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Facing life in the Peace Corps

| Sandy Taylor

Kat Frye and Natalie Fiedler each grew up in the Midwest, went to school at UW-Eau Claire, and after graduation, joined the Peace Corps. Although they didn’t know each other beforehand, and neither knew where they would be headed, they both ended up in the South Pacific, assigned to the chain of islands known as Vanuatu. Here are their stories:

Kat Frye

2013 religious studies major, environment, society and culture minor

Kat is originally from Superior, Wisconsin. She came to UW-Eau Claire in 2009, majored in religious studies, minored in environment, society and culture (a program offered through the Watershed Institute) and graduated in 2013. Studying world religions allowed her to explore different cultures, and as she read about the values and ways of life of people outside the Midwest, she came to realize she wanted to see and experience more.

“The education I received at UW-Eau Claire was the foundation of my passion for world exploration,” Kat said. “You can learn a lot in the classroom, but there are many things you just won't get without completely immersing yourself in other cultures. I knew that needed to be my next step after graduation.”

Kat’s dream of joining the Peace Corps began in third grade when she first learned about the organization, which promotes world peace while helping those in need.

“We all want to save the world,” Kat said, “and what I quickly learned in Vanuatu is that in order to achieve that goal, you must become a small spoke in the grand machine of change.”

When she joined the Peace Corps after graduation, Kat was assigned to a school of 30 kids in a place she describes as “a teeny tiny island in a teeny tiny country.”

The experience is turning out to be even more than she expected.

“I thought I would come to this island of Makira and share all of my knowledge and make a big difference in their lives,” Kat said. “I do believe I am doing that, but I wasn't expecting them to teach me twice as much, more than I ever dreamed. They've shared not only their language, customs and skills, but also what life and living means to them; they have shared their hearts and souls. This new perspective of life is something I will cherish and carry with me forever."

Kat sends thanks back to her professors at UW-Eau Claire.

"My religious studies degree prepared me to come into this experience with an open mind and an understanding heart," Kat said. "My adviser, the great professor Dr. Steven Fink, taught me to see the beauty in differing opinions and how to celebrate both similarities and differences. I apply this skill when teaching about my own culture or those from other countries. And the knowledge from Dr. Scott Lowe's New Religious Movements class came in handy when I unknowingly joined the new religion created in Vanuatu maybe twenty years prior to my arrival."

To other students, Kat offers this advice, "If you are challenged by what you want to study, find a professor you like and take their class. It's likely to teach you more about what's important to you than some of the required courses."

In closing, Kat said, "We are all Bob Barth."

Dr. Robert Barth, professor emeritus of anthropology, explained that somewhat cryptic comment.

"During my graduate school days we frequented a bar a few blocks from the anthropology department,” Dr. Barth told me. “One day someone wrote, 'Who is Bob Barth?' on the men's room paper towel dispenser. A few days later, someone else responded, 'Who isn't.'"

"I would tell my students that meant that at some point in their lives, they would do something that I would do, or think something that I would think. It connected the students and me in a fun way. Students used to come to class and say, 'I was Bob Barth yesterday,' and tell me what they had done that made them Bob Barth. I think that Kat feels I influenced her in a positive way and that it’s a good thing she and others are 'Bob Barth' occasionally."

Natalie Fiedler

2015 elementary education + philosophy major

Natalie Fiedler grew up in the twin cities of Minnesota, and in 2010 she followed the example of two older sisters in attending UW-Eau Claire. She immediately declared a major in elementary education with a minor in language arts. She later added a second major in philosophy, knowing it would strengthen her critical thinking and help her become the teacher she envisioned.

“I never had any doubts about my love for learning and teaching,” Natalie said.

She arrived in Vanuatu with aspirations and expectations.

“Right out of college, I was convinced that with enough ambition, love, and caffeine I could contribute to making a difference in the lives of children who deserved better.”

