University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo political science Associate Professor Su-Mi-Lee is collecting biographical stories of Peace Corps volunteers who have ties to Hawaiʻi Island. This inquiry is significant to UH Hilo because Hawaiʻi Island was chosen as a primary training location for thousands of Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s, and the university’s precursor—University of Hawaiʻi–Hilo Branch—contributed greatly to that training. Many of those Peace Corps volunteers, who spent years forming connections abroad during their Peace Corps work, returned to Hawaiʻi Island, enriching local communities with their professional lives and service.
Lee’s goal is to document these stories for future generations to read and learn about the personal and professional value of direct engagement with people in other countries. She sees great value in youth learning about working and communicating internationally with others regardless of cultural differences as a way to help create peace between countries.
“Although the U.S. government’s intention was to change the perception of people living in the third world about Americans, Peace Corps volunteers gained invaluable experience that has changed the trajectory of their lives,” said Lee. “Some of them developed long-lasting friendships with people in the country they visited as a volunteer. This is what public-civilian diplomacy is about.”
Assisting with the work of collecting the stories is undergraduate Nikki Jicha, a junior majoring in accounting with a certificate in business analytics. Jicha is transcribing previously recorded interviews with returned Peace Corps volunteers and is also collecting stories directly from returnees who are currently on Hawaiʻi Island.
“Not only has this project increased my editing and project management skills, but it has also awarded me with the opportunity to learn from the stories of the volunteers, something that is beneficial both for my personal and professional growth,” she said.
The Peace Corps stories Lee, Jicha and others on the project are collecting are from 1) people who did their corps training on Hawaiʻi Island and came back to live, 2) staffers who trained Peace Corps volunteers on Hawaiʻi Island, 3) returning Peace Corps volunteers who are from Hawaiʻi Island where they did their Peace Corps training and may or may not currently live on the island, and 4) returning Peace Corps volunteers who chose to live on Hawaiʻi Island after their Peace Corps experience.
Read more about the project at UH Hilo Stories.
—By Susan Enright