September 19, 2005: Headlines: COS - China: News-Messenger: Natalie Wise serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China

Peace Corps Online: Directory: China: Peace Corps China : The Peace Corps in China: September 19, 2005: Headlines: COS - China: News-Messenger: Natalie Wise serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China

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Natalie Wise serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China

Natalie Wise serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China

"It gives me so much appreciation for being an American," said Wise, who recently returned for her second year in China. "Before I left, I was a little jaded about being an American because I recognized there are a lot of problems. I saw the negatives. And seeing the negatives prevented me from seeing the positives.

Natalie Wise serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China

Peace Corps opens eyes

News-Messenger correspondent

When Natalie Wise came home for a few weeks this summer, she arrived with a new admiration for her country.

It's not like she didn't have a healthy respect before, but spending nearly a year in communist China with the Peace Corps has given this 1998 St. Joseph Central Catholic High School graduate a new perspective on the world.

"It gives me so much appreciation for being an American," said Wise, who recently returned for her second year in China. "Before I left, I was a little jaded about being an American because I recognized there are a lot of problems. I saw the negatives. And seeing the negatives prevented me from seeing the positives.

"Going to China this past year, I see that freedom of speech and freedom of the press is so amazingly wonderful. Now I understand why a democracy works so much better for the people in our country. And I'm not saying our model of democracy is for everyone, but freedom of speech and the press and being able to think critically is so important."

Wise said her family had a significant role in her decision to join the Peace Corps.

"My Grandma Joyce always talked about the importance of this kind of stuff," she said. "My grandparents (Joyce and Charles Wise) are incredibly compassionate people, and they especially told us how important it was to help other people. It really stuck in my mind because I couldn't imagine living the way some people live."

The Peace Corps wasn't necessarily in the plans early on.

"In high school, I don't think many people know what they want to do," Wise said. "At (Ohio University), it was such a great place. So many different cultures, and being surrounded by so many good people. The classes I took were wonderful because they made me critically think about the world."

During her second year of graduate school at O.U., Wise made the decision.

"I thought what the heck am I going to do with my life," she said. "I figured the next best step would be the Peace Corps."

And so she began the application process, which takes up to a year. Because she had minored in Spanish in college, she was hoping to land in South or Latin America. That wasn't to be. Just a few months before her departure, she received a letter telling her that she would be serving in China.

"I was not very excited about that," she said. "China was the last place I thought I would go."

In July 2004, she left for an orientation in Chicago. She and about 48 volunteers from all over the United States flew into Beijing and then received seven weeks of training in the Chinese language and culture in the city of Chengdu. For Wise and eight others, it was then off their new home of Lanzhou, the capital of the Gansu Province.

"One of the nice things about the Peace Corps is they want us to learn the language. If we need a tutor, they reimburse us for the tutor," she said. "And they put you with the locals. I live in an apartment surrounded by Chinese. I am the only American in the complex.

"The Peace Corps does it on purpose because they want you to work on your language skills and get into the community to understand it better."

Her mission is more diplomatic than humanitarian. She is teaching English to college students. It's a chance to improve the impression that Chinese people have of Americans, and it's helping the people she's working with improve their opportunities.

"The best part of my job isn't so much the material but the relationship between the students and myself," she said. "Not many of them have met Americans before. They have a generalization of Americans. And it's really cool that now they see not all Americans are rich and money-hungry, blue-eyed and blonde hair."

Wise said she, too, has learned not to stereotype. Before working in China, she thought all Chinese people looked oriental but she has found that not to be true. There is a large Muslim population, she said, and others look more Middle Eastern or Central Asian.

For Wise's friends and family, her service in the Peace Corps was no surprise.

"She's the star traveler," said younger sister Nadine. "She's been to Spain and California and London, so it's no surprise she wanted to do the Peace Corps and be half-way around the world."

Nadine said the two are complete opposites in that category.

"I want to work in Columbus," said Nadine, who will be interning in the Statehouse this year. "I don't have that travel bug at all."

She's proud of Natalie.

"I am very amazed by her," Nadine said. "She is very much a role model, and she's very brave in my eyes."

A long-time family friend, Holly Elder of Fremont, also saw this coming.

"Their family is a very politically active family," she said. "I think Roger and Sandy really ingrained in the girls social awareness and the social responsibility of taking care of others."

She knows Natalie as a caring person.

"Natalie is a gentle pacifist personality. She was almost destined to do this," Elder said. "Her outlook on life is refreshing. She sees the positives in people."

Natalie will finish her Peace Corps commitment next summer, and while she doesn't know exactly where life will take her, she's got an idea.

"Before I went to China, I didn't have a honed direction, but now I really think that what I want to do is work for a nonprofit organization," she said. "This has really helped me clarify what I want to do."

Wise thinks the Peace Corps has helped her grow.

"It's a wonderful way to find out who you are as a person because it really tests your knowledge and judgment skills," she said. "It gives you confidence. You're alone, and you make decisions relying on yourself. It helps you figure out who you are, and it helps other people, too."

Originally published September 19, 2005

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