Central College was a small private liberal arts college in Pella, Iowa. With a student population hovering just above 1,000, it was a perfect re-entry setting. Orientation took me to Chicago for three days. Hundreds of new AmeriCorps gathered to listen to speakers, meet the mid-west administration, and stage for a year’s worth of service. One of the speakers talked about his experience in the Peace Corps. Immediately feeling a connection to his story, I chased him down later in the day. Does it ever go away? I explained that I was a recently returned volunteer from Kiribati, and how I was so homesick for Kiribati. He took me by the arm, “it never does, but what you choose to do with that feeling can change the world; it’s the third goal. Count yourself fortunate that you are in the position you are in and do something with what the corps gave you and keep making our world better.” Three years later, his sentiment would be repeated to me by Jody Williams, American political activist, and Nobel Laureate, “Don’t be like me, be better than me. Mike, you have one life, use it for your passion, which obviously is others.”
I returned to the long stretch of Iowan farmland, as far as the eye could see, after the conference. The drive from the airport to Pella with a burning question in my mind, what can I do for Kiribati from here?
I was a service-learning coordinator at Central. I set up service projects, trips, and semester-long opportunities for students in service-learning courses. The college mandated X credit for each student to graduate. X credit was experiential learning tide to a service provider in the community. Spanish language classes paired with Spanish Catholic social services, Psychology paired with Christian outreach’s Best Buddies program, Education students worked with the Acts of Kindness afterschool program, and service trips went all over the United States that year. The bustling activity of the office, allowed for student, staff, and faculty interaction.
Aware of the adverse effects of global warming in Kiribati, I walked to work every day, and on nights when the snowfall predictions were heavy, I slept in my makeshift office, a broom closet before my residence. I kept a change of clothes, a toothbrush, deodorant, and a comb in my office so I could shower in the school gym when too treacherous to walk home.
Freddy had a car, and worked in the same college, this however was not what I wanted. I wanted to live as I lived in the islands, I walked. Faculty and staff took note of my walks and questioned me as to why I did it.
Soon, I was invited to classes to share my experiences abroad. I gained a bit of notoriety on campus, as students and professors heard me talk about the islands and my concern for them in the context of global warming. Most times, I felt embarrassed talking about something no one believed in, global warming. It was easier to talk about my life abroad, what Kiribati meant to me, and how the experience changed me. Discussing the reason behind walking was usually reserved for an afterthought in my talks then.