Jessica Shaw was assigned to work as a teacher on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia.

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, July 04, 2001 - 7:05 pm: Edit Post

Jessica Shaw was assigned to work as a teacher on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia

Jessica Shaw was assigned to work as a teacher on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia.

Peace Corps work replete with adventure, challenge

From earthquakes to culture shock to 'night crawling,' volunteering can open new worlds

Leslie Linehan

Staff Writer

Jessica Shaw knew that the Peace Corps would offer her the toughest job she would ever love, but she had no idea how tough that job would be at times.

As a returned volunteer, Shaw is able to share her experiences as being at once incredibly rewarding and difficult.

While the Peace Corps is enjoying a resurgence of interest among college students nationwide, many may not realize the potential adventures and challenges an assignment can offer.

Shaw was assigned to work as a teacher on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, a Pacific island nation with a population of about 105,000.

A tropical paradise, Micronesia offered her fish jumping from the ocean, coconuts falling from trees and a thatched hut over the water with natural air conditioning.

"My hut was beautiful," she remembered. "I loved that hut. I decorated it and put posters up."

Shaw, now coordinator of International Student Services at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, wanted to be in the Peace Corps from the time she was 14.

Her chance came in 1991 after she graduated from college.

The challenges began almost from the moment Shaw set foot in the village on Pohnpei. The transition to an unfamiliar culture was difficult to handle, and Shaw found it hard to communicate.

"I just smiled a lot," she said. "I sat there, and people would say something to me, and I would just nod and smile."

Cultural and language education is a large part of the Peace Corps' three-month orientation training, but it does not prepare volunteers for all they will encounter.

"In Micronesia all the different islands vary, so there is culture-specific training," she explained.

"We learned a lot about cultural interaction," she added. "For example, in Micronesia women will go topless, but thighs are considered erotic, so you have to wear a skirt - and some Micronesian women will wear two skirts."

Her orientation also gave her specific teaching instruction, but it did not ready her completely for the frustrating times ahead. Since education is not a traditional part of Micronesian culture, it is not often taken seriously.

"The concept of school to them is a Western construct," Shaw said. "If a student drops out of school in the third grade, nobody says anything. Most parents send their kids to school to give them something to do during the day."

Shaw said she had a few serious students, but for many, discipline was one of the principal problems.

"Some boys would actually be climbing the ceiling," she said. "By the end of the year we had several holes in our ceiling. They would break the panels and swing from the rafters."

Her teaching assignment was not entirely a formidable task, however. During her last summer in Micronesia, Shaw taught at the College of Micronesia, where she said the experience was more positive.

The students at the college showed initiative and wanted an education, she said.

But Shaw discovered that the cultural standards for dating differed as much as the standards for education. Though she knew about the Micronesian dating culture, she did not realize the standards would apply to her as an outsider.

Dating in Micronesia, she explained, is traditionally done in secret. If the community finds out about it, the couple is considered married.

Because of that, young people often "night crawl," or sneak out in the middle of the night, to date. A young man will steal up to a house, making sure to bring a can of Spam to throw at the dogs to keep them quiet.

He will then knock on the girl's window, and if she agrees to come with him, the courtship begins.

Shaw went against that cultural norm and was seen in public with a Micronesian man. "In Western eyes we were considered dating, but from their perspective we were considered married," she said.

When Shaw decided to break up with the man, it caused quite a stir in the community. Members of his family were mean to her, and she was treated differently by villagers.

"It was horrible," she said. "It was like getting a divorce. It affected the whole community."

The adventures didn't end when Shaw's work in Micronesia was over, however. After she left the country, she flew to Guam to catch a connecting flight to Bali and meet some friends.

Her flight was delayed and she missed her connection, forcing her to stay in Guam a few days.

The second night of her stay, an earthquake that registered 8.2 on the Richter scale hit the island. By comparison, the quake that destroyed much of San Francisco in 1906 is estimated at a magnitude of 8.25.

"I heard this pounding and the whole building started to shake and we just ran out of the building," Shaw said.

Structures in Guam are engineered to withstand typhoons and other disasters, so the earthquake did not cause a great deal of death and destruction, but it did scare Shaw.

Upon returning to the United States, Shaw discovered that she had become acclimated to the Micronesian way of life.

"In Micronesia, my life there was my whole world, and I became Micronesian in many ways," she said.

So her adjustment to Western culture was more difficult than having to learn a whole new culture.

"Most Peace Corps volunteers go through it, and they prepare you for it," she said of the return to the West. "In your close-of-service conference they tell you that you will go through reverse cultural shock."

Shaw said her perspective had changed so much that it made life in the United States difficult. She said she became depressed and felt she had no direction.

"I had wanted to be in the Peace Corps since I was 14 years old. My whole goal was the Peace Corps. Then it was over, and I had not thought about that next step in my life," she said.

The reverse cultural shock began to subside once Shaw decided to attend graduate school, but she said it was still a six-month adjustment.

Reflecting now on her Micronesian experience, Shaw fondly remembers the friendship and camaraderie she enjoyed and how the experience changed her.

"Now, I am able to see myself as a citizen of the world and I see that everyone is interconnected," she said. "We are all human, though we have different cultural factors. We are all part of the human race."

From that perspective, Shaw said her concerns about what is happening in other countries affects her daily life.

"Some people check the labels on garments to see whether they are made in America," she said. "I look at those tags, but I see it differently.

"If I see that it is made in Indonesia, I know that right now there is an economic crisis in Indonesia. Those people in Indonesia need that income, and I would like to buy that clothing because it is helping in a small way to support them," she said.

Shaw's experience in the Peace Corps now helps her assist the international students at UHCL when they adjust to American life.

"It helps me relate to many of the issues that international students face. I can understand the cultural adjustment process because I have experienced it," she said. "I know what it is like to be a foreigner living far away from my family and home."

By helden b ( - on Sunday, November 30, 2003 - 12:18 pm: Edit Post

Hey Miss Shaw I like the whole spam thing where the "Night Crawler" will throw the dogs to keep them busy while he does his thing! I am a Micronesian myself and love to read up on anything about my culture. I am a US Marine. Anyway, do you know anything or anyone who knows about the history on any Micronesian art, tatoo, legends, etc. Or do you know any yourself? I would like to hear from you if possible. e-mail at

By jeri lance ( - on Friday, November 19, 2004 - 9:37 pm: Edit Post

i am trying to find my friend kiran dhillon...her last name may have changed. i am a friend of hers who is hoping that u may know of her i would find her. last i heard she was working in guam....please let me know what u can....

By Martin ( - on Tuesday, May 10, 2005 - 11:24 am: Edit Post

Kaselel Jessica, kita kak friend. ngoahi mehm Pohnpei.I pahn pereniki ma ke pahn accept my friendship. e-mail me at


By Martin ( - on Tuesday, May 10, 2005 - 11:21 am: Edit Post

Kaselel Jessica, kita kak friend. ngoahi mehm Pohnpei.I pahn pereniki ma ke pahn accept my friendship. e-mail me.


By Anonymous ( on Sunday, November 06, 2005 - 11:53 pm: Edit Post

I am sorry you went through that cultural shock
causing a little disorientation of your own culture. That night crawling is a bit outdated nowadays I WOULD SAY..

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