Natalie is currently keeping a blog about her Peace Corps experience, and gave us permission to excerpt portions of her writing.

November 17, 2016. As the temperatures are rising and the months keep passing, I’m finding myself soberly over the honeymoon stage of this wonderfully crazy relationship with Vanuatu. I am coming to terms with my own naiveté… my hope with this post is to not only be honest about the adversity I face as a volunteer, but also how these obstacles are exposing my power of resiliency.

When she arrived on the island, Natalie was assigned to a school with four teachers. One had tendency to show up late or not at all, costing his students many hours of class time. And about a month after Natalie arrived, the school lost another instructor.

“I was working alongside a soft-spoken teacher who was ripe with pregnancy when she suddenly grasped her stomach in pain, asked for my water bottle, and excused herself. She hasn’t returned since, and as happy as I am to say she had a healthy delivery, our school has now been short a teacher for the majority of the school year.”

Realizing she’d need to revise the project framework to deal with the situation, Natalie decided to transfer her skills directly to the students. Her quick assessment of their literacy skills showed that they could answer straightforward questions about facts, but when asked what they enjoyed about a book they’d been reading, they were stumped. Natalie had discovered that they’d never been taught to think critically, nor independently.

As the months passed, Natalie ran into other unexpected challenges.

“I have been repeatedly sexually harassed while walking down the street, even though I was taught mitigation techniques and always make sure my skirt stays at the required knee level or lower. Men walk around without shirts on, speed drunkenly through swimming children with no ramifications, but I am not allowed to go to the nakamal (bar) because men will spoil me — and not in the good way. But despite how I feel about this, I only have to deal with it temporarily. The women of this country simply accept it because their education hasn’t provided them with the tools necessary for thinking critically about why things are the way they are."

Despite her frustrations, Natalie continues to work toward her goals.

“I’m going to continue to push my students to think for themselves every day while I’m here, and if the opportunity presents itself, I hope to have real discussions with women and young girls about how they do have the power and the right to a voice regardless of what they’ve been taught.”

Natalie is grateful for her education and all the support she received over the years.

"I literally have to hold back tears when I think about how privileged I am to be here doing what I’m doing because of the education I received and the incredible, supportive people I have in my life," Natalie said. "I am humbled living this island life, and when the day comes to leave, I have no doubt Vanuatu will have changed me, saved me, and given me everything I need to continue making use of all that I have been given."

This reflection elicited a few special thanks to professors at UW-Eau Claire.

"Dr. Eric Torres and other professors provided me with the training and insight necessary to approach education with a multi-cultural eye and to constantly challenge the systematic barriers we see not only in American schools but across the globe,“ Natalie said. “And Dr. Kristin Schaupp encouraged me to take my studies in philosophy further than the classroom — literally. She sent me off with a handful of books for when my brain needs a good sharpening."

In addition to her teaching duties in Vanuatu, Natalie is also the Chairwoman for the Peace Corps Volunteer Advisory Committee, acting as a liaison between volunteers and staff members. She credits her five years working in Event Services for preparing her to take on so much responsibility.

“Working with the senior staff on the stage crew and having strong leadership from staff members like Jason Anderson gave me the confidence I needed to take on leadership roles within the Peace Corps.”

When asked if she had any advice or words of wisdom for other students, Natalie’s response reflected both her struggles and her strength.

“I constantly doubt myself, but in that way I constantly surprise myself,” Natalie said. “I never dreamed that every little thing I did in Eau Claire — from volunteering at the local schools, pulling all-nighters because I procrastinated reading the last five chapters, even walking up that hill, that it would all contribute to where I am now. Self-doubt is inevitable at this crucial time of big decisions, but as cliché as it may sound, I have found that with enough passion, willingness to endure the growing pains, and the openness to accept support, you can accomplish whatever it is that makes you feel alive. I may just be a naive 25 year-old, but I think I’d like to hold on to that part of me that’s still pumping hope for a better world.”