of my service was working with the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) Program. I worked with the Pittsburgh Pirate Administration along with the Boys and Girls’ Club of Western Pennsylvania.
Our hope was to use baseball and softball as a vehicle for under-served youth to learn teamwork and sportsmanship skills by coaching youth on baseball fundamentals. Through mentorship, I also encouraged youth to achieve academically, demonstrate good sportsmanship, and contribute positively to the community.
What was the process like when you joined?
The process was long and arduous. We first had to submit an intensive application. This consisted of pages upon pages of questions. Along with this, we had to submit a resume, references, and 2 essays. After I submitted my application, I was called in for an interview. I met my “recruiter” at Panera Bread. The interview took roughly 1 hour. After the interview, I was told that I had “passed” and was nominated to go to the Pacific Islands. A few months went by and I was sent a medical, dental, and legal packets to complete. I had to go through a very thorough medical and dental screening, had to get my wisdom teeth removed, and had to get cleared by the FBI. Once all of these documents were in order, I sent them back to Washington DC and waited. A few months went by and I was finally called by Washington DC and had another interview over the phone. After which, I was invited to Tonga to serve as a primary English Teacher. From start to finish, it took exactly one year from the time I submitted my application until I stepped foot on the plane to leave for staging.
Were you placed in a location and/or field you had indicated an interest in? If not, what were you thoughts on that?
I actually requested Eastern Europe and the Middle East as my top 2 preferences. I also wished to serve as a rural developer; however, most of my prior work experience was in the field of education so I matched up with this program instead.
I think I was a bit disappointed at the beginning but then decided that the South Pacific wasn’t a bad placement at all! After that, I was very excited.
What was your assignment while there?
My Primary Assignment is teaching English at the primary school level. I currently teach grades 3-6.
Did you engage in a secondary project? If so, what?
I tutor English to high school students in my village, I teach guitar and have also been involved with informal adult literacy sessions.
I am stationed in a rural village on the main island of Tonga. The capital (and only city) is roughly 12 miles away and takes me an hour to bike.
Transportation is probably the biggest challenge. Buses run very sporadically so I normally bike to town 5 days a week. Though it is a challenge, it has also been a very good way to stay in shape and clock between 95-120 miles a week. Getting groceries back to my village has been a challenge.
What are the health concerns, if any?
Non-communicable diseases plague the local population. Diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are just a few. This is direct result from unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyles.
Is there a particular experience that stands out in your mind related to your volunteer work at your post?
I was approached by a parent in my village who asked if I could tutor his high school kids at night. I obliged and agreed to start tutoring the following evening. The next day, the parent arrived at my house with his kids in tow. Within minutes of their arrival, shouts were heard across the village and parents began flocking to my house with their kids as well.
“Maikolo (my name in tongan), Maikolo! Can our children come too?”
All I could do was nod my head. Within 5 minutes, my porch was filled with 18 High Schoolers armed with pens and notepads. It was quite comical. After concluding my class, the parents came back laden with watermelons, mangos, and plates of food to thank me for teaching their kids.
Now, I hold weekly tutoring sessions when I am able. I will never forget that experience as longs as I live.
What is your housing like? Did you live alone or with a family? What challenges and rewards have you experienced from this?
I live by myself in a MASSIVE house that was abandoned for some years before my arrival. It is made completely out of concrete. It is two stories but I only live on the bottom floor. The top floor is abandoned. On my floor, there is a large kitchen/dining room area, 4 bedrooms, a large living room with 5 couches, and large bathroom that includes toilet, bathtub, sink, and a separate shower.
I love having my own place. It is nice to have an area where I can be myself and can have some peace and quiet. It is also nice having so much space because I can have an people come over and stay with me.
The downside is having to keep it clean. Living in such a warm climate, pests pose a problem. The cockroaches and other creepy crawlies are near impossible to eradicate. I also had a lizard problem in my kitchen. I killed 30 of them in my kitchen alone and they still keep coming. Termites are another issue I face. Every morning, I have to sweep up the sawdust left by the termites on my floor. It is quite frustrating. I would say keeping my house clean is by far my biggest frustration living in Tonga. And that is saying something.
What does your diet typically consist of?
I consume a lot of root crops (taro, cassava, sweet potato) and chicken. Those are probably the main dishes that I consume. I also eat seafood: octopus, raw fish, sea urchin, and sea cucumber.
I normally wake up at 7, get to school by 8:30, and teach until 12:30. I teach class 6 from 9-10, class 5 from 10-11, and class 4 from 11:30-12:30. After teaching, I will have lunch with the teachers and then either go home or bike to town. If I bike to town, I have to head back around 5 before it gets dark (it takes an hour to bike 1 way) and then I will lesson plan/prepare for the following day.
At nights, there really isn’t much to do to keep occupied so I read a lot. I will also go around and visit with my neighbors. I taught a few of my neighbors how to play chess so I will go and play chess with my neighbors some evenings.
What is the hardest thing about your PC experience?
Initially, it was being so far away from my family and friends back home. After living here for a year though, I have gotten used to being so far away. I have also cultivated new relationships and have a few serious friendships now so the feelings of isolation and loneliness have tapered off.
I would say now, filling my downtime is the hardest thing. There is just so much free time in the evenings and during the school breaks that it is hard to keep busy. That makes the time really drag. What I would do for a bowling alley or a movie theater!
Also, keeping my house clean!
What is the most rewarding thing?
My students and my community. The relationships I have forged while being here is by far the most rewarding thing.
What are your hobbies or activities you engaged in during your free time?
I play guitar, write poetry and fiction, and read. I also go to the beach here and there.
Where is your favorite place to go?
Pangaimotu as of right now. It is an island off of Tongatapu that has a little bar on it. It also has a shipwreck right off of shore that you can snorkel to. You also can walk around the entire island in about a half an hour.
What would you recommend visitors bring in terms of clothing and supplies?
It really depends on the time of year. If you come during the hot season, bring clothing that is light and dries quickly. Also bring flip-flops. During the cool season, I guess still bring light clothes during the day but it can get a bit chilly at night so bring sweats and sneakers.
Definitely bring sunscreen, insect repellent, and snorkeling gear. I would also suggest making sure you get something at the Duty Free shops in the airport because alcohol is very pricey here.
What would you recommend PC volunteers bring?
For men: gym shorts. Lots and lots of gym shorts. They are very handy to have when exercising and also to wear under your tupenu. I would also suggest snorkeling gear and unlimited supply of patience. There is American time and then there is Tongan time. Tongan time is a much more fluid concept. Be prepared to wait 2 hours for a bus (if it arrives at all), for meetings to be canceled without anyone informing you, and a slew of other similar situations. Eventually, you learn to just laugh when these situations arise. There is no point to getting bent out of shape…….you will give yourself an ulcer otherwise.
Do you have a favorite restaurant? If so, what, where, etc.?
Not really. Anytime I am able to eat out it is a treat.
Overall, how would you summarize your PC experience?
My Peace Corps experience has been wonderful! It has been a life changing experience!